Question: What is the role of the reader in the world of e-publishing and how can publishers and libraries work to meet the needs and demands of the modern reader?
People are changing the way they read, as digital text becomes a larger part of reading material. Some studies suggest that reading digitally is a different kind of literacy. Publishers say they haven’t found solid business models for e-books, while readers report they are reading more overall and more e-text than ever before. Looking at the literature, I argue that both publishers and libraries can adjust to the new truths of e-publishing by looking to meet the habits and needs of readers.
I will examine literature on the culture of reading, personal reading habits and see how they inform the issues that publishers and libraries face looking at trade, academic and data e-publishing, as well as the growing field of self-publishing.
I will start by exploring the features of traditional print books and the habits of print readers, to illustrate the changes that e-books have made to the act of reading. The affordances of traditional books developed along the advent of the printing press, solidified with the advent of mass printing, and haven’t changed dramatically since. Print books are read from start to finish; they typically come in bound volumes which are designed to be stored on shelves, carried or held; the text in print volumes is broken up in a predictable way which helps readers find and remember information (MacFayden, 2011, p. 9).
Traditional books also have non-physical affordances like smell and the implication of ownership. MacFayden argues that the nostalgia for a traditional book’s smell is a new phenomenon and not particularly relevant, but the issue of ownership is quite pertinent, both in terms of reading as a status symbol and reading as a private experience (2011, p. 6)
E-books are currently available in multiple formats to be read on multiple devices, and their affordances to the reader are somewhat contradictory. On the surface, their physical properties are far superior. They are weightless and small sized, meaning that readers can take epic tomes on their commutes; they have no cover, which means readers cannot be judged for their reading choices. This is one reason that genres like religious books and romance novels have increased their sales in recent years (Fottrell 2012). E-books can also be manipulated by the reader making it easier for readers with disabilities to compensate for visual or cognitive impairments.
However e-books also present privacy concerns. Amazon caused controversy in 2009 for removing copies of 1984 from readers’ Kindle devices. And recently Amazon and Barnes & Noble revealed how much marketing data they were pulling from readers’ annotations, purchases and even how quickly they finished e-books (Alter 2012). In the academic field, digitally published data can be used to infringe on research subjects’ privacy in ways they never were before.
Similarly, despite the advances in e-publishing and e-book devices, readers still report difficulty navigating, reading from a screen and using different devices (Patuelli 2010). Readers also report that the way they read in changing (Liu 2012). Readers are changing and so are the technologies used to read, but the affordances of digital text don’t match the needs of the digital reader- yet.
E-books are a growing force in the trade market. The American Association of Publishers reports that e-books outsold adult hardcovers in the first quarter of 2012 (Alter 2012) although Ruth Jones at Ingram Publisher Services says the publishing industry is still figuring out the best business models for providing readers with e-content (Jones 2012). In addition, libraries report that overall circulation is growing because of the rise in e-book circulation (Massis 2012).
Most trade fiction is read on e-book devices like Kindles, Nooks or Kobos and many trade readers report issues with those devices rather than the content. Readers, even early adapters, report that the popular Kindle 2 was difficult to navigate intuitively and that the reading experience was still difficult (Patuelli & Rabina 2010). Presumably readers will grow more familiar with these devices over time, as they grow in popularity and adopt more standard interfaces. The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet already bear a closer resemblance to the iPad, making it easier for readers to learn how to use each device. In addition libraries have helped educate readers by providing more devices to patrons and access to more digital books (Massis 2012).
However, e-publishers need to take a hard look at the non-physical experiences that readers want from reading. Reading is a status symbol and an expression of identity. This is why readers display bookshelves in their homes, why Goodreads is a growing social network and why artist Jane Mount has become known for her bookshelf portraits. However readers report a drop in activities that mark book ownership; for example readers are less likely to make a digital annotation than to underline a passage in a corresponding print book (Liu 2005).
Reading is also a social activity. People enjoy book clubs, writing reviews and sharing how well-read they are (Griswold 2005). But the way publishers are grouping together readers through data-mining doesn’t give readers the choice of who they associate with.
The trade publishing industry is changing quickly, and in the public spotlight, as devices like the Kindle and Nook become some of the most popular electronics in the marketplace. Libraries should strive to not only provide readers with access to content, but help readers to navigate the quickly changing landscape of devices and access points, to understand their privacy and rights as readers, and advocate for readers when purchasing licenses and devices.
And publishers should learn to trust their customers and trust that readers will continue to read. Popular technical publishers O’Reilly Media announced a 104% lift in e-book sales after dropping DRM. According to studies by Liu and Grisworld, digital readers and the reading class will continue to persist.
In the realm of academic publishing, the debate revolves around the digital content itself, and how to make it open access. Oddly, policy makers are coming up with solutions to provide readers with free access to scholarly articles with models that ignore the reader. With gold access, authors pay to publish their work; with green access, libraries deposit that work in a repository. Neither takes into account the demand of the reader or what a reader might have already payed in terms of supporting public research.
To grasp how bizarre it is for authors to pay to publish, look at other creative fields. The art world looks down on those who hold vanity shows for their work. Nobody expects Damien Hirst to pay to have his work shown at the Tate Modern. And academics seem to worry about their work being taken less seriously if published as open access (Jackson 2012). New innovations in e-publishing make it possible to trace citations, showing which work has real value to the readers beyond a tight-knit group of academics (Taylor 2012).
The UK’s Finch report, released in June 2012, asserts that the public have a right to free access to publicly-funded research, and for now it seems as though the debate will shift to how libraries, publishers and academics can make open access a reality. But as academics discuss impact– another way of thinking about who their target audience is– I believe they missed an opportunity to understand not just who their audience is, but how that audience reads.
Today, most readers are only seeking one article among many. Users appreciate the ability to folow links from article to article (Crestani 2006). When reading digitally, readers tend to scan text for keywords, rather than read every word (Liu 2005, Divakar 2012). At the same time readers report being more engaged with text they read online, and increase the amount of content they read (Crestani 2006, Patuelli 2010). Most of the public doesn’t know how to read scientific scholarly article, but they still want to benefit from and understand the findings (Coleman 2012)
Some scholars and librarians are trying new ways to spread academic information through citizen science initiatives like Galaxy Zoo and lay summaries like those being written at UK Pub Med Central. (Coleman 2012).
Publishers like Sage and Bloomsbury are also exploring user-friendly ways to publish research and primary sources, creating a better user experience for both academic and casual researchers that lets readers engage with the material, browse and scan, as well as navigate and search with ease.
Librarians play an integral role in rectifying the gap between academic publishing and readers. Academic librarians can work with scholars to write articles framed with public impact in mind (Welsh 2012). Librarians should also be more cognizant of the deals they sign with third party providers, that give readers access to articles without a good discovery layer, search mechanisms or privacy guarantees. Librarians used to own articles outright, and should attempt to do so again in order to provide better access and educational opportunities for readers. (Bonfield 2012).
In order to create a viable model for providing readers with digital access to academic articles, scholars, publishers and librarians must rethink the idea of open access. By rethinking the academic article in the context of how it will be read digitally, and by how it will impact readers, publishers and libraries should have an easier time figuring out a financially sound way to provide content to those readers.
In the digital world, published data takes on new shape. In 1955, researchers published A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates in a book to be flipped through start to finish. Today publishers are exploring how a digital document can better represent data sets, including infographics, manipulable graphs, and open charts that can be downloaded and reused or recalculated. This area of e-publishing speaks directly to digital readers who increasingly enjoy engaging with the text.
Sage Publishing has been exploring ways to share data sets, with infographics and the ability for users to manipulate that data. Much of the data they publish, and charge access for, is free and open to the public. What Sage provides is a clear platform for reading that data. (Warnen 2012). Similarly, Bloomsbury is taking on the role of a library, by creating a fully searchable archive and interface to provide readers access to a collection of photographs. (Ardizzone 2012).
In the past it was up to publishers to make sure that a text was edited, that a book had legible margins, a clear typeface, and logical chapter breakers. Now publishers need to be able to interpret and present raw data in ways that are palatable, usable and as enticing to a reader as the cover of the Hunger Games. In many ways, publishers roles are mixing with writers and librarians as they create new ways for readers to access and understand raw data.
Reader as Writer
The reader’s role is also changing in the world of e-publishing. It is now easier than ever for readers to self publish (Ask Metafilter 2012) and get their works carried by major e-book distributors (Doctorow 2012).
Readers are being encouraged to interact directly with the digital texts they read. In trade publishing Kindle shares readers’ annotations globally (Alter 2012), and in academic publishing citizen science initiatives like Galaxy Zoo encourage readers to engage directly with the data and contribute to the creation of scholarly works (Coleman 2012).
One can only assume that as this trend develops, readers will continue to change their expectations about how they consume digital content. Publishers, libraries and authors should be ready for these changes and able to meet growing and changing reader demand.
The advent of the ebook and other digital modes of content are changing the way that readers consume and share text.
The publishing industry is exploring all that e-publishing could be but hasn’t figured out the best practices that will make e-formats commercially successful and their missteps infringe on reader’s rights and expectations of privacy, ownership and access. Meanwhile the public demand for e-content is growing across the board and the public is insistent that it be better formatted, easier to navigate and easier to share.
As readers become more involved with publishing and more in control of the ways in which they read and absorb content, publishers, writers and libraries need to be more cognizant of their needs and expectations in order to create reading systems that work.
Libraries have a role as advocates for readers– not just in terms of arguing for rights to access, but also their rights as contributors, their privacy rights as patrons. Librarians should argue against exclusive file formats, for more open access, and for digital access points that engage and excite readers and are easy to search and navigate.
By increasing readers’ abilities to discover content, and fixing the problems that keep readers from sharing content, publishers should get closer to finding a sustainable model for e-publishing.
Note on format. Since this academic paper is being published on a blog, I’ve attempted to format it in a more reader-friendly fashion. Spacing, font and sizing is according to internet standards. Citations are in APA but links are provided whenever possible.
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