Reading and Screens: The Big Question

Will people ever really want to read off screens? When talking about my job I am asked this question more than any other. Books are such beautiful objects and such durable, versatile pieces of technology that they have formed the cornerstone of our culture for over five hundred years and the idea of them being replaced by some form of screen reading seems to many people absurd. And it is. Even though I work in digital publishing I have a pathological addiction to buying books, print books. Books are not going to go away and I firmly believe they will never go away. However this does not mean that they are immune from certain societal and technological shifts that have affected virtually everything from how we bank to how we talk to friends, and within this context it is likely that, some day, people will be as comfortable reading from a screen as reading from a printed page. In the blogosphere debates that surround this topic many people are fond of pointing out that eBooks and their related concepts have been predicted for years, but that books remain stubbornly unreadable on screens and will continue to do so. Several recent indicators point to a change in attitudes that runs counter to this suggestion and even if they don’t exactly predict a stratospheric increase in sales of eBooks they have some wide-ranging, interesting implications for publishing as a whole.

Ofcom, the media watchdog, recently conducted a survey into UK internet usage which underlines the importance the internet plays in Britain: the UK is the most active internet using nation in the EU, overall internet usage is up 158% since 2002 and two thirds of children believe they could not live without the internet. None of this came as much of a surprise, but what did stand out was who was using the internet. Much recent growth has been fuelled by women, who now use the internet more than men, and the so called “silver surfer”. For example in the 25-34 age bracket women account for 55% of all internet users and 16% of over 65s spend more than 42 hours a month on the web, making them the heaviest internet users of all. This is significant because these demographics are the principal market for trade books. The Guardian recently reported an Associated-Press-Ipsos poll of US reading habits which found that “women and pensioners were [the] most avid readers” (Guardian, Wed 22nd August 2007), with people over 50 reading more than those under. In sum people who read books now constitute the principal internet audience. This suggests that book buyers are not only comfortable with new technologies and social trends but they are actively reading online.

Beyond this there are even larger ramifications in the changing consumption of information and use of leisure time. By and large most people are already reading from screens on a daily basis, reading emails, reports, newspapers, blogs, text messages, song titles, teletext, instant messages and all the rest of digitised communication. Reading from a screen is therefore not new or alien, it is already ubiquitous. Seeking Alpha, quoting the New York Times’s own figures (from their media kit) claims that the online readership of the NY Times is c13m against a weekday print circulation of c.1.1m, a ratio which is likely to be replicated at some level in the circulation of British newspapers. The recently launched already has 11.8m unique monthly users, according to ABCe online readership figures. People seem to be happy trading in their print newspapers for skimming through a website, which hints that in news consumption at least the medium is not important but the content is. Taking into account the deluge of written matter being produced and consumed everyday on the web we can see a vast shift to not only reading on a screen but living through it. Even as TV audiences dwindle and sales of computer games level off, websites like facebook (36m users and counting [Wired 06.09.07]) explode as the internet, centred around text, increasingly encroaches on traditional (e.g. TV) leisure activities. The movement is one from staring at images on a screen to reading and writing on a screen. Again, a key part of this growth is driven by the book buying demographic: a Canadian survey found that one in three people over 50 had visited a social networking site. The largest ever survey of US reading habits, Reading at Risk, paints a bleak portrait of reading in terminal decline, noting that “Reading at Risk merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted- our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and media”. Whilst reading a book on a screen is a very different experience and requires a different mindset to instant messaging a friend, the very action of reading from a screen has now, for many, if not most people, become more common than reading print matter.

There is evidence to suggest that reading stories online is also a growing phenomenon, with the China and Japan leading the way in terms of a transfer in media from page to screen in the consumption of text stories. In Japan sales of keitai shousetsu (mobile novels) have been the saviour of an ailing publishing industry battered by the wild popularity of entertaining tech gadgets and nationwide love affair with manga comics. These novels, typically melodramatic romances, are texted to readers in daily segments to form a market that, according to the Economist, has grown from nothing to ¥10b ($82m as of May 07) per annum in just a couple of years and is “still growing fast”. Some authors have downloads approaching the 200k mark per day. If anything the situation is even more extreme in China where internet novels have become one of the main sources of entertainment for the burgeoning networked classes. Wired reports that 10m Chinese “youth” now have reading or writing internet novels as one of their main hobbies, with some novels being read millions of times online before being successfully published as a print product. Astonishingly, the Chinese search engine and the world’s seventh most visited website (according to Alexa Web Information), now has “novel” as it most searched for term. In line with the rest of China growth is in double digits and has proved lucrative to those who caught on early. These cases illustrate how there is nothing fundamental about reading stories in books. Admittedly Western societies may place more emphasis on the book as a hallowed cultural object, with a more developed tradition of story telling in specifically book form, but culture is far from immutable so similar changes could theoretically be replicated anywhere. There is at the least a precedent.

Some evidence hints that we may already be moving in a direction consonant with the evolution of reading in China and Japan. My sister has just started the Teach First program and was told in the induction course of the difficulty schools have with getting many boys to read. For a variety of sociological factors they stubbornly refuse to engage with books; the upshot being that their entire education is in tatters. However it turns out they will read from screens, immune from the stigma attached to reading books, and as a consequence the government is stepping up not only its program of computers in schools but even, as a Becta (the governments IT education arm) report describes, plans to introduce PDAs across the board, with schools running trials whereby everyone student was given a Palm Pilot. We are then seeing a generation constitutionally disposed not to read books but read from a screen, who are overtly encouraged and facilitated in this by the educational establishment. There is little chance that the advance of technology (e.g. screens) into both the lives and the educations of future generations will reverse, so we face a situation where books are essentially disenfranchised not only as leisure items but also as repositories of information, even as the dominance of screen based media is written into every facet of young people’s lives. Here is a generation who would rather read novels on their mobiles than buy them from Waterstones.

Its not just subsequent generations who will, or rather are, reading books from screens. eBook sales may be underwhelming; but perhaps not as underwhelming as many people think. The Book Business Mag reported in February of this year that the eBook market was worth $130m globally in 2006. The International Forum of Digital Publishing shows US eBook revenues of $8.1m in Q207 (in reality the figure is much higher as the IFDP has limited data collection). All of this ignores one of the most widely used aspect of eBooks (notably in the US), library borrowing, which while having less financial impact carries equal cultural weight in terms of transforming peoples expectations and assumptions regarding reading from a screen. Even relatively old statistics are respectable. For example American Library Association figures show that the Denver Public Library had 1669 digital checkouts in August 2005 alone (Freakonomics was the most borrowed eBook). When university libraries and other academic collections are taken into account eBook borrowing forms a significant subset of all US library lending. Coupled with this is the range of material on offer, with major trade publishers like Random House and HarperCollins having thousands of eBooks available on websites like and Fictionwise, for instance, claims to offer over 300 thousand eBooks. Implied in all this is that there is already a market for reading books from screens, that there are people out there for whom screens and books go together naturally. Reading a book from a screen is not an abstract future prospect but a present, and growing, reality. Early adopters of technology tend to be ahead of the game by a few years and that may well be the case with this emergent market. While it may be proportionally small, it does exist, and is unlikely to get smaller.

Following on from this are developments in technology that make reading from a screen more practical by eliminating the eye strain typically associated with prolonged reading, or even looking at, a screen. E-ink, developed by the Media Lab at MIT and now a spin off company, is a technology licensed to producers of reading devices that makes reading from a screen as easy as from a page, recently getting an extremely positive write up from bibliophile Andrew Marr in the Guardian (11/05/07). Sony’s Reader has been selling well across America, buoyed by distribution in Barnes & Noble; ex-Philips engineers have created the iRex iLiad and now Amazon has announced the arrival next year of its Kindle reader. With such big players all having a stake in people reading from screens, their screens, with big money investments in place (Amazon even bought French eBook software company Mobipocket), then everything that can be done to convince people to read from screens will be. When this is matched with the entry of software giants like Google and Microsoft into the book space, both of whom have plans to index and ultimately display books, then a forceful push can be expected from giant companies with a proven track record of success. All of these firms have integrated what was once arcane technology into the fabric of our daily lives to the extent that they are almost invisible constituents of modern existence, as commonplace as telephones and electric light bulbs. With the coming launch of the iPhone and the next generation of mobiles, all fully equipped with the displays and software to make reading on mobiles a practical reality, a tipping point may have been reached in that reading from a screen is as available and easy as carrying round a book.

None of this guarantees that people will read from screens. The upsides with books are numerous: they are easy and efficient (eBooks are currently the opposite), they feel nice, look nice, smell nice, they are an object to be given, treasured, kept. Reading Jean-Paul Sartre on the Tube makes a statement in a way that reading a Pilot never will. For centuries books have been the primary mechanism for disseminating information, as well as a status symbol and a cornerstone of learning, art and civilization itself. Even tech evangelists like Cory Doctorow think that the clutter and distraction of reading from screens will inhibit a radical shift. All of this alone does not mean that there won’t be some transition from reading on the page to reading on a screen; in fact this transition has already happened and perhaps only in the case of trade books does print still have an obvious and genuine primacy over digital content. In the post-Gutenberg world monks, the guardians of the illuminated manuscripts that had formed literary culture, criticised print as being an aesthetic and experiential downgrading of the book. In the end it was the utility and scalability of print books that won. Will people ever want to read off screens? They already do. Will they ever want to read books from screens? Not exclusively, and perhaps never even principally. But as our culture changes in line with technological developments, as new generations are raised in this environment, as the market expands and capital pours into the vacuum, as technology improves, as the stakes get higher and people become more demanding with what they want, when and how, then it is likely that to some extent people who read books will, at some point, read them from a screen.