Electronic Age: How will ebooks change Mormon literary habits?

Our concepts of literature and writing are directly connected to the formats that have become natural to us. It used to be that books (with few or no pictures) were a baseline kind of literacy. That is less the case now. Not only are books filled with pictures, but they tend to exist in a thickly mediated environment, much of which is electronic or at least highly influenced by things digital. Even my son’s math book interrupts itself and sends him to go check out an online tutorial before resuming his paper-and-pencil problem set. Now that electronic means of both producing and consuming writing are competing with traditional paper modes, how will this affect Mormon literary habits?

New formats shape how we use and think about what we read and what we write. I notice this a great deal with my reading of scripture. Reading the Bible or the Book of Mormon in their paper form gives them a certain context that is missing when I read them from the scriptures application on my iPhone. Reading them on my iPhone allows me to readily check footnotes (full text, instantly) and so I tend to investigate those footnotes and study aids much more when using the iPhone application. Consequently, when I am studying a given topic (say, for a lesson or talk), I tend to use my scripture application. But when I am doing my daily reading, I don’t tend to use that format. I still use the old red pencil, highlighting passages of note, and remembering those in part by where on the page they fall. That passage in Abraham about premortal spirits? It’s easy to find because it’s split across Facsimile #2 on the bottom of a right-side page and the top of a left-side page.

Actually, I’ve gravitated more and more toward listening to my scriptures in audio format as I commute. I consume a great deal of audio content while driving, exercising, or walking about. It has been an easy way to put the study of scriptures into my routine by listening to them in spoken word format. But even that format tends to change my approach. For example, when a particularly interesting passage comes along, I tend to reach for that 30-second replay button. I’ve found myself memorizing passages by looping back repeatedly. I want to know a certain passage better, feel it, so as I listen and try to memorize it, it tends to sink in. This has its uses. I also have the Spanish audio version at hand, and will often listen to the same chapter in Spanish right after hearing it in English. I suppose I could have done so with paper versions of the scriptures, but I don’t. I am getting accustomed to finding and using content streams in electronic form that sometimes parallel but often diverge from the traditional reading experience from books.

We are entering a world of multi-modal literacy. It isn’t simply that texts are being digitized or distributed through the Internet; it’s that electronic formats are changing what we read (how we find and share content); how we read (which aspects of message or form we pay attention to, including images, sound, movies, and links); when we read (often in smaller snatches of time or in tandem with other activities and not so much in isolation); where we read (lots of places we wouldn’t or couldn’t open a book); and just how much we ingest and digest various texts, images, and sounds.

This week Apple used its media might to make a grand entrance into the ebook reader market with its iPad. The culture of e-reading has not yet had large adoption, but it has taken root very firmly. Those of us who have tried reading long-form literature from a desktop computer screen long ago dismissed the idea of a computing device becoming a first choice for pleasure reading, but the early adopters of ebooks with their Amazon Kindles started to change the tide. I read that a very large percentage of all books sold through Amazon books are sold as ebooks, wirelessly and instantly transmitted to the Kindle reader. And of course, that’s much of the charm of this kind of reading. It isn’t just that you have a portable device that can carry hundreds of books; it’s that you can download sample chapters and instantly buy books. Kindle has truly changed the game. (For additional thoughts, see “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write” from Steven Johnson of the Wall Street Journal).

The iPad ups the ante with its beautiful color screen and its coming iBook store, which will be seamlessly integrated into Apple’s media selling franchise on iTunes, now counting its downloads in billions. Apple’s is just the latest of a host of ebook readers now available. And with school districts pressed for cash looking to cut costs, we can anticipate that the e-textbook market will jumpstart the adoption of the e-reading culture. These devices promise interesting and novel uses of media integration. The Kindle has had an audio option that will read your book to you; lots of publishers are looking to integrate pictures, videos, and links into these ebooks. And the more that we all become accustomed to being networked and plugged in, the more antiquated any reading experience will be that does not include some kind of integration with web links and social media.

What has not yet appeared on ebook readers but is inevitable is social filtering and real-time recommendations. Imagine getting a notice on your tablet computing device that a certain friend or famous author is reading a certain book, RIGHT NOW, or learning that 15 people in your facebook circle of friends have all recommended a given novel that you haven’t touched yet. The social networks are already in place; there are services like Library Thing and Goodreads giving us social filters for books already. Amazon provides automated recommendations based on purchases and publicly available wishlists (here’s mine). It is very possible that in the near future the reason you buy that Kindle or iPad won’t be a preference for reading on a digital device per se, but a preference to be part of a socially mediated experience with reading that just isn’t as possible with physical books or book clubs (as enduring as these will remain for other purposes).

We will also see a big difference in the creation and distribution of texts, stories, and literature. Sure, the big publishers are reformatting for ebooks, and LDS publishers will follow suit sometime, but as the Kindle has already demonstrated, you can bypass the whole “literary industrial complex” (great phrase, Stephen Windwalker) and get your own works piped to those e-readers that are now making their way into millions of readers’ hands so quickly. Dang, you might even be able to steer at least a few readers to your stash of personal poetry. Who knows? E-readers aren’t going to operate like Web1.0 with its static archive of passive pages stuck in information cul-de-sacs. Content becomes more dynamic when tied to mobile devices and social networks. Mormons are very social types. Will their media be so, or more so, with the coming of e-book readers?

How do you think all these new modes of reading and writing, consuming and creating, will affect the way Mormons read and write or what they value as literature? Will it change what or when Mormons create and share or how they express themselves within or beyond LDS circles? Does the ebook close the distance between Mormon publishing and Mormon blogging? Does it make LDS film a closer cousin to LDS novels because they may be consumed in closer quarters? I’ll venture that the answer is not simply that we’ll see Deseret Book’s content reformatted for the Kindle or iPad (though that will be interesting). I’m guessing it’s going to mean a lot more than getting every copy of the Millennial Star or Women’s Exponent into an easily downloadable format, or reading the priesthood or Relief Society manual from a device. What do you predict?

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12 Responses to Electronic Age: How will ebooks change Mormon literary habits?

  1. Wm Morris says:

    I prefer more open formats than the iPad appears to support, but…

    A killer app for me would be an ongoing Mormon lit anthology on a particular topic or representing a particular literary school or editor I trust or whatever. One that you buy a subscription for (that’s, say, $4-8 a year) and that gets updated with 3-5 stories a year.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    That’s a great idea…..

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    It’s an exceptional idea, and represents a use of the medium that hasn’t been extensively tried. Sure, podcasts, news/rss feeds, and scheduled downloads are common, but the idea of a mediated digital magazine delivered as subscription content is really interesting.

    Of course the possibilities of rich media books becomes quite interesting as well. I’ve always loved the idea of a science fiction novel that provides true cross references to articles on the underlying technology, or literary reviews that reference not only relevant passages from the primary text but other reference works as well.

    For LDS doctrinal content the possibilities are endless–conference talks, forums, audio recordings, photos, etc. I use a simple LDS scriptures app for my iPod that gives me easy search and cross referencing, and have found even that small convenience to be an extraordinary aid in developing Sunday School lessons and supporting personal study.

    If I ever get my small publishing venture going, one of the areas I want to explore is ebook delivery, and this is certainly an avenue I would want to explore.

  4. All interesting questions.

    I do wonder whether our increasingly mediated reading habits will also give a new appeal to theatre, which is necessarily live and tied to physical space.

    One of my recommendations at the end of my tenure at New Play Project was to focus more on making online content available, perhaps producing more audio plays as podcasts, etc., instead of the more expensive and logistically complex undertaking of constant live theatre production. One of the primary responses from longtime NPP fans at the meeting was intense opposition to my proposal: a lot of people were drawn to NPP precisely because it fostered a live community, involved literal gathering, etc.

    I think new media will do important and interesting things for literacy. I wonder if one of those things is to strengthen forms that work most totally against it.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    What I find interesting are the pundits who claim that new media means the death of old media. Just as VCRs did not kill TV, DVD did not kill movies theaters, iTunes did not destroy the record industry, and neither MTV nor satellite radio replaced free-to-air local radio, ebooks will not destroy the need for or proliferation of printed books.

    To me it’s just another way of creating interest and distribution–put more copies in circulation and increase the opportunities for people to access the core work. If electronic distribution doubles the number of eyes who see my words (and I continue to receive a fair residual stream) at only a small incremental production cost, I win.

    Will it change some current assumptions about traditional media delivery? Of course. Media change shape constantly over time, buy media companies find ways to take a slice anyway. They’ll figure this one out, too (though it will take a decade or more to work out the kinks).

    On the idea James raises about erosion of live theater…I tend to believe that just as high fidelity media have not eliminated movie theaters, supplementary media will not meaningfully erode the market for live theater. One goes to a play not just to hear the words, but to enjoy the experience. No amount of supplementary media can satisfy that interest in the live event.

    In my experience the supplemental media provides the artist with additional bites at the same apple. I’ve seen the Blue Man Group show three times, taken my daughter to the concert tour, bought the album, and will buy the DVD of the concert tour I went to fairly soon. BMG got bites from me on four fronts instead of just one–and all for versions of the same basic 20-song set they do.

    Angels in America was the same way for me. I actually read the play first (prompted by discussion in AML media forums), then rented the DVD of the HBO production. I will likely see it live if time and opportunity permit. If not for the printed play I would never have engaged the property at all. In my case supplemental media only expanded my interest (and the total available market) for the work.

    I live outside the broadcast TV zone–in the mouth of a canyon about 50 miles from the primary transmitter, such that once everything went digital I lost the three and two-halves grainy analog stations I used to pull in despite distance and reflected signal off the mountains. I could get digital satellite, but I refuse to pay the exorbitant prices.

    I now watch more TV than ever before because I either download anime content from one of four fansub sites I visit regularly, I got to networks’ Web pages and catch time-delayed news broadcasts (alas, no local news since my local stations don’t make the local news available as streaming content–thank you, radio), or I watch Hulu to get time-delayed streams of broadcast show (complete with commercial interruptions).

    Last, I get the podcasts of the Church’s Great Speeches, Doctrine and Covenants roundtable, and Book of Mormon roundtable, and I listen to them while working on my computer–far more access and exposure than I ever had before, that’s led to far more active study than before.

    These alternate media created more hooks, more opportunities, and a more active engagement in the original content than the original media did for me. As a result, I often walk my way back along the food chain and pick up the printed works (or prerecorded media–just bought the Farscape series, Isis, Monty Python, and Evangelion, as well as the iTunes editions of the first season of Fringe), precisely because the echoes of those works reached out to me by alternate means and drew me back in.

    Initial forays into alternate media are always pale recreations of the original release, but with time the media evolve and new forms arise that extend the audience more than it shrinks it. Yes, some forms die off as new forms replace them. But that’s been happening all along, and won’t stop any time soon–yet we still have a rich media despite the death of some forms.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    I don’t think it’ll change Mormon reading habits until the Mormon market is thoroughly ingrained with the knowledge that [b]all[/b] LDS materials (DB, Covenant, WiDo, whoever) are all available electronically and in the formats their devices will read. Right now, the only thing the Mormon market knows are the ones the church provides and, as usual, they were at the front edge.

    Until consumers can go to Deseret Book and know they can get all the books in EPUB, MOBI/PRC, and PDB (at least), it won’t even cross their minds to look for it.

  7. Moriah Jovan says:

    Re the iBookstore: I am not impressed.

    The heir apparent to the title of "mp3 of ebooks" is the EPUB format. It’ll do. It’s not my favorite, but my favorite is falling out of favor fast.

    The DRM implications (plus the proposed pricing of the ebooks) of the iBookstore may hinder its adoption by ebook purchasers, if not cripple it. Readers who prefer ebooks want them WITHOUT DRM and with the ability to transfer to one device or another without regard to the maker of the device. Books from the iPad store won’t be able to do that.

    Neither does the Nook.

    Nor the Sony store.

    That is, the ones published by the big publishing houses, all of whom use a different DRM algorithm. For instance, EPUB books meant for Barnes & Noble can only be read on the Nook or Barnes & Noble’s special reading software for your computer. Ditto Sony, which is using yet another Adobe-built DRM scheme.

    People who get an iPad to read ebooks will choose the Stanza or Kindle application for the iPhone and continue to buy ebooks at a price point they can swallow, which Amazon has normalized at $9.99 for new and bestselling titles (and this is especially true since the weekends Macmillan versus Amazon fight–the battle that Macmillan won, but lost the war).

    As my mp3s can be read by any mp3 player (I don’t have an iPod; I have a Rio, and I have never bought a track from the iTunes store, though plenty from Amazon), a book from the iBookstore should be able to be read on any device, and as it stands now, that will not be the case.

    If Apple persists in the iBookstore schema, I expect that Amazon will do for ebooks what it did for music–where the publishers will allow them to. And as far as THAT goes, publishers despise ebooks and are fighting their adoption tooth and nail.

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    And not to put too fine a point on it, Apple’s just killed one of the big draws of using its products to read ebooks: http://www.techcrunch.com/2010/02/02/apple-stanza-usb/

    Simply, you can’t transfer your ebooks in any format from your computer to the device via USB. I can only assume this is their way to clear the path to lock down the iBookstore.

  9. Wm Morris says:

    Some quick follow up:

    1. Congratulations to Gideon on his photoshop skills. I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until now that I realized that the image wasn’t just a generic rendering of the iPad.

    2. I share Moriah’s concerns with the iBookstore.

    3. The economics of e-books and publishing are complicated and messy. What is clear, though, that under most of the models we are seeing, authors aren’t going to be much better (and may be worse) off than they are now. That’s partly the format’s fault (because it’s an electronic version the perception of its value goes down), but is even more the publishers and sellers fault. If I were an established author I’d fight low ebook prices (while fighting for a larger cut) and hope to milk the readers who buy hardbacks and trade paperbacks for as long as possible. If wasn’t an established author, I’d strongly consider self-publishing. In other words: the savings from the lower cost to produce ebooks are either going to be passed on to the consumer or going to be used to off-set lost income from lost hard/paper bound sales and thus go in to overhead. I assume it’ll be both. That’s going to suck for authors — especially mid-listers.

    4. I hate DRM not because I want to pirate books or make pirated books available, but because I want to be able to use an ebook across a variety of devices and even operating systems. I still by CDs for this very reason and the few times that I have bought music downloads, they have been from Amazon’s DRM-free MP3 store.

    5. The Mormon journals should strongly consider radical experimentation with ebooks/apps/other electronic delivery systems. The print journal product is going to continue to decrease in value and at an accelerated pace. Periodicals don’t have quite the same fetish associated with them as big hardbound novels (which I think will continue to sell well to a core group of book lovers in a few specific genres). Moreover, the value of a particular journal should be seen as its brand and base of subscribers rather than the final product and even the talent it has working for it. The organizations that have the most sophisticated ways of collecting, communicating and renewing members will have the easiest time rolling out products (and they’ll need to extend the product line beyond the core journal) that will add value to the core subscription and/or generate additional revenue.

  10. Wm Morris says:

    BTW, for those interested in tracking this conversation there are quite a few blogs and publications, but a good starting point is The Big Money’s blog Goodnight, Gutenberg: http://www.thebigmoney.com/blogs/goodnight-gutenberg

  11. This blog is devoted to all aspects of the ebook business.
    http://www.teleread.org/

    This eye-opening post is by an author who’s published the old way and the new:
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2009/10/kindle-numbers-traditional-publishing.html

  12. Very true. I’ve been studying audio scriptures (along with book-reading) since the mid 1990s, and I can attest to the power of listening to the scriptures. Some say that you lose something from that, but that’s not my experience. It almost feels more like you are hearing the original prophets speaking. It’s like listening to conference vs. reading. Both have great value, and both have advantages, but it’s very naive to suggest that listening to the scriptures is not studying them.

    I think the technology that makes reading available in multiple formats will improve the overall societal literacy. People will be much more well read than previous generations because they are able to listen while they work, exercise, walk, or drive, which couldn’t be done before audio was available.

    Good post.

    Chas

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