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Book-Talk Monday: Who Are E-Book Readers?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Last Monday, we talked about e-book lending at libraries. It seems most of us are not only not concerned about it, but like this development and plan to make use of it (I just downloaded my second library e-book over the weekend).

In the discussion, though, the inevitable topic of whether or not someone would ever become an “e-book reader” versus a “real-book reader” came up, which reminded me of something I heard in a workshop a couple of weeks ago, which went something along these lines:

To be a breakout author, you must reach non-readers (these are not e-book readers).

He went on to say that these “non-readers” are people who read at most six books a year (so, in other words, not true non-readers, but rarely-readers). These are people who would buy a book if Oprah recommended it and it struck their fancy in some manner. More often than not, though, even if they buy books from the bestsellers lists, it’s more to have a conversation piece sitting on their shelf during dinner parties (or to have their guests think they’ve read it when they haven’t touched it since they got it home from B&N)—there’s no way they’re going to invest over $100 in an e-reader when they don’t even want to invest that much in books in one year.

So who are e-book readers? Are they technoheads who are just now discovering the world of the written word because they can access it through cool technology now?

Well, I did some rudimentary research and though I tried every iteration of keywords that I could think of, I could only find technical info when it came to the question “who reads e-books?” (more men prefer tablets, more women prefer e-readers; e-reader ownership broke into double-digits percentage-wise this year; e-book sales are soaring; etc.).

My own personal opinion is that avid e-book readers are book *consumers*—not in the capitalist sense of the word, but in the black-hole-in-outer-space sense of the word. They consume books. They are the “so many books, so little time” type of readers who rarely go back and re-read a book just to savor and re-live it. They are the same kind of people who, in decades past, would visit the library once a week and max out the number of books they were allowed to check out each time. AND they would be at the bookstore at least a couple of times a month taking home four or five mass-market paperbacks. AND if one of their favorite authors had a new book coming out, they’d pre-order the hardcover through the bookstore just to make sure they got their copy of it the day it released. AND even before that, they were the kids who pored over the Scholastic book order forms from school and if their allowance wouldn’t cover the number of books they wanted to order, they negotiated with their parents—even going as far as to offer to do more chores, just to score more books. These are the people for whom books are their addiction . . . an addiction that the e-book reader makes that much easier to feed because of instant gratification of less-than-60-second download times; availability of hundreds of thousands of titles, a great number of which are free or priced under $5, making it much more economical; the ease of transport—one’s entire library can be carried in a purse or briefcase or backpack; the intrinsic privacy afforded by the e-reader’s design—no more trying to hide those half-naked women and bare-chested men or Twilight movie tie-in covers from everyone else on the subway; and the wide variety of platforms from which e-books can be read: designated readers, tablet computers, phones, and computers/laptops.

But there are just as many people like this who will give up their traditional pulp-and-glue books only when someone pries them out of their cold, dead hands. Because e-books/e-readers are the topic du jour, it’s pretty easy to find studies on their effect on reading habits.

According to a study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group (a different Nielsen than the TV ratings people), there is a difference in reading paper books and e-books. They tested three different reading methods (on the PC, on a Kindle, and on an iPad) against reading a paper book. The results were a bit eye-opening . . . those reading any of the three e-book versions were as much as 10 percent slower than those reading a traditional paper book (with PC being the slowest method).

The University of Washington reported on a pilot project they conducted with students using e-books instead of traditional textbooks. “Seven months into the study, less than 40 percent of the students were regularly doing their academic reading on the Kindle.”

The most interesting part to me of UW’s report was this:

The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.

I ran into this last night. I read the prologue of the library e-book I’d downloaded. It had a date at the top of it. Some time in the late 1700s. The prologue felt long. In the printed book, it may have only been four, five, or six pages. But as I didn’t have the “cognitive map” of how long it was, it felt long. But then I started the first chapter, which also had a date at the top of it. Some time in the early 1800s. I tried using the navigation “rocker” to go back to the beginning of the prologue, but this e-book apparently doesn’t have the “locations” in the book mapped to be able to skip from the beginning of one chapter to another by using the navigation button that way. And that frustrated me, because I knew that if I’d been reading the physical book, it would have been so easy to just flip back a few pages and look at the date at the beginning of the prologue.

After reading the information in these two studies, I’ve come up with my own opinion of why we might read traditional paper books faster than e-books, and it boils down to three things:

1. The visual cue of how far through the book we are. I’m sorry, but the percentage down at the bottom just doesn’t mean much to me. One percent of the first Game of Thrones book might represent seven or eight physical pages, while one percent of Mary Balogh’s Dark Angel (a novella) might be one physical page, maybe a page and a half. It can really start to feel like a chore when you’re reading, reading, reading for what seems like hours and look down and the percentage hasn’t moved, or has only advanced one or two percent. Plus, there are a lot of e-books that have a lot of “spam” at the end of them. Many publishers have taken to putting all of their frontmatter (copyright info, dedication, acknowledgments, review quote blurbs) into the “back” of the e-book along with a bunch of marketing stuff for that author’s other books or other authors’ books. I’ve had a few e-books in which the last page of the actual story fell somewhere around the 90 to 95 percent mark because there was so much backmatter—and there are books in which the first page of the story (whether it’s the prologue or chapter one) starts around the 5 percent mark because there’s so much frontmatter (which may include a five- or six-page table of contents, in books in which the chapters aren’t even named). Seeing how much I’ve actually read—or seeing how much I have left to read (in that chapter or in the book)—can really motivate me to keep reading.

2. This whole “cognitive mapping” thing. There’s definitely something to this—because when I read, I have a tendency to skip lines or phrases and miss things. In a physical book, it’s easy enough to go back and find something I might have missed—or, in the case of books as long and with as many characters as the Game of Thrones series, to flip back to that character’s last chapter to remind myself what they were doing last time they appeared. But this is difficult and time consuming to do in an e-reader.

3. Seeing the actual book, and its cover, sitting there waiting to be picked up again. One thing I most definitely miss with e-books is the loss of the cover. Sure, some e-books come with a black-and-white image of the book’s cover. But many don’t. However, when I pick up my e-reader (which has a purple leather cover), I either pull up a list of titles or it opens to the most recent page I was reading when I last turned it off. I don’t have a full-color cover drawing me in. When I’m going through my list of books to see what I want to read next, I can’t just pull one off the shelf and read the back cover copy. I have to pull it up, turn on the wireless/3G, and go to that book’s page on Amazon just to read the description (which aren’t usually the full back-cover copy—and sometimes, it’s just a list of blurbs from reviews that don’t tell me anything about the story at all). The cover is not only the first piece of marketing for the book, it’s the first thing that draws us into it—especially if it’s a well done cover and reflects the theme, mood, and emotion of the story. Having the visual cue of the cover can be a great motivator to pick up a book and start/continue/finish reading it.

Are you an e-reader? If you are, what are your thoughts on e-books vs. traditional books? What would make you choose an e-book over a traditional paper book (or vice versa)? If you are a sworn traditional-book reader, is there anything that could convert you to becoming an e-book reader?

14 Comments
  1. Monday, October 31, 2011 12:38 am

    Kaye some of the points you raise are things I fully agree with. I want to know what page I am on not the percentage although some books if I hit menu will tell me the page. as you said some books 1 percent is 2 pages another maybe 5. Also some books like Amish have a list in the front of amish words in a physical book I can go back to check a word but not so easy with the Kindle. Same with a map which some have of an area in the front its not easy to relook with the kindle.
    Also at night I have to take the kindle out of the cover or I will hit the keyboard all the time and get a sore hand. also the bottom hook on the cover has bent so the kindle has fallen out of the cover.
    On reading speed if I am not in bed I think I read at a similar pace. unless i hit a button and get the box where I can add a note etc.
    on the description that is annoying not having it for the kindle books and having to look it up to remember what the books is about. That should be on the book to save having to look it up.

    I do love the option of the kindle and do have many books on it and recently bought another book not available in Australia. But then last week went to the bookshop which had 20% of all fiction and got something like 24 books (2 sets of 10 heartsong presents books).

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  2. Sarah permalink
    Monday, October 31, 2011 12:44 am

    I love to read I have at all times atleast two books with me however last Christmas my husband bought me a ereader and I tend to only use it in the car because I can plug it into my radio other then that I feel like I am wasting money to spend 5-20 dollars on a book that’s electronic and I can’t share so I feel bad my wonderful husband spent so much on it but I would rather feel the book in my hands and be able to refer back to and loan it out

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  3. Monday, October 31, 2011 7:28 am

    I have a Kindle and I love it. I love that I can carry my library with me. I am a very fast reader, so I can finish a book in a day or two (depending on how much free time I have with the kids). I do agree with you on missing the covers and not being able to backtrack in the book very easily. Although, after having my Kindle for 10 months, I just don’t miss these as much as I did when I first started using the Kindle. I have downloaded a ton of free books and several are from my favorite authors. I always have something to read and many times I have found new authors that I wouldn’t have bought at a bookstore, but love since I discovered them through their free book. I recently bought several paperbacks and it was kind of weird at first, after using my kindle for so long, but after the first few pages I didn’t even think about my Kindle. I can’t say that I will not buy books, because I do occasionally, but my preference is my e-reader.

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  4. Monday, October 31, 2011 7:48 am

    Your three points are pretty much my ‘ticklist’ of issues with ebooks. I’m such a visual person and it completely throws me when I can’t find something in a book. The cognitive mapping makes COMPLETE sense and puts into words what I’ve been trying to explain to others.

    Do I love my Kindle, yes! But I will always and forever love print copies of books. For books that I may just want to read once, it is great, but there are certain books/authors that I will purchase a paper copy because I love them that much {and yes, you are included in that!}.

    In truth, the majority of books on my kindle are ones that I have downloaded for free. I’ve only purchased a few for my Kindle otherwise, preferring to spend my money on the physical copy of the book instead.

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  5. Monday, October 31, 2011 9:07 am

    I don’t have a Kindle or Nook, yet. I’m being really good to Santa this year in hopes of getting one. I do have Kindle on my computer an I rarely read it. It is slow and I would rather sit in a recliner to read instead of at my desk. My battery life is short on my computer. I hope there will always be paper books. I love to hold them in my hand, but I like the convenience of an electronic device. If you purchase the books for you machine, you can re-read them. That is good for me.

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  6. Audry permalink
    Monday, October 31, 2011 11:22 am

    Aside from the fact that I don’t actually buy very many books, that description of the consumer sounds a lot like me. I got my first library card almost as soon as I could write my name, and I used to max it out every week during the summer. I still borrow tons of books from the library in every available format, and while I don’t usually pre-order new ones to buy, I pre-request them as soon as they appear on the library website, and anxiously watch my place in the library queue 😀 I do check e-books out of the library (and have even bought some very inexpensive ones) and I completely agree with your 3 reasons why “real” books are better – but I’ll keep reading the e versions as long as it gets the books into my brain sooner or more conveniently than another method. I also agree with your list of e-book pluses.

    I think one type e-book reader you may have overlooked is the type who, like me, doesn’t buy a lot of books, but will buy used copies of books that are either out of print or just not very popular and will therefore never be available at the library. A lot of these books are available online for a dollar or two, but there’s always $3 – $4 shipping on top of that. Many of these same books are now available as e-books for free or for $.99 with no shipping charges. I’ve downloaded a lot of free classics, and just paid $.99 for Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion which would have cost me $20 new, and at least $4 shipping used.

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  7. Monday, October 31, 2011 1:53 pm

    The percentage thing doesn’t bother me, but I would like to know what page number I’m on and how many total pages are in the book.

    I find that I read faster on my phone than I do with a physical book. I skip more. Could be the books I’ve read.

    I blogged about this just today. http://bit.ly/uByNCN

    I can see me eventually transitioning to like 90% ereading, buying only keepsakes or books I want to share with someone or use as reference books (because the reference thing–indexes, skipping around to specific sections, etc.–doesn’t lend itself to ebooks, I don’t think.)

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  8. Monday, October 31, 2011 2:25 pm

    Because of the cost, I don’t have an e-reader. I’ve downloaded Kindle for PC on my work computer, just to try out the format, and downloaded a few freebies, but I haven’t read them. The farthest I got in one was “The Healer’s Apprentice,” but since it’s on my computer at work, and I don’t see it sitting on my nightstand, I forgot I was reading it! I bought the paper copy at ACFW and devoured it in just a few days! I have a few friends who have published in e-format ONLY, and I’ve read those, but I’m hoping they’ll come out in print!

    I would like to have one for traveling, or an iPad that would allow reading AND computer stuff, but I don’t think I’ll ever be a dedicated e-reader. I have access to way too many books to fool with it – a whole library – AND I like to hold in my hands the books that my writer friends have written.

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  9. Rachel Wilder permalink
    Monday, October 31, 2011 2:43 pm

    I’m an e-book reader. And a paper book reader. I like both. I just devoured the Riley Covington series. Something I never would have picked up had the first one, Monday Night Jihad, not been free. I read the fourth and final one over the weekend. (and I’m still processing the end of it!) I will read these four books over and over because I love the characters and I want to spend time with them.

    I have a first generation Nook, and with my touchscreen at the bottom of it I can still see the beautiful covers. In full color. Also, until I actually start reading the book, the default page it goes to when I select it is the back cover copy. Another thing Kindle messed up on that the Nook got right! Though the new Nook is so small and light I have no trouble replacing mine with it when the time comes I’m not keen on having a tablet to read on. Same issues as reading from a computer screen. Like on the iPad commercial, you might can download that NYT bestseller on the beach, but you can’t read it on the beach with a backlit screen unless you want the worst headache of your life.

    Since I live in an area with a limited selection of Christian fiction, my Nook has introduced me to new authors and characters that I never would have met otherwise. The instant gratification is hard to beat. When I finished Blown Coverage, less than ten minutes later I was reading Blackout (2 and 3 of Riley Covington). I couldn’t do that and keep the thriller momentum going if I’d had to wait on it to get here in the mail.

    The no shipping fee is a huge plus too. My dad loves his Nook, as well, also first generation. He devours science fiction and now his buying can actually keep up with his consumption. The Nook can also have an SD card inserted. That takes your space from the 2 GB it comes with, and knocks it up to 34 GB’s! I don’t want my books on a theoretical cloud. I want them in MY possession where I know they’re safe. 34 GB is over a million books. In my purse.

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    • Lady DragonKeeper permalink
      Monday, October 31, 2011 3:30 pm

      Interesting … another way I’ve experienced “cognitive mapping” is feeling the page amount on the right hand side “shrink” (and growing on the left) as I go through a book.

      I love paper books, but I became an e-reader of sorts because of all the free e-books publishers make available for a limited time. I don’t have an actual e-reader (yet) but I have the Kindle computer app. I don’t think I’d choose an e-book over a paper book, but in the past, reading the e-book version of a book has introduced me to a lot of authors I wouldn’t have bought a paper book from because they were new to me (as a student, I usually limit my purchases to authors/series I know I love). I think that I read a little bit slower on the computer vs. reading a paper book, but maybe it just seems that way. It is harder on the eyes with a computer screen (no e-ink available). However, I do like that you can “search” in a book (if you know what words you want to look for) and (as someone who hates marking her books) you can easily insert notes and such and change the text size as well.

      It’s find of funny, my dad bought a Kindle and in regards to leisure reading, he’d probably fall into the “rarely reader” category. He’s sort of into technology and likes computers and such, so maybe that aspect of an e-reader appealed to him. He also likes it because he can change the text size and the cost of e-books are usually less expensive than paper copies.

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  10. Monday, October 31, 2011 3:58 pm

    Kaye, I read on my Kindle a lot, and I agree with everything you said. On the other hand, some of it I’ve gotten used to. I now will frequently look at the percentage bar during the first couple chapters just to see how quickly I’m moving through it. That gives me an idea on whether this is going to be a fast read or not. It used to annoy me to no end not to know what page I was on. But I’m over it now.

    I do miss the covers, but I’m getting over that to. They’re on Amazon in color, and I can look at them there if I want to. So that’s not bothering me as badly as it did the first few months.

    I so agree with you about moving back and forth in an e-reader. It really isn’t possible, at least not on a level that is anywhere near as effective as a paper book. I have a Bible on my Kindle, but I never use it for church because it takes a while to get to a passage. And I’ve found that reading non-fiction on it, especially the kind you want to refer back to, isn’t a good fit. I’ve bought a couple writing books on my Kindle and regretted it.

    But it’s perfect for fiction. And fiction readers do devour books. On the other hand, EVERYONE wants a Kindle. I’m the only one at my (small) church to have one, and the few times I have taken it, people ask me all about it and they all want to get one. And I can’t imagine that they’re all book devourers. But I think the price has come down to the point that they can justify buying it even if they read a few books a year.

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  11. Carol permalink
    Monday, October 31, 2011 4:04 pm

    I’m mostly an ebook reader these days. I even use the Bible app on my phone at church. I still like physical books and can’t imagine that there will ever be a time when they won’t be available. I like the convenience of ebooks. I like that I can read a 1000 page book in bed and hold it with one hand because my Kindle only weighs a few ounces. I like that I can carry my entire library with me. When I first got my Kindle, the percentage thing bothered me, but I’ve gotten so used to it I don’t notice anymore. I like that I can back up my entire library of ebooks on my computer, my external hard drive, and/or Amazon’s cloud drive so that if my home is destroyed I still have my books. I also don’t worry about the price of ebooks vs paper books. I’m paying for the story which is just as valuable to me in electronic form as it is in paper form.
    I find that I take more notes with Kindle because I can do it from the Kindle. I also use the Kindle dictionary more often that I ever used a dictionary reading a paper book.
    Interesting discussion.

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  12. Wednesday, November 2, 2011 5:12 pm

    I am a HUGE Ereader 🙂 However I also like the feel of holding a book. I know it cost a bit more, but I will read an ebook and then if I really like it than I will purchase a a copy for my shelf.

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  13. Sarah R permalink
    Thursday, November 3, 2011 2:03 pm

    I am one of those book “consumers” you described. It’s eerie how accurately you depicted the kind of reader that I am. I bought a kindle last year and was certain at the time that I would hate it because I love being able to hold a physical book in my hands and see the cover, look at maps and glossaries and see how many pages I am in to the book. When I was single, I was able to have as many books as I wanted (I actually had an extra room in my apartment to store all my books) but when I got married my husband was horrified to see how many boxes of books I really had. He started hinting to me that I needed to get rid of books, which I was resistant to do unless I hated the book or knew I would never read it again. I first heard of e-readers around this time but the price and the amount of books they could hold didn’t really sell me on them (I already had around a thousand books by that point). By the time my daughter was born, I reluctantly gave in because space was limited in our house but I still waited until the price came down and the amount of books the kindle could hold went up.
    I have to say I am amazed at how much I like e-readers. I still prefer a physical book for all the reasons you mentioned but I like the fact that when I travel I don’t have to try to figure out which books I might want to read while I am away. (I actually put it to the test when I went to the ACFW conference this year and found that my luggage was much lighter due to the kindle. However, it was a lot heavier on the way home with all the physical books that I just had to buy). I like that I have discovered a lot of new to me authors through free or discounted books on Amazon and that it is a lot harder for me to peek at the ending of the book (which I have been known to do with a physical book). I won’t give up physical books entirely but I will now have to be a little more choosy about which ones will take up the limited space on my bookshelves.

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