I have been trying to pinpoint the exact moment, or indeed the book, when I became a digital reader. I’d bought my e-reader years earlier and had a handful or titles on there but was still predominantly a paperback girl picking up most of my books on the high street. The shift must have been subtle at first, a gradual onset until I realized this month that I haven’t read a physical book in over two years. The realization came when I heard that one of my favourite authors was having a book signing event in London. An orderly queue and a lovely chat later I had her autographed paperback proudly displayed on my shelf at home.
When I finally got round to picking the book up, it struck me how much I had come to rely on more functionality than, well, ink on paper. For one thing, I was suddenly uncomfortable with seeing two pages at a time — it felt like I was cheating by seeing further ahead than a couple of paragraphs and my eyes kept skimming the opposite page. Because the book is a few hundred pages long, bending at the spine made the light fall unevenly across the page and within a few minutes I found myself squinting and trying to focus my eyes better. My usual go-to solution, increasing the font size slightly, was out of the question and I found myself continuously looking towards the corner of the page to see how long I had left to go in the chapter. In short, it felt like someone had handed me a nineties flip phone after years of using a smartphone. Halfway through chapter four I gave up and bought the e-book.
As nostalgic as we might sometimes get for the days when all our phone did was make calls and send messages, the truth is that years of conditioning mean that we rely on all the bells and whistles that are standard on today’s smartphones. Similarly, our consumption habits of music, films, TV and video games have evolved digitally and you’d be hard pressed to find people who wished that the innovation in those spaces could be rolled back. To borrow a phrase from software and product design, the User Journey from discovery to consumption to sharing was improved by digital, and despite my anecdote about the wonderful perks of e-reading, the same cannot yet be said about books.
Books are unique. The printed word, the sensory delight, the smell and feel of a new book — these are tangible advantages over the e-book as a format. We attach romanticized sentiments to buying a book — browsing the shelves of our local bookshop or visiting a beloved library, serendipitously finding the next great read. That is why the physical book will never be entirely replaced by the e-book; the two formats can only ever be symbiotic.
But what we can learn as we strive to widen the digital consumption of books is how to improve the user journey. How to best not only what is out there digitally, but also to improve on how books are discovered, bought and read in the offline world as well. We must remember that the digital experience is not restricted to e-books, and new e-commerce models can impact and improve the matching of readers to physical books as well.
From a technology standpoint we have come a long way in improving the standard of the e-book as a format. Healthy competition in the e-reader and reading app space means we have near perfected the functionality of e-reading as well. We are still missing huge pieces of the entire journey, however, and there is much room for innovation in how users browse and buy books digitally beyond what we have come to accept as standard.
As the industry continues to innovate, re-imagining and enhancing how readers find, read and share their books, the wider consumer base will slowly but surely nudge closer to an ecosystem that is inherently more digital. The day will come when we will all look back at how books are digitally distributed today and wonder how on earth we thought this was the best we could offer.
*First published on Digital Book World’s Expert Publishing Blog http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2015/changing-reader-habits-in-a-digital-world/