"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

How Technology Is (and Isn’t) Changing Our Reading Habits

When Alexandra Alter, a reporter who covers the books industry, doesn’t want to lose herself in what she’s reading, or lose her balance on the subway, she reaches for her Kindle. Credit Jeenah Moon for The New York Times 

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Alexandra Alter, who covers the books industry for The Times, discussed the tech she’s using.

Given that you write about the books industry, how do you prefer to read books? On a Kindle or iPad or some other device, or printed books?

I came a little late to e-books, but I became a convert in 2010 when my older daughter was born. I needed a way to read books with one hand (and in a dark room), so I got a Kindle. The Kindle and ice cream sandwiches — also easily managed with one hand — are what got me through the brutal early weeks with a newborn, when you basically can’t put them down. Now I’m on my fifth Kindle.

I still love print books and find it to be a much more relaxing and immersive experience, but when I’m reading books for work — honestly, the bulk of my reading — the Kindle is incredibly convenient. I have all my books on a single device that I always have with me. I read advance copies of books that way: Publishers send me digital copies through NetGalley or Edelweiss, sites where book industry professionals and critics can get digital copies of books before they’re published.

I like that e-books are searchable, which is helpful for fact-checking, and the device stores all my notes and highlights, so I can quickly look stuff up when I’m writing. And I can read with one hand on a crowded train. One of my mild phobias is being trapped somewhere, on a plane or a stalled train or in a line, with nothing to read, and I also have the Kindle reader app on my iPhone, so I always have my entire library with me.

How is technology affecting the publishing industry?

About a decade ago, when Amazon introduced its first e-reader, publishers panicked that digital books would take over the industry, the way digital transformed the music industry. And for a while, that fear seemed totally justified. At one point, the growth trajectory for e-books was more than 1,200 percent. Bookstores suffered, and print sales lagged. E-books also made self-publishing easier, which threatened traditional publishers.

But in just the last couple of years, there has been a surprising reversal. Print is holding steady — even increasing — and e-book sales have slipped.

One possible reason is that e-book prices have gone up, so in some cases they’re more expensive than a paperback edition. Another possibility is digital fatigue. People spend so much time in front of screens that when they read they want to be offline. Another theory is that some e-book readers have switched to audiobooks, which are easy to play on your smartphone while you’re multitasking. And audiobooks have become the fastest-growing format in the industry.

Ms. Alter likes that e-books are searchable and that the the Kindle stores her notes and highlights for easy retrieval. Credit Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Social media has also had an enormous impact on publishing, as it has on all corners of the media industry. It has definitely become a new way for readers to connect with authors and discover books, but it has probably also cut into the time that people spend reading. (A depressing article in Quartz estimated that if people spent the same amount of time reading that they did on social media, they could read 200 books a year easily.)

Many new authors are skipping traditional publishers and use tech tools to go straight to self-publishing their own e-books or print books. What will be the fate of traditional publishers in the next few years?

Self-publishing has been one of the most fascinating corners of the industry to me. There have been a handful of massively successful self-published authors who have started their own publishing companies, and they’ve started to publish other “self-published” authors. But publishers have survived so far through consolidation, and we’ll probably see more of that.


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