The Printed Word: Why Books Will Survive the Digital Age

I’ve always been a book person. No, I mean a BOOK person. Collector, curator, lover of the dust jacket, size, shape and smell of the printed word on paper. I know how books are paginated, printed, bound, packed, shipped, and how to write a publishing contract. My first career was the general manager of an 18 bookstore chain in the midwest. It was a great experience. I learned retail merchandising, finance and inventory management as well as the fine art of book buying. Publishing and book selling were a gentlemen’s sport at that time and full of mutual respect.

Of course the best part was I got lots and lots of books.

My collection grew out of hand in the late 1990’s. When I was about to move again I realized I’d need to buy 120 packing boxes for my books alone. You see, they don’t compress very well. Enough was enough, so I donated about half to the local library. They couldn’t believe it when I pulled up in my friend’s minivan. That was a nice day.

Fast forward to the digital era. I didn’t have an allergic reaction to reading on a screen, but it took me a while to buy my first book in the digital format. Much like my transition to digital music, time passed before it become a ritual activity. But there are so many benefits to digital books that I’m happy to say they have earned the right to coexist alongside my analog collection. Not replace it, mind you. Oh no, let’s not get crazy.

The biggest benefit of digital is I’m now reading about twice as many books as I did before I got my iPad, and here’s why.

  • It’s backlit, so you can sit in any chair in your home and read comfortably
  • Since you don’t need ambient light you won’t intrude on your wife’s desire to sleep while you read
  • You can carry hundreds of books with you without the weight and bulk
  • In the mood for something, or want to pick up on where you left off, no problem; just a few taps and you’re there
  • Virtual bookmarks never get misplaced which means you can find your favorite passages in a snap
  • No more driving to Barnes and Noble or waiting for Amazon to deliver
  • Trial is easy, as samples are free from the iTunes bookstore
  • iCloud allows you to push the content to all your Apple devices instantly, which means my wife can read the same book at the same time I’m reading it
  • The technology is great, allowing for a choice of font styles, sizes and backlight controls
  • If you come across an unfamiliar word, simply tap it and get the definition instantly
  • Packing for travel is a cinch; all your books come with you, automatically

The reading doesn’t stop there. Magazines, periodicals, professional journals, are all accessible digitally. I believe that magazines on the iPad far exceed the book experience. Just look at Wired or The New Yorker to see why.

Digital is great for traditional fiction and nonfiction works, but I don’t think it holds up for art books or other publications that are graphic rich. You no longer have the burden of carrying the book, but digital homogenizes all volumes. The physical shape of a book, trim size, thickness, paper stock, makes a book a book. Large books need to be large so you can rest them on your lap and enter a new world. Digital books are forced to fit onto either portrait or landscape. The fact that books come in countless physical forms makes them even more interesting.

There’s another drawback to digital. You can’t have a library in your home if you are all digital. There’s something very satisfying about entering a room that has wall lined bookshelves and stroll past the spines to see what’s there. When I visit someone’s home for the first time I immediately look for the books. You learn a lot about a person by what they read. It also becomes a catalyst for discussion. Can you imagine me grabbing their e-reader and asking for the passcode?

I think it’s critical for young children to see lots of books and be able to explore them in a tactile fashion. This is how they learn to read and how stories get told. From bath books and board books all the way up to chapter books, the book experience grows alongside the child. Try giving a 2 year old a digital book to keep them occupied in the tub.

I have some shelves filled with classics, Moby Dick, etc. I show them to my seven year old from time to time and give him a brief demonstration of why they are great works by reading a few sentences. He has something to look forward to and gets excited about it. “Dad, can we read that whale book again?”

Then there are bookstores. In the stores I ran, square footage was scarce, so we didn’t have comfy chairs and coffee bars. We wanted people to come in, browse, buy and leave. Then come back of course. The giant bookstores didn’t come along until a decade later, adopting a location platform modeled after the local library, but without all the shushing. That was a master stroke and I believe added years to the vitality of books and bookstores.

Of course the local library still stands as a hearth of knowledge in a community. My village recently passed a referendum to invest $12 million in a complete renovation and updating of our library to begin this spring. Some argue that we should abandon libraries, but for many people this is how they get their first exposure to the world of books. I’m happy to see libraries and hope we continue to invest in them for many years. I’ve thought it would be a nice concept to combine a library and a bookstore in the same space. The lending side would be much larger than the selling side, because most of the purchasing would be digital and no physical space is required. Creating commerce would provide additional financial support for the library.

It would be interesting to have the option to buy the analog book and the digital book at the same time, packaged together at a great price. I could add what I wanted to own as books while affording me the convenience of reading it on my iPad. Digital books are fantastic and I’m so glad they’re here. But book books will survive the digital age.

People Read on the Web

Web designers and usability pundits have said for years that people don’t read on the web. At best they skim, and if you have copy that is not juxtaposed with some attractive image it won’t be read. In those days we were encouraged to put as much as possible above the fold and keep the copy short (one liners were even better). As someone who has been involved in developing for the online channel since 1994, I worked hard to live by this rule. Now I believe it’s no longer valid, and here’s why.

  • Sharper and larger flat screens are more affordable and allows for comfortable reading with less scrolling
  • Web 2.0 experience has simplified web page design, removed clutter and keeps users on the same page, even when executing fairly complex tasks
  • Proliferation of community on the web (blogs) drive people to interact primarily by reading
  • People have many screens that are connected to the web (analog form factors are isolated) which means they learn to read with all devices

These are primarily hardware and connectivity changes that have taken place in too short a time to say that humans have changed. That means people have done what they do best, adapt. Web 1.0 allowed us to click and travel for the first time with a machine. Much more fun than reading. During the time between 1.0 and 2.0 everyone, and I mean everyone, has put content on the Internet. Web 2.0 has given us the magic to make that content travel from device to device, and be easily shared with others. But unlocking the value of that content demands that we read it.

Humans are very good at reading. The novelty of being able to click around on the web has worn off and so we are once again getting down to business by reading and interpreting the written word.

I just sat through two days of focus groups where we combined traditional usability testing and market research. I was skeptical at first, but it has worked out very well and validated my reading theory. The users ignored single lines of copy and gravitated to the larger paragraphs on each and every screen. The images on the page didn’t have much impact. What resonated was site structure (where should I go?) and words that told a story. Narratives are much more powerful than one liners on web sites.

Users are much more sophisticated today about the web. Less wowed by the technology and more thoughtful about what’s being presented. The idea of the web is understood and now second nature. That doesn’t mean we should publish War and Peace, but it does mean we can be more conversational with our visitors.

Don’t let the dot point marketers take over the copywriting duties, or allow your company to gush all over itself (Let us tell you how great we are…). Be fun, informative, interesting and get to the point. But when it needs more, write it.