Don't forget the readers

Bethanne Patrick on how digital is shaping the reading experience and where ereaders come up short.

Digital publishing discussions generally focus on the tech and business points of view, which is a problem since the people who buy all that content are the real catalysts. So in an effort to tip the scales a bit, I got in touch with Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven), book critic and owner of Book Maven Media, to examine digital publishing through the readers’ lens.

What influence are devices and ebooks having on reading?

Bethanne PatrickBethanne Patrick: At a recent panel, Barbara Hoffert, an editor and blogger at Library Journal, was talking about how ereaders and ebooks are gaining traction in libraries. I think this is very interesting. It seems to show that more people are now willing to try out ereaders — the skepticism is gone. That’s a big change.

The other thing we’ve seen along with skyrocketing ebook sales is that people who have ereaders and who buy ebooks are reading more than ever before. They’re not just buying more. They’re actually reading more. Harris Interactive did a poll last August — 36 percent of the people with ereaders said they had read at least 11 books a year, and 53 percent of them said that they had read more than they did previously. Compare that to 19 percent of consumers without devices who said they read 11 or more books a year, 18 percent of whom said they were reading more.

In what ways are current ereaders coming up short for consumers?

Bethanne Patrick: Someone recently said the perfect ereader would be all about the “intuitive,” not just about actual tactile features. The way I put it together for my fellow book reviewers is that the perfect digital reader would allow you to flip back and forth using your mind. I think of it sort of like a Segway for reading — flipping pages would be similar to the way a Segway anticipates your leaning and your movements. But, of course, that’s a long time coming.

The lack of intuition applies beyond consumers as well. Book critics have tricks for reading, and they don’t work with an ereader. That’s why some reviewers won’t use e-galleys.

Will digital books replace print books? Or, will they coexist?

Bethanne Patrick: I’ve heard people say that paper books may wind up becoming souvenirs. So it’s kind of like the music industry in the way people would save the CD liner booklets with the lyrics and the notes — that’s going to become the role of the paper book. I can’t imagine not having physical books at all, but I do think that digital accessibility is becoming more important, especially to the younger generation. They are downsizing and simplifying in all kinds of ways. I even have friends who have their entire music collections on their iPods — they don’t keep their CD cases anymore. And they’re not buying CDs anymore, either. They’re downloading.

I read a post from Dean Johnson where he said the music library example doesn’t apply to ebooks because you don’t necessarily want to have your whole library available to you at any given time. I thought, “Why wouldn’t you want to have your entire library with you? Wouldn’t that be awesome?” I think he’s exactly right for this moment in time, but 10 years from now I bet everyone’s going to have their entire library — especially people in the academic sector — on some kind of device that holds 2,000 to 5,000 different titles.

For the time being, print and digital seem to be coexisting. I had a great discussion with some independent booksellers about this. Most of these booksellers really understand that paper books and ebooks can live side-by-side, even in the same store on the same shelves. What they’re more interested in is figuring out how to get the best of every genre to readers.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Bethanne Patrick will help host the Literary Reviewing in the Digital Age panel at TOC 2011 this week.

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