Books are losing the war for our attention. Here’s how they could fight back.


The joy of reading books has become less common. (Hannibal Hanschke/EPA)

Technology has reshaped everything from how we communicate to how we find a mate or a job. Yet the experience of reading books remains largely untransformed, and the popularity of books has suffered in the face of flashier media formats that are perfected for our busy world.

The number of non-book readers has tripled since 1978. And e-books aren’t saving the day. According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales were flat or in decline for most of 2013.

What’s happening to books? They’ve contained a wealth of human knowledge for generations. Books such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Jungle” have helped inspired movements and advanced human culture. But books struggle to compete with new forms of media that better grab our attention. Our smartphones and tablets chirp or vibrate when we receive e-mails and text messages. Notifications from social networks and apps force their way onto our devices through pop-up notifications. As books sit silently on shelves, our culture risks having great voices and ideas drowned out.

“The form that is long-form text, a couple hundred pages of words has been well-honed by humans over the course of centuries,” said Russ Grandinetti, vice president of Amazon Kindle content. “There are things that you can learn in a novel or in a well-written biography that you can’t learn from a movie or learn the same way. That’s why the form has evolved the way that it has.”

Books can still open our eyes to a world of knowledge, but their reserved nature hurts them.

“Most people walk around with some kind of device or have access to some kind of device that allows them to choose how to use their time,” Grandinetti said. “In a world with that much ubiquitous choice, books need to continue to evolve to compete for someone’s time and interest.”

Our current notion of a digital book may be too close to that of a physical book. The modern struggles of books and e-books suggests we need more reinvention to retain readers. But how?

One possibility would be to integrate more multimedia into e-books, which don’t offer the same dynamic story-telling as HTML and Web sites. There aren’t e-books being published that capture the blend of prose, photos, videos and graphics that we saw in The New York Times Snow Fall project.

For masterpieces that have already been written, embracing multimedia isn’t a solution. Plato’s “Republic” or the collected works of Shakespeare can’t be sexed up with digital graphics and short videos. But Spritz could help them.

Spritz is a Boston-based start-up devoted to making reading easier and faster. Its focus is on-the-go reading. Words flash rapidly, which helps hold the attention of readers. Our eyes are naturally drawn to movement and change. Plus, because words are flashing faster than the rate most people read at, we should all be able to get more reading done.

“We’re all pressed for time because it’s an information overload,”  said Spritz founder and CEO Frank Waldman, who only finds the time to read books while flying. “The reason people aren’t reading e-books is because they’re so busy reading e-mails or catching up on the news.”

He compares Spritz to the lack of distractions running on a treadmill offers vs. being outside.

“You go out on the road and you have to watch out for road conditions, weather conditions. It’s up and downhill and much harder to do,” Waldman said. “When reading on the printed page, I feel distracted by all the others things around it. I have to swipe and swipe and swipe. It’s not as easy as settling in and having words stream to brain.”

Waldman describes Spritz’s use of the optimal recognition point as the company’s secret sauce (it’s the red letter you see in the demo video above). Words are positioned on the Spritz display so that the optimal recognition point remains steady, so our eyes never have to move. Waldman points to a 2005 research paper, which said for languages that read from left to right, the optimal viewing position is between the beginning and middle of the word. The positioning of words means time isn’t wasted scanning for the optimal recognition point of the next word to be read.

In limited testing, Spritz has found comprehension isn’t negatively affected at up to 400 words per minute. For people who struggle to find time to read books, Spritz could be a game-changer. At 400 words a minute, the “Catcher in the Rye” could be read in three hours and four minutes.

So far the response to Spritz has been generally very positive. Spritz has had 20,000 people register to receive its software development kit. It doesn’t plan to release its own app. At some point, it plans to charge users a fee along the lines of WhatsApp, which chargers $0.99 a year after a year of use.

Time will tell if it can turn the tide on the rise of non-book readers.

 

[Disclosure: Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.]

 

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland · March 18