Understanding What Readers Want

Kassia Krozser

Posted filed under Experience.
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I don’t remember learning to read, but I clearly remember the day I learned I could read. I was entrusted with a note for my lovely kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hicks. The note asked that I be excused from school for a doctor’s appointment. As I – quite possibly for the first time in my life – read something I shouldn’t have, I discovered something that made me the person I am today: a reader.

The words on the note were not individual items. I mean they were, but the words, placed in a particular order and accented by punctuation, conveyed a message. They told a story. Granted, the story being told was one of torture and pain (one must read between the lines) because an evil doctor was going to insert a thin, sharp needle filled with who-knows-what into a little girl’s body. Happy ending: lollipop for being brave!

You couldn’t – you can’t – stop me from reading.

I’ve been reading digital books since 1998. The last print book I bought was This Charming Man by Marian Keyes. I bought it at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I was staying at a hotel right across the street, and I could not resist the lure of paying a higher price to obtain a book I couldn’t yet get in the United States. Also, I am addicted to buying books. Since I switched to ebooks, doing so has become even simpler. Link from Twitter, buy the book, read the book, be happy.

I am an author’s and publisher’s dream. If you are a certain type of author and a certain type of publisher. I read, mainly, fiction.

Okay, that is not true. It’s not true at all. For pleasure, I read mainly fiction. In reality, I read news, email, contracts, news, Twitter, Facebook (sigh), news. All day long. I read constantly. I read so much during the day that I, yes, take a break by watching “Breaking Bad.” Or sometimes “Walking Dead.” Or just really bad television. Even I need a break from reading sometimes. A short break.

I am also, I am sorry to say, an exception to the reading rule. I read a lot, I read constantly, I read multiple books simultaneously. Readers like me define torture as “being without a book.” We can be hanging from a cliff by our fingernails, but as long as we have a book, we’re cool.

Unfortunately, most people don’t break out in hives if they don’t have reading material tucked away in their pockets, purses, cars, desks, bathroom drawers…. Most people buy less than five books per year (U.S. readers, I should note). I buy at least that many in a month.

What Do You Mean By ‘Reading’?

If you are a member of the digital publishing circuit, you develop a jaded attitude toward the latest studies and breathless headlines (or, at least, I hope you do). Others, not so much. Just a few weeks ago, we endured much hand-wringing over the notion that girls — those stalwarts of the reading world! — were reading less. Civilization, as we know it, was surely coming to an end.

This same study, to the surprise of nobody, found that most U.S. children have never read an ebook. The horror!

Whenever I encounter studies like this, my first (and only) reaction is “define your terms”. What do we mean when we say “read”?

Right now, I am reading Twitter. I am writing this piece. I am reading email. I am multi-tasking, with reading — always reading – at the center of my day. When I’m out in the world, I observe kids reading and writing obsessively. Now, it may not be your idea of proper reading (or proper writing), but it is reading and writing. I believe today’s kids read and write more than any generation before.
I think we tend to define terms like reading to suit our own beliefs. I certainly am guilty of this. Way too guilty.

At a long-ago dinner party, a new acquaintance was razzing an old friend rather cruelly, “But you don’t even read books.” My friend, who prefers audiobooks for various reasons, had, earlier in the conversation, described how he and his oldest daughter had listened to the Harry Potter books. In my mind, this counts as reading a book. Some of my favorite memories of my mother come from the months she read King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to the four of us while we ate dinner.

I’ve read those KING ARTHUR stories, but maybe not all of them with my own eyes, and not in the way that some pundits define ‘reading’. Think about it: when a blind reader chooses audio or Braille are they ‘not reading’? Why do we insist that one type of reading is superior to another?

Likewise, who are we to say important news conveyed to a reader in 140 characters is less important than news conveyed in 500 words? Or text messages between two friends are inferior to chatty letters of days gone by? Is a story written by a teenage girl and posted online necessarily worse than something published by Penguin?

It is very important that we do not define ‘reading’ by our own standards. It is very important that we broaden our definition of reading, as reading itself shifts and changes, because real readers are rapidly creating their own definitions of ‘reading’.

So Who Are You Targeting?

Readers are not all the same. This is surely as obvious to you as it is to me. Yet there is a sense of an idealized reader, someone I call the Platonic Reader. He (though in the real world, it is more likely “she”) reads the best of the best of current (literary) releases with perhaps a smattering of high-brow non-fiction. He attends book signings on a weekly basis. He participates in literary discussions and, if we are lucky, poetry slams. He personifies the New York Times bestseller list — a list that is notoriously, rigorously skewed. Think about it: some NYT “bestsellers” have only moved 5,000 units. Some have sold even fewer.

This Platonic Reader only exists in marketing meetings. Remember this.

Real readers are messy people with messy lives. I noted the friend who only reads audiobooks. What I’ve discovered is there are many readers like this in my world. So often they are mothers with full-time jobs. Mothers blessed with annoyingly long Los Angeles commutes. Our lack of widespread public transportation means we so often spent two, three hours a day alone. Locked in the loving cocoon that is our car.

We have some choices to help entertain us while we sit still on the freeway: godawful radio, public radio, our own music, silence, long phone conversations with friends and family, audiobooks. I am proud that so many I call friends choose the audiobook option.

Then there are vacation readers. They fall into three categories. The first surely warms any publisher or author’s heart: they choose from the current bestsellers, somewhat randomly. The second category? This reader grudgingly, somewhat angrily chooses a book from the shelves, something they feel they have to read. Vacation is as good a time as any to suffer through this book. Then there is the final group. This reader borrows something from a friend or sister, a ‘vacation read’.

The emerging reader, be it a child or someone learning to read for the first time, is a wide-open reading class. I mentioned above there is a perception that most children have never read an ebook. Is this really true? Do we have a real definition of ebook? I can assure you my two-year old niece is devouring ebooks, only they are more along the lines of animated picture books with sounds. Her mother doesn’t consider them ebooks, but her grandmother and I certainly recognize the species for what it is.

I believe the biggest opportunity for creativity in reading will come in the children’s book sector. There isn’t much the industry can do for a reader like me, a reader who lives and breathes linear narrative text (call it traditional fiction). Make a better e-Ink device. Make books cross-platform so I can transition between devices without missing so much as a semi-colon. Make prices better. Make proofreading a priority. For me, it’s all about improving on what already exists.

For my niece’s generation, a generation growing up with amazing technology (and the ability to use it seemingly encoded in their DNA), what we find ground-breaking, they will find normal. Just like color TV. Or iPods. They won’t see books in the same way we do; this is not to say they won’t devour narrative fiction or non-fiction with great zeal.

The readers closest to my heart, for so many reasons, are those who have some sort of a disability. So much of what is discussed when it comes to reading and accessibility focuses on blind or vision-impaired readers, and, as I grow older, I quite understand this focus. However, consider the mobility-impaired reader. This reader, who may suffer from arthritis or the loss of limbs, may be physically unable to manage the seemingly simple act of turning pages.

Years ago, when the controversy over the Amazon Kindle’s Text-to-Speech functionality emerged, I was flabbergasted. Truly. While the Author’s Guild – an organization I often find at odds with its rank-and-file membership – blustered about audiobooks and rights and whatnot, I kept saying, “This is an accessibility issue.” Granted, the TTS functionality was rudimentary — anyone who has ever worked with blind readers know they “read” at a speed that leaves the fastest sighted reader in awe — it was a great boon for those with vision problems. Not to mention those readers with learning disabilities. Sometimes, the idiocy of entrenched thinking makes me want to punch holes in walls. Usually common sense wins out.

(I should mention at this point another use of TTS that is widely overlooked: some parents use it as a tool for reading to their children or helping their children learn to read.)

The deaf reader must also be considered — especially for those authors and publishers who, smartly, see multi-media as the right way to tell a story.

What Readers Want

Each person who reads something does so with one purpose: to get something out of it. For me, it is a good story, important information, and/or the answer to one of life’s pressing questions (example: what time is it in Singapore right now?). I think this is true for just about every other reader I’ve ever encountered.

Once upon a time, we relied mainly on booky-books to achieve our goals. Now we rely on a variety of sources, some more sound than others. Yes, books, but also random articles on the Internet. Complete strangers on the Internet. Good friends on the Internet. Carefully targeted Google searches. Rumors.

What readers want – really, really want – is content that makes sense to them. We don’t want to buy an entire book on the history of electrical lighting to learn how to change a lightbulb. We want a chapter, a section, an illustrated how-to guide. We’re happy to pay for this information…as long as the price makes sense in the context of what we’re getting!

Readers want quality. Yes, we may abuse the English language (or any other language!) horribly in our private and semi-private communications (I am at war with spellings like “nite” and “realz”), but we know quality from junk. We notice bad conversions in ebooks. I have a habit of highlighting conversion errors in my Kindle books. And I am not alone. It’s a sad commentary on the state of digital publishing that I can open a book and discover 101 other readers have highlighted the same error I noted.

We also want good metadata. I joke that no reader is out there saying “give me some of that good metadata”, but this is what readers want. Metadata is data about data. It’s the least sexy part of the publishing culture, and it is the most critical part of publishing culture. Metadata includes a work’s title, the author, the publisher, the ISBN, the genre, when published, description, awards, format, and every other thing you can think up to describe the book. All of this metadata combines to connect readers with your work. It tells those readers why this particular story or article or book is important to them.

It’s the little things, like linked table of contents and indices. It’s the big things like accurate descriptions of what a book is about…not some weird, clever cover copy that doesn’t give me a true picture of the story. There is a big difference between a “romance novel” and a “Regency romance”. There is a further difference between a serious war story and a light-hearted comedy.

Publishing possesses the capability to offer so much more information about a book, from specific descriptions to comparisons to like-minded authors to awards bestowed. I recently read a Twitter exchange between a publisher and a (ebook) retailer where it was made clear that metadata updates can be made daily. Think about the power you have to get more information — better, more useful, smart information — to readers!

Readers also want a world without friction (seriously, we’d much rather keep wars between the pages of books!). For us, this means the ability to shift seamlessly between devices and books. This is largely happening, but we’d be even happier if the world settled on a single standard (stink eye toward Amazon right now – whose Kindle-only format restricts ebooks purchased from Amazon to Kindle devices only; this anti-reader approach makes me crazy because I want my books available to me in a universal, open format). Maybe we want print and digital bundles, but probably we don’t. For most books.

Finally, we would like a world where publishers, authors, app developers, reading system developers, and parties I haven’t mentioned consider the end user, the reader, rather than the perspective of the publisher/author. We want to know what’s in it for us. Think of my text-to-speech example above. Think about the disastrous introduction of so-called enhanced ebooks into the marketplace. Some were augmented with what can only be described as marketing materials (seriously, you want me to pay more for an interview with the author?). Others simply made no sense (I like Vook as a company, but some of the early experiments done by publishers were ill-conceived).

The truth was nobody knew what readers wanted, but it was clear they didn’t want what publishers were offering. Yet, as is obvious to all, the web and app worlds are filled with examples of people giving readers “enhanced” content they want and need. Now the book world needs to figure out how to do this with content that formerly only occupied booky-books.

So often I encounter a lauded new publishing start-up, something that will change how we read or discover books. So often I note an excess of publishing-speak, while at the same time, a lack of a clear purpose for readers. The selling point for new publishing ventures should not outline why it’s great for publishers (hey, we’ll save your YOU from piracy!), it should be all about how readers will benefit! Sure you want publishers involved, but if it turns off readers….

Unless you are only marketing to publishers. They read books, too. Readers outside of publishing will be fine, you know. They’ll find what they want, at the price they want, in the format they want, on the device they want. No worries there.

Readers are like water, they will find their own way.

Kassia Krozser, publisher of Booksquare.com, covers the intersection of technology and publishing. She serves on advisory boards for several publishing start-ups, presents at conferences such as Tools of Change for Publishing, Digital Book World, and South by Southwest, has appeared on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and contributes to various industry publications.

www.booksquare.com