The Digitalisation of Reading (and Writing)

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Image from Flickr by Poldavo (Alex)

Computers are changing the way we read – and the way we write.

Paper books and publications tend to belong to one reader (though some are held in libraries). They’re damaged by annotations (if someone scribbles on your newspaper, they’re spoiling the reading experience for you).

But digital texts are different.

Digitalisation lets readers interact with a text, or a body of work, in a public arena, without damaging it. In fact, reader contributions are generally an enhancement.

I’ll run through a few examples, starting with the strongest writer/reader divide and heading towards mediums where there’s almost no divide.

Reviews

Critics have existed for pretty much as long as authors – so reviews are nothing new. What is new is the ease at which any reader can publish a review about a book they’ve read. In the past, if you wanted to recommend a great book, you couldn’t do much except tell friends about it. Now, you can write a review on Amazon for potentially millions of people to see.

Reviews help readers know what book to choose. I know that when I’m browsing, I’m almost certainly going to choose a book with several good reviews – if a book has no reviews at all, I’ll probably choose something else, and if it has several one star and two star reviews, I’ll definitely avoid it.

One of the best ways to help your favourite author(s) is to review their books on Amazon. Although the reviews are unlikely to directly influence the storyline in future books, they will help bring in more readers – meaning that authors will keep writing!

Blogs

The “web log” or “blog” has been around since the 1990s – the terms were first used in 1997 (weblog) and 1999 (blog), but there were similar diary-style formats before then.

You’re probably familiar with blogs, since you’re reading one. 😉 Blogs generally allow readers to interact by commenting on posts – and if you’ve never tried that before, feel free to leave a comment on this post. (If you’re reading this in your inbox or RSS reader, you’ll need to click on the post title to come to my website. You’ll find the commenting box underneath the post itself.)

Not all blogs are non-fiction. Authors may blog some or all of their fiction – one example is Joely Black, who produces a “web serial” for her Amnar series.

In some cases, authors use the medium of blogging to help them determine the direction for a story. They might even decide what to write based on reader vote: Kirsten Simmons is doing this with her interactive novel, The Psychic Exploration.

Rather than harming a blog, comments help to make it even stronger. They foster a sense of community and they influence the decisions that a blogger makes. Comments may even be quoted in posts – meaning they’ll be seen by all the blog’s readers.

Fanfiction

Fanzines existed before the internet, but required quite a bit of effort to produce and distribute. Today, it’s easy for fans of a book, movie or TV series to write their own stories about their favourite characters and publish them online.

It’s illegal to profit from fanfiction, which means that it’s available free of charge to readers. There are thousands of websites that collate and archive fanfiction – from the biggest, Fanfiction.net, to sites that hold an individual author’s work.

Through fanfiction, readers build on the TV series (or book, film, etc) by creating new stories. You’ll also find “alternative universe” fanfiction – the same characters in a different setting. Some fanfiction merges two different sets of characters in a “crossover”. All of this allows readers to become authors, writing for a community of fellow fans.

Although some authors are hostile towards fanfiction, most turn a blind eye. Fanfiction does not harm the original work – if anything, it helps, by keeping fans engaged and active, even when a TV series has finished or is on hiatus, or when a book is out of print.

Textual Online Games

Games might seem an odd thing to include in a post about reading and writing … but bear with me.

Many early computer games were text-based. If you were into computers around 20 years ago, you might well have played games that involved typing commands like “go north” or “open box”.

Of course, as technology has advanced, games have increasingly become graphical (and you might find the very idea of textual games bizarre). But multiplayer text-based games do still exist online – you’ll find plenty of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and variations on them. They tend to be fantasy-based – lots of swords and sorcery. If you’re familiar with the pen and paper game Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll get the idea.

Being textual, these games can be treated as a collaborative story – especially the ones which are focused on roleplaying rather than on pure hack-and-slash. Instead of one author, a group of players will create stories in real-time together. Some aspects of the game may not be open to modification (e.g. the descriptions of the game world are generally pre-authored) – but this form does allow an almost complete merging of the “reader” and “writer” roles when creating and consuming a text.

The Implications for You

So, what does this mean in practical terms?

As a reader, digital forms give you more influence. Your review on Amazon can influence book sales. Your comment on a blog adds value for every other reader.

If your interests sway towards the geeky (a good thing, in my opinion ;-)) then you might well find yourself joining fanfiction or even gaming communities.

As a writer, digital forms give you the chance to experiment. By publishing early-draft material on a blog, you can get reader feedback before committing yourself to a particular plot-line.

You can encourage reader reviews on Amazon to help boost book sales, or use readers’ comments as a way to build community on your website.

 

I’d love to hear what you think about all of this. Has digitalisation changed the way that you read and interact with texts? Are there any digital-text areas that you see as especially significant – or, alternatively, would you like me to expand on any of the four I’ve written about here? Go ahead and leave a comment below. 🙂

 

 

 

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

28 thoughts on “The Digitalisation of Reading (and Writing)

  1. Digitalisation has most definitely changed the way I read. I received a Kindle 3G as a gift from a friend – it is by far the greatest present I have ever been given, and now one of my most prized posessions. Since getting a kindle I’ve gone from being someone who in the last five years had read the Harry Potter series and Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult to someone who reads on a daily basis – on the bus, on my lunch break at work, it’s even cut into my time spent senselessly clicking links on the Internet.

    And I haven’t heard many people say it, but I think it’s icreased my reading speed and comprehension. It could just be because I’ve gone from reading very little to reading more in six months then I read in five years… But I have a feeling that reading the same size text on the same sized screen day after day has helped my reading some how… I also love how easy it is to purchase a book off Amazon, and have future book recommendations given as a result.

    And book reviews. I love reading book reviews before and after I read a book. I don’t know why, I just do. There are so many quality book review blogs that I always end up making the right choice with my reading. I haven’t read a bad book since, well, ever.

    Also, hi! I found your blog about a week and a half ago and have been checking back since. 🙂

    • Richard, thanks for sharing this! I’ve come across quite a few confirmed book-lovers who’ve read a bit more on the Kindle, but it’s fantastic to hear that it’s got you into reading more regularly. I too like the ease of purchasing and the clear text (some printed books are pretty hard on the eyes). And I always read reviews before I purchase.

      Glad you found Aliventures, and hope you stick around! 🙂

  2. I also have a kindle and I LOVE it too haha! But sometimes nothing beats a good old paper book either, you still gotta love em! But yeah, reviews are great these days as everyone can post their opinion which has a huge impact if I decide to read a book or not, word of mouth from friends and family is still the biggest reason I read something. But the internet has allowed people of all ages and backgrounds have their works get read and develop an audience without needing a publisher, pretty amazing!
    Sean’s last blog post ..How A Liver Cleanse Helps Eliminate Acne

    • Word of mouth definitely trumps reviews for me too — but often, no-one’s recommended a book recently and I have to rely on what I can dig up online! The internet has really opened up publishing to the masses; a good thing, I think!

  3. Hi. Blogging has changed my life. I have always been a “writer,” producing procedure manuals and training materials for corporate clients. When I left that world, I decided to see if I could write creatively, and found a blogging sandbox of like-minded folks to play in. I never had any illusions of getting published or anything. I just wanted to play, building word castles in the cyber-sand.

    It’s been nearly two years. there is no question that my writing has improved, and my confidence along with it, thanks to the feedback of my fellow blog writers. I write nearly every day, and lately, my mind is filling with illusions: my words, published in a magazine… What the heck, maybe a novel…

    Hey, you never know, as the New York Lottery slogan says.
    Patti’s last blog post ..Metamorphosis (Part 5)

    • Blogging’s changed my life, too; without it, I’d probably still be working a regular day job and failing to get much writing done in the evenings!

      It’s great for confidence — and hey, go for it with magazine articles — or even a novel. You’ll never know till you try. 🙂

  4. Hi Ali,
    Oh yeah, it’s changed my reading and my writing.

    I’ve been around a while–since before there was TV. I typed stories on a little portable Olivetti typewriter on guard duty in Viet Nam. I wrote my master’s thesis on an electric typewriter. Every page had to be without error, any error. It was a mini-nightmare. (I did get a good grade!)

    Now, word-processing is a Godsend. It’s such an invitation to write and better re-write. It’s a breeze to rearrange, edit, revise, and improve my writing. But I wrote when it was a much more laborous process–all that retyping. Now I write more.

    Blogging? It’s great to be “heard.” And that vast sea of online communities, I think, is bringing us all closer together. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

    Email? I have exchanged emails with a fellow watercolorists in Sweden and Hong Kong. I have exchange emails with best selling novelists and some awesome writers, writing coaches and bloggers, And that for me is exciting, a frequent “high.”

    Reading? With all that free info on the Web. I want to read it all right now! But think about this: There are more good books and information on how to write well than there have been, I think, in history. When I started writing years ago, there was some, just not much. Now it’s all there for the taking or buying (often you can even find great books used and cheap). Now all we need is guts and gumption for the writing marathon!

    writingsmart.wordpress.com
    Watercolors: http://www.flickr.com/photos/21521891@N06/sets/72157603373191723/

    • Bill, thanks for commenting! I take the digital world a little too much for granted — I grew up using computers and was online from age 12… sometimes I have to take a step back and realise just how amazing it all is. 🙂

  5. Hi. While I agree with you that there are good points to digitalisation, I still like printed material. I like to hold a book in my hands. Reading on a screen is nothing like reading a printed book. I hope they aren’t going to stop making them… :/

  6. Hi Ali. I know that getting comments on my blog is a boost- and can sometimes lead to further posts. There is nothing worse than publishing a post and getting the digital crickets. On the flip side, it less interesting going to a blog that doesn’t have comments because it’s fun to see how reactions differ and how a post affected different people.

    Anyway. Digitalisation is certainly an adjustment. It has taken me years to be able to write anything coherent without first writing in longhand. I have stacks of notebooks with writing from over the years. I always used to freeze mentally when staring at a computer screen as opposed to some good old lined paper.

    I’m slowly joining the digital world, a little at a time.
    MT Nickerson’s last blog post ..Married? Yes, Please

    • I used to draft longhand a decade or so ago — nowadays, I’m used to typing straight onto a computer, and it actually feels weird to write by hand instead!

      I do think the compositional experience is different depending on whether you’re using a pen or a keyboard; I prefer the keyboard now because I can type faster (and more neatly!) than I can handwrite, and I don’t get cramp in my hand. 😉

    • I spend a lot of time reading online — though I don’t tend to read magazines and newspapers as much as in the past. I’d definitely recommend getting a Kindle: it’s a more immersive reading experience because you can’t have a whole bunch of windows open at once!

  7. Hi Ali,
    Great post, as often. I’ve been writing fanfiction on computer for years, and it’s definitely been a huge boost in reaching the self-confidence I needed to start writing a novel (being able to edit is vital when it comes to building self-confidence). And, I finally started a blog, which probably says a lot about my current implication with digital writing.
    I don’t read on paper much anymore, mostly because of the amount of time I spend traveling and the weight (and price) of books. I’m thinking of buying a Kindle for that very reason – reading in front of my computer works, but I waste about eight hours a week doing nothing but sitting in the train. Cumulated, that’s a lot over the course of a year.
    I also spend a lot of time reading free fiction I find online. The Internet’s been a major change in that regard – anybody can publish stuff, without any preselection. Obviously, that means there’s a lot of average fiction out there, but some very good authors publish completely free books. Ever heard of Ellen Hayes?
    Kalista’s last blog post ..Humility is overrated

    • Thanks, Kalista. I agree that blogging (and fanfiction, and really any form of sharing your writing online) is great for confidence.

      I’m lucky enough not to need to commute — but I’ve definitely found my Kindle handy for train/bus journeys. I used to feel travel sick if I read a book on the bus, but the Kindle seems not to have this effect for some reason (possibly because there’s no curvature of the pages).

      Hadn’t come across Ellen Hayes before; will check out her work. 🙂

  8. I hear students in my school complaining a lot about technology, but my assumption and theory is they’re complaining because they don’t know how to use it. Although it is very simple and easy (easy for me to say), I believe that taking time to learn how to use tech for its advantages can increase the flow of information that comes to us.

    I particularly started reading blogs this year, and I have to say depending on the blog it is some of the best AND free information I have ever received. Far better than anything I can Google.

    Books, the one you hold in your hand, is still by far my favorite, but then again I am very old-school.
    Paul Jun’s last blog post ..How Just One Smart Decision Can Improve Your Life

    • Technology has been changing incredibly fast; I think that students not only need skills with specific software, they need more general skills (and confidence) in figuring out new systems.

      I’ll never stop enjoying books — but I’m definitely becoming more and more attached to digital forms of text.

  9. I have a love/hate relationship with social media. Love because I connect with so many and hate, because it does take up all the time I normally would do other things, like relax in front of the TV, read books etc. I barely know any shows on TV as I’m always online commenting or blogging or writing.
    I know you’re a Gutsy woman Ali, especially as you’re speaking at BlogWorld, and I would love for you to participate in the “My Gutsy Story” contest. I hope this takes off with a new story every Monday as I think we all like to hear what others are doing that’s Gutsy.
    Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living’s last blog post ..Join the “My Gutsy Story” contest.

    • I’m a lot more cowardly than I let on, Sonia! 😉 But what a great idea for a contest/blog series! My schedule is a bit hectic right now, but I’ll hopefully be able to get something to you mid-November… 🙂

      • I know Blog World starts next week, so I’m not surprised you’re busy. Wish Annabel Candy was able to come as I was looking forward to meeting her. All the best there and whenever you have time to write about how you became “Gutsy” all of us would love to hear your story. I’m sure many of us can relate to the “cowardly” part of us that needs to be pushed to the side. Thanks Ali.
        Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living’s last blog post ..Join the “My Gutsy Story” contest and sponsor prizes

  10. that’s a very important topic Ali
    one also should consider what is going to happen in the near future and how will technology affect writing even more
    thank you for the post 🙂

    • Yep — it’ll be interesting to see how things change over the next year or two, with ebook readers continually coming down in price!

  11. I love to write so my blog has given me the opportunity to put my writing out there in front of people. I try to read other blogs as well as books, both in paper and digital form, to keep my brain in shape and full of ideas. I’m happy to say my son is a voracious reader too. He just devoured a hardback book in less than five days!
    Patti B.’s last blog post ..Babies, pumpkins and Friday fun!

    • Hurrah for your son! 🙂 Great he’s got a love of reading too. And yep, one of the great things about blogging is being able to simply get your work out there into the world.

  12. Great blog here Ali – just came across it. I’m just wondering, regarding fan fiction, is it possible to write character crossovers (e.g off the top of my head, if Harry Potter met Batman (!)) and release it on Amazon for free? I’m sure if it’s imaginative and well-written enough, there’ll be an audience for it, but would you recommend it as a way to get your name out there more?

    • Thanks Shai, and welcome!

      You’d have to check with Amazon’s policies; I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t allow fan fiction (even if you were listing it as a free ebook). I agree there’d be an audience for crossovers, but you’d probably be best posting them on your own website. Sorry!

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