How Technology Is (and Isn’t) Changing Our Reading Habits
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.
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.
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.
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?
What will be the fate of physical bookstores? And what do you think about Amazon’s bookstores?
Indie bookstores have made a surprising comeback in recent years (a trend that might be connected to the resurgence of print books). A lot of independent stores have been so successful that they’ve expanded into mini-chains.
The future of Barnes & Noble looks uncertain, and the company has suffered setbacks after a few disastrous strategies. It made a huge and, in retrospect, unwise investment in digital hardware and its Nook device, and then tried to become more of a general-interest gift and toy and books store, which probably alienated some of its core customers. Lately, it has tried smaller concept stores, with cafes with food and wine and beer. There was some snickering online after its new chief executive announced that its latest strategy was to focus on selling … books. Snickering aside, I think it’s the smartest thing the company can do. In many parts of the country, Barnes & Noble is the only place people can buy books, and it’s still a beloved brand.
Amazon’s entry into the physical retail space has been fascinating. I’m not sure how successful the experiment has been. When I visited the Amazon bookstore at New York’s Columbus Circle, it definitely felt like a device store that also sold books. The store even looks like a 3-D version of the website, with book covers facing out and curated sections that reflect what’s popular with Amazon’s customers. But they’re expanding rapidly across the country, so something must be working.
I’ll be curious to see how Indigo Books, the Canadian chain, will do here next year when it expands into the United States. Maybe it will shake up the model.
Outside your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with?
I am, my family would confirm, not great with gadgets. It would be fair to say that I’m actively bad with them. I’m wary of some of the new home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, not necessarily because I’m paranoid about my conversations being recorded — Amazon and Google already know everything about me — but because my kids would likely be yelling at the devices all the time, and the Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande songs would play in an endless loop.
I have become a podcast junkie. I found The Daily to be habit forming. My other go-tos are Planet Money (disclosure: my husband is a reporter there), The New York Times Book Review podcast (where I sometimes appear), Longform, the New Yorker Radio Hour and some of the shows from Gimlet Media, like StartUp and Reply All. (Heavyweight, Jonathan Goldstein’s show, is hilarious and engrossing.)
What tech is popular with your family?
The one app that’s popular with the whole family is this Japanese game Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector. You buy virtual presents for these cartoon cats, which come and go as they please, and the cats leave you fish. You can’t really control the cats or win in any way. Just like with real cats, I suppose.