The Future of Reading

I spoke last night at Hallowed Ground: The Future of Reading an event organized by The City of Sydney Library and ALIA discussing the future of reading. The discussion was facilitated by Mal Booth, University Librarian for the University of Technology, Sydney (read his blog post Books Are Not Dead). The panel consisted of Professor Anne Castles, who spoke about how we learn to read and the new technologies that will assit this in the future by fundamentally learning to read will remain the same. Julie Heraghty – CEO, Macular Degeneration Foundation spoke about how important it is for us to look after our eyes and that we should be getting them check once a year especially as we get older because early identification of any deterioration in our eyesight and its cause may prevent vision loss or impairment. Queenie Chan,  illustrator of In Odd We Trust, a New York Times bestselling graphic novel series written by Dean Koontz, spoke about the changing way we read especially in relation to graphic novels and illustrated books. And I spoke about the future of reading from a bookseller’s and a reader’s perspective:

Death seems to be a common theme whenever the book industry is talked about lately. The Death of Bookshops, the Death of Print Books, The Death of Publishing but the reality is more people are reading more books than ever before. You only have to look at the recent phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey to see how big the appetite is for books and reading. Ever since Harry Potter the sales of blockbuster books has grown exponentially from Dan Brown to Steig Larsson to Twilight and now Fifty Shades which is breaking all records at an astonishing rate, selling a record 1.28 million copies in Australia in only 16 weeks! To put that in perspective the ebstselling book in Australia in 2011, Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals, sold 220,000 copies.

So the reality is the future of reading is assured. Technology isn’t threatening reading, it is expanding it. Reading is no longer confined to the printed page. We all read now on our phones, tablets, computers as well as books, newspapers and magazines. We have access to reading material from all around the world and can exchange thoughts and interact with the reading material in a variety of different ways. We literally can now carry a bookshop or even a library in our pocket or bag.

But with this new technology and increase in access comes more competition for our reading time and new restrictions on our reading. More books are being published than ever before giving us more choice but this also makes deciding on what to read harder.

The distractions from reading time are also growing. The amount of movies, music and games being produced is also increasing and is competing for our reading time. Our working lives are no longer 9-5, Monday to Friday. I’m often asked how I find time to read and I find it a very difficult to answer. I really don’t know how I fit reading into my life, I just do. Which is probably true for all book lovers. For us we find time to read wherever it is available over breakfast or in a quick break, on the bus, before bed or instead of watching television. But for thousands of other readers finding the time to read is a struggle and sometimes one they don’t win or don’t even try. This is why when there is a book like Fifty Shades of Grey we shouldn’t look down on the book if we don’t think it is up to scratch or have problems with way it has been written or published because a book like Fifty Shades of Grey has woken the reading bug in thousands of people. It has cracked through the barriers of television, sport, music, video games and movies. It has sent people into their local bookshop or library in search of a book and while they’re there they just might find something else or come back when they’ve finished the craze in search of something different or something better. Those who mock Fifty Shades of Grey and its readers are doing reading a huge disservice. I’m of the view it doesn’t matter what people read as long as they’re reading. Even if its a cereal box once the seed of reading is planted it just needs to grow. It is one of the things I disliked about school. It didn’t foster a love of books or reading. Reading was a chore, it was work. I think there was only one or two books I read during High School that I can unequivocally say I enjoyed reading. At primary school you couldn’t keep me out of the library or a book but high school did not nurture my reading. Things have changed since I left school and students are now given more freedom to choose their own books but they can also choose movies and other mediums. There will be a future for reading but it will be a much stronger one if a love for reading is better nurtured in our schools.

One of the huge positives about the explosion of eBooks is that it will grow more readers. eBook technology gives readers more freedoms in how they read and for readers a device is less intimidating than a printed book. But digital reading technologies and devices are still in their infancy. Most eReaders and eReading Apps at this point in time are trying to replicate the experience of reading a printed page. I think in the next 20 years we will see an evolution in the way we digitally read. As more people learn digitally and are brought up reading digitally we will see the way text is presented to us change. Digital reading is currently confined by having to fit to pages and screens. This is already causing problems with certain types of books. One of the reasons illustrated books haven’t translated to eBooks yet is that illustrations and text together don’t reflow together. This is beginning to be overcome now but will still present publishing with more challenges into the future. Once readers, writers and publishers are ready to let go of the convention of the page we will see massive changes in the way we read and absorb textual information. There is already Google’s Project Glass that puts a screen into eyeware. Who knows what that will mean for reading?

New technology will also change how we interact with text while we read and even make reading more social. Device connectivity will enable readers to share passages and their thoughts as they read with a small or as large a group as they wish to. Imagine a classroom of students reading To Kill A Mocking Bird where the students can share and interact with one another within the book. A teacher or the students themselves can add contextual information to further enhance the book like video, audio, pictures, maps and webpage links. These shared discussions and supplementary information could then be expanded out to include other classes at the school who are also reading the book or even further to other schools and classes around the country or the world. This classroom could easily be a book club or reading group where the discussion can occur not just once a month but continuously. An author could join in the discussion or add their own writing notes adding more contexts to the book. Rather than publishers “enhancing” eBooks, social or learning communities could crowd source their own enhancements that suit their own needs. Taking this a step further a book could be written alongside the people reading it. Characters, events, even the ending could be influenced by the consensus of the group. You could even have an almost real-time choose-you-own-adventure book!

But regardless of how we read, what will we be reading in 20 years? While the last decade has seen the rise of blogs and in the last two years an explosion in self publishing I don’t think we are going to see a fundamental change in what we read. Fiction I think will still rule the roost but news, current affairs and analysis will always be in demand and will be able to get to market quicker and be more relevant. With faster turn around times for publishing this will only grow.

I also think there will be a come back of the short story and poetry. The economics of print publishing has always worked against short stories and poetry as they had to be published in collections which as a bookseller have been very hard to sell. But digital publishing removes those boundaries and I think there is a wonderful opportunity to engage readers again in the shorter forms of reading. We are starting to see this with journalism and non fiction too. Pieces that are too long for newspapers, news websites or blogs and too short for print books are being published as eBooks. And in a world where our time is being pulled in many different directions short pieces are something we can more easily find time to read and maybe more appealing to some readers who don’t have the attention span for longer reads. Again unlocking more doors for more readers.

But fiction will continue to lead the charge and I think there will be a bigger demand for quality as readers discover that cheap price can also mean cheap quality. I think there will be more reader appreciation for the publishing process; editing, layout, design and quality control but my big hope is that the rise of eBooks leads to a renaissance in book production.

The digitization of books and reading is not the death of the book. The book as been around for over 500 years. Unlike music or film it is still the best way to deliver information to the most amount of people. eBooks are a huge challenge to the printed book but rather than a challenge that will supplant one over the other it is a challenge to the physical book to be better. The last 20 years has seen publishers trying to make print books as mass market as possible. That role in the next 20 years will be filled by eBooks so I think the print book will become not only the source of quality content but will also become a quality object again. Over the last 20 years we have seen a decline in the hardcover book and the quality of the hardcover book.  The rise of the Trade Paperback, the over sized paperback, was important to the Australian book market because at the time it was introduced it gave the Australian market an edition that could sell at the right price point. However in order to print both a hardback, for the UK market and a trade paperback for Australia some publishers have tried to minimize costs by printing both at the same time and no longer binding their hardbacks but gluing them.  Quality of production has been sacrificed. But in a world where the Australian dollar is at parity with the US dollar and strong against The Pound and the Euro the Trade Paperback is no longer relevant. I think eBooks and their price point will see the end of multi print formats and I hope then for a revival of properly bound hardbacks. One of the other differences books have over music and film is that the book itself is an object. An object people like to hold and display. I know myself there is something magical just holding a much loved book in your hand that an eBook can never replace and seriously how boring would our houses look with no books filling up the shelves!

While new technology can unlock some people’s access to books and reading it is not without impediments. EBooks are cheaper and that is a topic for another evening but that doesn’t mean they are more accessible. Devices are expensive and while new generation devices can bring down the price of the older devices they are still an impediment to some readers. There are also tremendous limits placed on eBook files. Firstly there are geographical restrictions that can block your access to particular eBooks from different countries. Then there is digital rights management or DRM. DRM is used with eBooks to prevent piracy. Books are somebody’s created work. An author spends considerable time, skill and imagination to write a book and a publisher invests a lot of money and expertise creating the book and getting it to readers and piracy is a fundamental threat to this whole process. However in trying to prevent piracy a number of limitations are put on what readers can do with eBooks. Most DRM limits an eBook to 6 devices. What this means is it becomes very hard to lend eBooks to your friends and family. It also means there is no such thing as a second hand eBook. So our ability to share a book is greatly diminished and the ability for those who can’t afford new books is also reduced. So while eBooks are opening new doors for readers and reading it is closing others. It is also empowering a book retailer who wants to become a monopoly who uses DRM to force readers to only buy from them. And a monopoly cannot lead to freedom of choice and access to content and is in fact a major threat to reading in the future. Will Australians still be reading the same amount of locally written and published books if the retail market is dominated by an overseas retailer. Who will champion the next Tim Winton or Kate Grenville? Who will promote the winner of the Miles Franklin award? If one retailer is allowed to dominate the book retail market in 20 years time then what we read in this country will dramatically change.

But the future of reading is not guaranteed for all. Sadly right now in 2012 there are regions and communities in Australia where the illiteracy rates are over 80%. Reading is the bedrock of knowledge and education. Having communities that are unable to read can only entrench poverty. Right now we are leaving Australians behind when it comes to reading. Through the hardwork of organizations like the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and the passion of those who read, write, sell and publish books I hope in 20 years time there is no Australian individual or community that cannot access books or reading. Becasue if we don’t teach all children to read it doesn’t matter what the cost of books are or how easily we can buy them or borrow them or download them they will be unable to use them. If those in the room tonight can’t imagine a world without books or reading that world unfortunately exists in Australia and I implore you to support Indigenous Literacy Day on Wednesday September 5.

Australians buy more books per capita than any other English speaking market in the world. This will not change in twenty years time. How we read and what we read on will fundamentally change but as long as the ability to read is provided to all and the passion for reading is nurtured and allowed to grow the future of reading in Australia guaranteed.

What do you think the future of reading is?

4 thoughts on “The Future of Reading

  1. Just when I thought that the printed page would disappear. No, just playing, but one would assume this to occur with the access that technology has given us. Fortunately, this will not happen, and now I’m reassured, thanks to your blog.

  2. I’m not sure I buy all of your arguments Jon. The idea that discovering FSoG may foster a lifelong love of reading but school doesn’t is alien to me for example. I appreciate that your school experience didn’t foster a love of reading in you but mine did. Meanwhile I can’t think of a single irregular reader I know who has read FSoG and then gone onto other reading – just a week or so ago a group of women were discussing the book in the break room at work and apart from one (who is a heavy reader and had only read it because her daughter wanted her to) the 7 other women in that discussion made it quite clear they had no intention of reading any other books. One of them laughed and said it would likely be another 20 years (the amount of time since she had left school) for her to read another book.

    I’m also not terribly drawn to the idea that any reading is good reading. Frankly some books are dreck and I think people would be better off choosing some other form of entertainment/enrichment than reading them (I’m not specifically thinking of FSoG here as I haven’t read it, though the snippet I did read made my stomach churn). I think we (readers that is) can get a wee bit precious about thinking our preferred art/entertainment source is superior to any other. I don’t believe the act of reading is inherently good/good for the reader.

    But to end on a positive note I do agree with your overall premise – that there is a healthy future for “books” (whatever format they might take) and reading 🙂

  3. Hi John,

    I read the above with interest a couple of weeks ago when you posted it on Twitter – I meant to comment then but life got in the way.

    I think we’ve reached an interesting place in the whole “future of the book/reading debate”. It seems that the sky isn’t going to fall in…yet anyway. The following article suggests that ebooks may reach a limit rather than take over the book market:

    Hard to say whether that prediction will prove to be any more true than those that said ebooks would kill print by 2014, but it does suggest that we are no longer in an either or situation with e and p publishing.

    I find this discussion both endlessly fascinating (it’s my area of research) and unnerving. We’re thrashing around, looking for answers, when we’re not even really sure what questions we should be asking yet.

    On the subject of the future of books and reading, I’ve just released a novel (Spincycle) which attempts to marry print and online. The novel was launched at the MWF and featured in their top ten best sellers for the Festival. It’s published by Vulgar Press and is available through Dennis Jones.

    So there’s the marketing blurb…

    In the novel and it’s online presence I’m playing with the idea that, as William Gibson once said, “The text no longer stops at the bottom of the page,” and with ideas of authority and version control too. I’m wondering how reading and writing might take advantage of what both p and e have to offer and how we might make the two work better together.

    Apparently it’s a good and quite funny read too.

    I’d like to send you a copy because having followed you on Twitter for quite a while and having read the above post I think you might find what I’m attempting to do in the novel interesting.


    John Weldon

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