Why should people read more books?

Re-posted here from Medium for my own archives. Feel free to ignore.

I don’t know how many books I read last year. I probably could find out if I wanted to but I don’t particularly care. It isn’t important.

What I do know is that I read a lot of interesting and thought-provoking writing. I watched videos that changed my mind and my approaches to life. I listened to podcasts and other media that taught me new skills and opened up new perspectives. I learned. I discovered. I like to think that I’m a better person now than I was a year ago. Books, for the most part, weren’t involved.

Which gets me to the heart of my problem with Hugh McGuire’s “Why can’t we read anymore?”. It never questions whether it’s worth it. It never questions whether enacting the digital equivalent of hairshirt ascetism in order to read more books is worth the effort. It takes the moral judgement of the cultural elite as fact. It never asks whether the value a book gives you equals that of the social media and websites that you’re giving up. It just takes that as a given.

Most of what follows isn’t strictly speaking a response to Hugh’s piece. (Apologies, Hugh!) He is writing about his own habits in a constructive effort to improve his life, which is cool. However, his rhetoric and line of reasoning echo a strain of anti-digital elitism that I’d like to pick at. It’s a strain of bildungsphilister that is pervasive in publishing circles and sees books as an unalloyed good and social media as a corruption.

(I’m not going to link to those tracts. I’m linking to Hugh because I like him and agree with him on most other things. Just not in this particular case.)

O tempora! O mores!

The very least we can do is acknowledge the possibility that this worldview— books good, social media bad — may not be universally applicable. That the reason why many (not everybody, but definitely many) now read fewer books is that the web, social media, and apps give them more value, provide a better experience, and just generally have a bigger — more positive — effect on their life than books would.

For almost every adult reader, a website that couples text, video, and exercises is a better way to learn than reading a book. (Both trumped, of course, by having an actual mentor who both knows the subject and how to be a good mentor.) And the website remains better than a ‘enhanced’ ebook because it doesn’t have to be structured linearly, in chapters, or mimic the printed format in any way.

For almost every thinking voter, mid-length articles and commentary are more informative and more thought-provoking than books on the same subject.

And don’t try and sell me the idea that books can present more complex ideas or break free from the echo-chamber. Most ‘thinking’ books are padded to hell. Besides, nobody buys a book of political commentary unless they think it’s likely they will agree with it beforehand.

More importantly, once you become savvy to the craziness native to social media (which is everybody who practices social media regularly for more than a year or two), it becomes an excellent source of a low-level understanding about important events in other countries and places. I wouldn’t have a clue about what was going on in Baltimore at the moment if it weren’t for online activists posting information on Twitter and Tumblr. And Twitter brought to me this excellent interview with David Simon on the roots of Baltimore’s problems. The empathic awareness of the root and context of the important problems of our day that social media enables is impossible to do in a book.

All of this is assuming that people are curious, open-minded, and interested in learning, but if they aren’t there’s nothing books can offer that will fix it.

And if you’re in the habit of ignoring the people around you, don’t blame your tools.

That isn’t to say that social media has no downside. It definitely increases your exposure to idiocy and your vulnerability to abuse and harassment. But, just because one or two social platforms fail to address those problems, that isn’t a reason to abandon the ideas of the web, social media, or apps in their entirety.

The neuroscience sidebar

From Hugh’s piece:

So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh, dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.

This piece in general isn’t directed towards Hugh’s post but I always get a bit twitchy when people bring neuroscience into a sociocultural debate.

(I may be a bit touchy on this specific issue since dopamine production is at the heart of Parkinson’s, which my grandfather died of, so YMMV.)

Other people have covered dopamine myths better than I ever can, but here are some highlights.

  • Dopamine doesn’t seem to have anything to do with pleasure, enjoyment, or liking things. Mice unable to produce dopamine still seem to enjoy their sugared water.
  • Dopamine seems to be involved in the learning process and seems to kick in when you expect to learn something new or rewarding.
  • Dopamine seems to kick in more strongly when the rewards are less predictable.
  • Dopamine seems to play a key role in motivation or feeling the need to do something, which explains why it’s so often brought up in ‘I’m addicted to the internet’ pieces.

So, at face value it might seem plausible that excess dopamine compels us to check social media even though we don’t enjoy it.

The problem with this kind of pearl-clutching is that the brain simply does not work that way. You simply cannot boil complex behaviour down to a single neurotransmitter or a single centre of the brain, especially not behaviours as complex as social communication, language, or social interaction. The brain is a complex system of interacting clusters and chemicals of various sorts that involve the body, our senses, and our environment in ways that we still don’t fully understand.

Blaming our behaviours on dopamine or the neurotransmitter du jour is insulting to us because it removes our agency. It assumes that the only reason we continue to engage with the web and social media is because we feel compelled to do so by a chemical — that we are not responsible for the decisions that take us to the web. Unfortunately for this line of rhetoric, we are not slaves to our hormones or our neurotransmitters. If you do something you do not like, you have only yourself to blame and need to take it up with your therapist. Do not blame a wayward chemical.

Hugh again:

There is a famous study of rats, wired up with electrodes on their brains. When the rats press a lever, a little charge gets released in part of their brain that stimulates dopamine release. A pleasure lever.

Given a choice between food and dopamine, they’ll take the dopamine, often up to the point of exhaustion and starvation. They’ll take the dopamine over sex. Some studies see the rats pressing the dopamine lever 700 times in an hour.

We do the same things with our email. Refresh. Refresh.

He’s referring to this 1954 study.

This particular comparison, that a person’s email habit is like that of a rat stimulating electrodes in its brain, is bullshit for a variety of reasons.

  1. There is no such thing as a ‘dopamine centre’ in the brain. A part that stimulates dopamine release has a multiplicity of roles. Stimulating it is a brute force activation of a set of complex interlocking systems. It is not the controlled release of a single neurotransmitter.
  2. That a rat with no alternate form of stimulation would resort to pushing a lever that stimulates its brain artificially tells us nothing about human behaviour. It doesn’t even tell us anything about rat behaviour since we don’t know if it would make the same choices if it had a healthier alternative source of stimulation.
  3. It assumes that the choices we have made in the past have little to no bearing on where we are today, that unless we resort to guilt-driven self-discipline and asceticism, the attraction of ‘dopamine’ rewarders like social media or the web is literally irresistible.

We do not behave like rats in a cage. Hell, rats in general don’t behave like rats in a cage. And, again, drawing conclusions about human behaviour in general based on a specific study of rats with electrodes in specific parts of their brains is dodgy at best.

(Another thing about trade publishing — the lot responsible for the books Hugh is writing about and hoping to read more of: they are incredibly bad at accurately representing current scientific research.)

Veering away from Hugh’s post, back into the main topic

Instead of assuming that we only engage in social media because we can’t help ourselves, what about assuming that we use it because we like it?

After all, it’s plausible that an animal as social as the human being would prefer social interaction over a cognitively tasking solitary activity with dubious rewards, even to the degree of preferring bad social interactions over the alternative.

That’s actually very plausible.

Just because we dislike some parts of Twitter, to use a minority platform as an example, that doesn’t prevent us from liking the rest of it, enjoying it so much that we hang on in the hopes that it will improve, rather than to give it up. We can like something and dislike it, both at the same time. We’re complicated like that.

Why don’t we start with the assumption that social media and the web are taking over because people actually enjoy them and go from there? People generally like people and having them on tap in a context that you can turn on and off at will just increases the attraction and utility. Why isn’t the onus on those who want to promote book reading to show that books are more enjoyable, more useful, and more relevant than social media, apps, and the web?

Because they generally aren’t, that’s why. Because most people in publishing are beset by the horrifying suspicion that books simply aren’t competitive with other media, that’s why. They know they’d lose that argument. For your average consumer, books are a worse learning environment, less fun, less rewarding, and less relevant to their day to day lives than almost any other alternative.

The implication is that if we don’t guilt or scare people out of social media and into reading books, they will overwhelmingly choose not to read books.

Which is probably true. With good reason.

The sheer variety boggles

Books are predominantly neurotypical, straight, white, male, and middle-class. Most people aren’t. The publishing industry responsible for making books is incredibly homogenous.

Social media gives us direct access to people who are like us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re queer, on the spectrum, a person of colour, female, or poor, you are much more likely to find your experience, your life, your needs represented and addressed in social media and on the web than in books.

Most people have a pretty good reason for not reading more books. The books we publish aren’t for them, but by and for a bunch of middle-class white men who think their tastes should rule the world.

If you don’t fit into a shape that publishing assumes represents all of humanity, the books that speak directly to you are relegated to a segregated ghetto of either a tiny selection of titles intended for your particular ‘minority’ or titles that have that ever so pervasive aftertaste of bitter moral panic.

After all, if publishing started to represent us and people like us, then we might start thinking that we’re normal. And that wouldn’t be good for society now would it?

Don’t fix people, fix books

If you think that book reading should be a mainstream activity, one that’s performed by a majority of the population, then you don’t accomplish that by assuming that everybody is broken and needs to be fixed.

Don’t assume that social media has no real world value.

Don’t assume that the web is inherently inferior to books.

Don’t try to guilt people into abandoning media that has enriched their lives and broadened their horizons more than books ever could.

Don’t blame it on a neurochemical.

Whatever you do, for Christ’s sake don’t slap a bunch of animations, video, and crap scroll-jacking effects on your ebooks and call it a day.

Instead we need to fix books. And fixing them isn’t a question of technology. Otherwise they’d already be fixed.

Fixing book means making them truly diverse. It means making both the people who write books and those who publish them more diverse.

Fixing books means making them more immediate and quicker to publish.

Fixing books means making the industry around it less conservative and less reactionary.

Fixing books means making them more accessible — not just in terms of screen-reading but also in terms of their writing and design.

Fixing books means not marginalising the magnificent plurality of the English language. It means publishing books in all of the various Englishes in all of their class, race, regional, and national varieties.

Why don’t people read more books? Because most books aren’t for them.

If we want people to read more books we need to make books for them. Until publishing does, we in publishing have no right to complain.

How is taxing ebooks as print books supposed to work?

Re-posted here from Medium for my own archives. Feel free to ignore.

It’s a popular stance among publishers that they and their industry are a gentle sprinkle of special snowflakes and that their software (i.e. ebooks) should be taxed at a lower VAT rate than other software (i.e. websites or any other kind of digital file).

They’ve managed to wrangle several EU member countries to their cause:

According to the four ministers, to foster innovation and secure the future of Europe’s e-publishing, technology-neutral regulations must be clearly asserted at the European level. The declaration was signed by France’s Fleur Pellerin, Italy’s Dario Franceschini, Poland’s Malgorzata Omilanowska, and Germany’s Monika Grutters.

The problem is that defining all digital media as services is exactly what a technology-neutral regulation looks like. All digital content has the same VAT. Nobody has clearly outlined how you can define ebooks as special without discriminating against other digital media, other methods of publishing digitally, other digital textual media, or the various kinds of self-publishers.

So, how is it supposed to work?

Software, ebooks, digital video and audio, and websites are all defined in terms of EU tax law to be digital services.

To those who want to lower VAT on ebooks but not on digital media in general, how do you propose to decide which is which?

Pelican Books online ebooks, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Directly sold PDFs like Amy Hoy’s JFS, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Single book app like Joseph Albers’ Interaction of Color, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Literary games and apps like Frankenstein or 80 Days, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Web-based subscription sold ebooks like digLloyd’s Advanced Photography, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Oyster book subscriptions, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Safari Books Online which offers ebooks, audio books, and online video courses, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Digital audio books, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

An ebook that embeds a video documentary, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

An ebook that is nothing more than annotations on a radio documentary series, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

A non-linear hypertext delivered as a bundle of HTML files in a zip file, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

An image, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

How about a series of images in a zip file with minimal metadata, like a CBZ comic book, is that a high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

If you define low VAT ebooks as a specific file format (epub, mobi, PDF) what about all of the other formats, past present and future? What would the process be to get a format ‘certified’ for lower VAT? Make it too flexible and you might as well lower the VAT across the board. Make it too rigid and you’re killing innovation in digital publishing.

If you define low VAT ebooks as text-oriented files sold by specific vendors, how is that not anti-competitive discrimination? How would a vendor or self-publisher get ‘certified’ for lower VAT?

If you define low VAT ebooks as those with an ISBN (which in many countries cost money) how is that not anti-competitive discrimination against self-publishing or web-based subscription services offering exactly the same content but in an entirely different format?

If you define low VAT ebooks as something other than services — as a virtual pseudo-object unlike all other digital media — how do you propose to handle the licensing that is a mandatory part of today’s ebook retail? (Hint: nobody buys an ebook; we all only get licenses for the ebooks we buy and all of that licensing legalese is based on the concept of ebooks as a service.)

What would the buyer’s statutory consumer rights be? Because if you can’t treat ebooks as a service for VAT, you can’t bloody well treat them as a service in terms of consumer rights or licensing.

What do you do with what are clearly services (e.g. subscription sites) but deliver ebook formats?

What happens when all of the answers to all of these questions end up being different for each and every EU member state? EU VAT is already a complex mess and you want to make it even messier, even harder to deal with, even more difficult for companies and individuals to deal with?

How is this idea supposed to work?

(Of course, I think a separate and lower ebook VAT is a bad idea even if you do get it to work because it’s fundamentally backwards and reactionary — a de facto state subsidy of a stagnant industry. But that’s an entirely different topic that deserves its own blog post.)

Software as strategy in the ebook world

The other day I storified a bunch of tweets by Alan Cooper on the strategic role of software in business.

Here’s the first half of it. You should go and read the rest.

All business activities that used to be strategic are now hygienic. Today, all that is strategic is software. Activities that make money aren't strategic. Activities that affect a company’s ability to make money in the future are strategic. Where is the leverage? That's what is "strategic." Only software provides significant leverage in business today. If your office lacks electricity or wifi, nobody shows up and nothing gets done. But neither electricity nor wifi are strategic. (Alan Cooper – https://storify.com/fakebaldur/software-and-strategy)

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Ebooks suck for learning

On Twitter earlier I said this here thing:

There’s an implicit assumption in publishing commentary that the trajectory of media evolution (books, ebooks, websites, apps) is a known. That the long-term effects, drawbacks, & benefits of each medium will follow a predetermined path towards its manifest destiny. That ebook apps are as good as they'll ever be and will never integrate what research is discovering about learning and memory. That apps will always play the roles they play today. That websites will never reach beyond their current niche, except maybe into apps.

These assumptions are all unsafe. Ebook apps are a young and unformed species. The future of web and app dev is dynamic and changing.

What's more, the publishing industry isn't in charge of this evolution except insofar as it can sabotage ebooks with its misconceptions.

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So I had to make an ebook cover…

Making ebook covers is a relatively new task for designers and there haven’t exactly been many lengthy discussions on the topic. If there were any lengthy discussions I completely missed them which is entirely unsurprising. (I was probably too busy watching videos on Youtube of dogs running into walls and cats falling off furniture.)

I didn’t think of googling “how to make an ebook cover” until last week and my first advice is don’t buy a book about designing ebook covers if the book in question has an ugly cover. It’s just good sense. Otherwise googling ebook covers is good fun and I highly recommend it.

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So long, Readmill, and thanks for all the fish

I wish it had gone differently. I don’t fault Readmill for selling at this point. They did excellent work.

I’ve previously gone on record about my enthusiasm for their platform. (Which reminds me, I need to do a followup to that post, Kindle for iOS has improved dramatically.) Unlike most other firms designing ebook readers, Readmill understood that all of the typographic variables are interconnected. Unlike others, their defaults were beautiful to read.

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The print design mentality

Screen design isn’t print design and will never be print design, no matter how high the screen’s resolution gets.

Digital design needs to account for a level of changeability and dynamism that print has never had to deal with. The interaction model of print is embodied in the book object and not in the on-page design. The interaction model of digital has to be accounted for in the screen design itself and functionality needs to be specifically designed.

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Book contracts

Normally, whenever Don tweets anything I just nod my head in agreement and move on.

My response to this tweet, however, was more ambivalent because it seems to imply that we shouldn’t be complaining about unfair standard practices in the publishing industry.

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The ebook as an API

(This is the eighth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

The problem many publishers are facing is that their titles need to be reused in a variety of contexts.

Book apps are very unfashionable at the moment but there is a brisk trade in small, fairly cheap, and functional apps based on book content, where the content is often licensed by a small app development outfit from a small publishing outfit or book packager. These range from military history apps, to children’s apps, to travel guides and in many ways are prototypical Content Development Kits like I described in an earlier post.

Then we have a variety of web and app gateways popping up that sell access to ebooks on a subscription basis, either directly to consumers or to libraries or other educational establishments.

The source format for these apps is often an EPUB version of the title and this is, in the cases I know, the source of a lot of problems and complications. The structure of the EPUB doesn’t tell the app developer where to hook the functionality of their app into the title’s content. This means that the app developers have to spend considerable time adapting and editing the text of the title and its structure. In some cases they have to spend more time on pulling structured text out of a crap EPUB than on the development of the app itself.

For most large publishers they see development as the single biggest cost of creating apps from their titles. This is because they are focusing on the digital equivalent of a tent-pole blockbuster movie. Small publishers and small app developers tend to focus on smaller scale apps with a much bigger emphasis on code reuse. For them, anything that cannot be automated is a liability and a cost centre.

You can think of a structured ebook file as an API. Most existing ebooks don’t need any API capabilities. A novel benefits little from it.

Reference books, however, gain immense value from becoming detailed and functional APIs in the digital space.

A reference book that is the source of only one or two concurrent editions in print can be the content source for hundreds, if not thousands of apps. A classic example being the dictionary services built into Mac OS X and iOS.

Any reference title can be a similar source provided that its content has been made available as an API.

Unfortunately, we don’t have many formats or tools that make this easy, making a lot of these services custom jobs.


Stop. Go back. Reread. Can you tell what the big problem is with what I wrote above? The idea that publishers could benefit from turning their titles into well structured ebooks—files that can serve as APIs—has a fatal flaw:

Only certain kinds of books have the internal structure that suits this purpose. Books that can be mapped onto a database structure (e.g. reference books) work perfectly. Structured non-fiction tends to work well. Anything that has a story less so.

Even the most structured dictionary or reference book is still not flexible enough to really suit the purposes of app, web, and interactive media developers. They need more. They need content that is adaptive.

What they need are structured projects that offer enough variety in their fabric to adapt to varying devices and context. Instead of single length chapters you need entries that have full-length, abridged, even more abridged, and tweetable versions of the chapter’s content. You need the chapter’s full title, tweetable title, display title (if different). Every chapter needs descriptions of varying lengths (like the chapter’s content). Do that for every chapter in the project, mark it up so that it’s usable, and you’ve got the beginnings of something really flexible.

Adaptive content

What this means is quit thinking that what you are doing is designing and creating for the final presentation. You’re not in the business of making brochures. You’re not in the business of mobile applications. You’re not in the business of making web pages. You are in the business of making content and structuring that content so that it’s presentation independent, so you can get it out onto whatever device or platform you want to. (Karen McGrane – Uncle Sam Wants You to Optimise Your Content For Mobile)

Adaptive content—making things work for mobile, web, desktop, apps, tablets—is not just a design problem but an authorship, business, and editorial problem.

A large content library is not an asset in this context but a liability. It’s an ossified monolithic resource when you are surrounded by small and nimble players using small and flexible resources. The individual smaller players do not represent a threat—most of them are more likely to fail than not—but as a whole they do. Where each one may only address a tiny sliver of your back catalogue’s target market, they do so with content that is more flexible than yours because they had to start from scratch. Or, they have had the time and focus to adapt it by hand because their survival depends on this one title, which is a level of attention you can’t give to tens of thousands of titles.

As a collected whole, the smaller web players, self-publishers, three person publishing houses, indie app developers, and the like, are much more likely to be able to properly leverage the advantages of digital publishing than a large publishing mega-conglomerate. Publishers approach each edition as something that demands a unique design, custom editing, and detailed work to adapt the title’s content to that editions particular form. This isn’t scalable, neither in terms of labour or cost.

Adaptive content is essential when we face a plurality of devices. Having a ‘mobile content’ strategy means that you are just making the same dumb mistakes again because there will be other platforms in the future, and if your content isn’t readily adaptable you’re just going to face the exact same problems again that you are facing now with the mobile transition.

Not to mention the fact that you are opting out of a revenue stream from licensing your catalogue to various developers.

Your existing non-fiction titles are flies caught in amber. They exist only as evidence of a single evolutionary context, incapable of adapting or changing to survive in a new one. Because of the costs and work involved in making an extensive back catalogue adaptive, it becomes a liability when competing with a host of smaller outfits starting from scratch.