Thursday, February 26, 2015

Readers Rejecting Ebooks? Not Quite…

Or so the headline claims.
It’s a good article. Read it. But keep in mind there are some very misleading points in the article.
The headline should have been: “Today’s College Students Prefer Printed Textbooks Over Reading on Computer Screens.
That would have been far more accurate and much less misleading.
The article implies strongly that ebooks are out of favor with readers in general and purports scientific research to support that implication. However, all the quotes of the research mention tablet computers and laptops. There is no mention of ebook readers. Also, they are talking about students reading textbooks, which are vastly different from using a dedicated ebook reader like an Amazon Kindle or a Kobo to read a work of narrative prose.
Reading a textbook on a computer? Now the article headline makes sense.
I don’t like reading textbooks digitally, whether on a computer or on an ebook reader. Ebook readers don’t render textbooks properly. Textbooks have a wholly different typographical layout than narrative prose. They are formatted carefully so technical examples are presented properly.
I have a lot of programming textbooks on C, C++, Objective C, PHP, CSS, Ajax, PERL, Unix, and many other subjects. I greatly prefer having the paper book by my side for reference when doing programming work than reading them on an ebook reader. The exception being having a Unix man page open in one terminal window while working on something in another terminal window.
So what’s the difference?
It is the typography. How the information is laid out.
The significant majority of my reference books are from O’Reilly Press. They are wonderfully formatted and make excellent reference manuals. When I have an idea of something I want to program, I’ll pull out some of my O’Reilly books and look for examples showing actions I want to do and start working from there. I have a couple of these as ebooks, and I find them difficult to use in the ebook format.
Ebook reader screens are fairly small. Nearly all my O’Reilly textbooks are 7-inch x 9-inch or larger. An ebook reader screen at 3.5-inch x 5-inch is roughly half the size. Not only that, I can lay open a textbook and see two pages side-by-side; with just the flip of one page, I can glance at the next two pages or the previous two pages very quickly. With an ebook reader, I would have to flip pages at least four times to view the same amount of information. Even then, I can only see one page at a time. I find viewing the continuity of a given example is not possible.
For any ebook reader to be effective as a textbook reader, the screens would have to be twice as large as they are now, at a minimum. Even when using a man page on Unix, I have the terminal window stretched open to portray as much information as possible when studying an example.
I generally don’t like reading on a computer screen—that includes tablet computers and smartphones. Which is strange when you consider just how much I read using those devices on a daily basis. The light-emitting displays tend to be harsh on the eyes after a while. I can look at a reflective display for much longer without my eyes growing tired.
Last, the article throws in a comment about reading online.
Reading an article online is an entirely different reading issue altogether. I keep hearing people complaining that our attention spans are being shortened and people can’t focus on anything for longer than eight minutes. I just heard a friend make that comment the other day.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Don’t believe me?
Then how do you explain teenagers completely engrossed in a book for hours on end? Whether directed at us or someone else, we’ve all heard the phrase, “Get your nose out of that book!”
The problem with reading online is the reader is constantly bombarded by advertisements that are designed specifically to be caught up by the reader’s peripheral vision. They flash between light and dark or between contrasting colors so that we can’t help but to glance at them by reflex. Many of them are outright painful to look at.
Fortunately, Apple’s Safari has a “Reader Mode” (shift-cmd-R) that displays only the text and related images of an article. Nothing else. I use it heavily.
Right now—assuming you actually read the article linked above—you are saying that I am supporting everything the article is talking about.
The problem is, the article makes a grand generality about reading electronically while the examples given are about a very specific subset. The article is talking about reading textbooks on computers and tablets. Not about reading prose on ebook readers.
There is a huge difference between reading textbook data vs. reading narrative prose. Narrative prose is flowable text. Textbook data is not. Textbooks have to be fixed or the examples wouldn’t make sense. Narrative needs to flow so that the reader’s attention will not be broken.
I wonder what the majors were of the students being interviewed for the article. Were they majoring in technical studies, such as programming, chemistry, or engineering? Or were they focused on humanities such as history, philosophy, or English?
I would have LOVED to have had an ebook reader back when I was in college! As an English major, I had piles of books all over my room. Instead of lugging heavy books all over campus every day, I could have just grabbed my ebook reader and slipped it in my pocket.
The only problem I can see with ebooks is making citations.
Because an ebook is flowable text, there are really no page references. All the reader has to do is increase the font size a little and suddenly there can be twice as many pages in the book.
I think for ebooks, a reader should be able to cite text by the chapter and paragraph number within the chapter, rather than going by page number. Of course, print books can have the same issue if two students are using two different editions of the same classic text. But the chapters will still be the same and so will the paragraph numbers.
If I cited Dragon, chapter 5, paragraph 10, then you would know I’m referencing where the reader discovers just how the emperor of Caltha really feels about the Great Lady Oracle. But if I referenced just “Page 89”, then it could be something about arguing with dragons or having one’s pocket picked, depending on how large the text is. (For those of you waiting  impatiently for Dragon, this should be a hint…)
But I have found when reading narrative text, it doesn’t matter whether it is an ebook on an ebook reader or on printed page. I get just as lost in the story. I am just as deep in flow state.
For the record, the current balance between sales of print books vs. sales of ebooks is around 65% print to 35% digital. However, if you cut out textbooks and the like, I’m willing to bet that balance will be a lot closer to 50/50. And I’d even be willing to bet it might go the other way in some genres.
Ebook sales are growing and expanding, not faltering. Readers are not walking away from ebooks. Rather, they are embracing them more and more. It is important to remember that print is most definitely not going away. Not for a long time. Print will still rule among textbooks until electronic ink screen technology can produce an affordable screen large enough to be relevant for textbook typography. Even then, it might be a tough sell among collegiates and professionals who often rely on highlighting and jotting down notes in the margins.
It might take a couple of generations before we start to see etextbooks take their place alongside ebooks.