Interlude: Really, Reading Off a Screen Sucks

I have to say that I’m not particularly surprised to learn that Eli at Novelr and no less than Cory Doctorow tend to agree with me that presenting novels online is going to be an uphill battle against most people’s reading preferences.  (Eli’s latest guest post indicates that there are certainly exceptions, but until I see hard data otherwise, I’m going to continue to believe that these are exceptions.  Cuddly, huggable, make-my-writer’s-heart-flutter exceptions, yes, but exceptions nonetheless.)

In the Locus article linked above, Doctorow argues fairly effectively that this is both a problem of medium and attention span — or more accurately, it’s a reflection of the way we’ve become socialized to use our Internet tools.  Reading long form fiction is a focused activity.  It’s something we do in solid chunks of time and with active attention.  The internet is about short bursts of time and multi-tasking.  The internet has also taught us to do more scanning than reading and to dig out the kernals of information we’re seeking rather than digesting large tracts of text or applying those nifty critical reading skills we paid so much to learn in college.

(In case you were curious, I printed out both Eli’s blog post and Doctorow’s article to scribble notes in the margins as I prepared to write this piece.  I did the same thing yesterday with Kembrew McLeod’s essay.  So yeah, they’re preaching to the choir.)

There are adherents to the digital form (else, Fictionwise would have gone under a long time ago), but as I read around the net, observe my own habits and talk to other readers, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that digital fiction, at least at this point in its evolution, is a long tail phenomenon.  In other words, we’re likely to see lots of people reading terabytes of online narrative, but the distribution is going to be so spread out that we’re not likely to see the sort of cohesion that would routinely produce “bestseller” numbers any time soon.  (Though, as Tess Gerritsen has famously pointed out, producing bestseller numbers from week to week may not be as impressive a feat as you have assumed.  We’re not talking about Platinum album sales here.)

And given that our primary metric for determining a “bestseller” in online fiction would be an amalgamation of downloads and page hits, would we really know what those numbers mean in terms of cultural impact?  I mean, we tend to understand a print novel’s cultural impact in terms of sales, book club discussions, articles written, screenplays written, etc.  None of those mechanisms really exist for purely digital fiction.  If I can claim, for instance, that my blog gets 2,000 hits a week (which it doesn’t) what does that even mean?

Maybe it means that 2,000 people really dig my novels.   Maybe it means that 100 people read all twenty chapters.  Maybe it means that 100 people just clicked on all twenty chapters.  Maybe it means that four people reloaded my front page 500 times.  Maybe it means that 1,999 people read the first chapter, said Urk! and moved on to something more appealing (with the 2,000th person being my mom, and she would read all twenty chapters straight through because she loves me.  I’m firmly convinced that more metrics should take my mom’s opinion into account.).

To some extent, these are all tangential questions, and they’re not limited solely to digital books.  Hell, I’ve got something like seven million paperbacks littering my bookshelves and I haven’t read a tenth of them.  But I did buy them — through the agency of my wife … Read more