The Ecology of Print Books: Niche Partitioning by Young Readers

mushroom forestThe Ecology of Print Books: Niche Partitioning by Young Readers

A while ago, I wrote about the S-curve in publishing, an ecological phenomenon applied to the book industry. Today I’d like to talk about another ecological phenomenon: niche partitioning.

Earlier this year, SF author and fellow Canadian Cory Doctorow cited several reports on his blog BoingBoing suggesting that “young readers generally prefer to read books from paper, not screens.” More than that, he adds, “they find ebooks and printed books complementary.”

I’m an ecologist and this makes sense to me. It comes down to niche-partitioning. Every organism occupies a niche, which can be defined as that organism’s “job” in its ecosystem; so niche-partitioning is a way for organisms to co-exist cooperatively—rather than competitively and exclusively—by apportioning or segregating various jobs or roles in an ecosystem. It’s a bit like syndicalism vs. capitalism, in which functional, rather than territorial precepts are used.

“The future composts the past,” says Doctorow. “The advent of films made it possible for performances that couldn’t work onstage to be born and it moved all the plays that were uncomfortable fits onstage to the screen. What it left behind were plays that were more like plays—and a theater industry that’s still going strong, even if it’s dwarfed by the screen.” He’s talking about niche-partitioning here.

I generally find that ebooks are convenient for my mobile lifestyle. I’ve recently adopted an itinerant, gypsy life from my former “nesting” days. My family has grown up and left the nest and I’ve gone “walkabout”. My giant library of print books had to find good homes, rather than travel with me to all parts of the world. I keep a collection of virtual books on my device for reference (like a dictionary). I also find ebooks a good option for a one-off read—something I can get cheap and read without needing to “befriend” and keep.

I treasure my few printed books, both reference and story. My reference print books are underlined and marked and worn from being used over and over again. Printed books are best for protracted reading and comprehension. You want a print book when you wish to delve deep into “story” and relax.

As with the theatre becoming more theatre-like, Doctorow adds that, “books are becoming more book-like. Books that work best as e-books—for example, big reference books; but also short works that are too slight to rest comfortably on their own between covers—are moving to e-book-land. Things that are produced as printed books have passed a test in which someone has asked, Is there an important reason for this to exist in print, instead of exclusively onscreen?

I talked about this in my previous article The Future of Books on this blog: “print books will become the epitome of publishing value and worth. Already coveted by collectors whose libraries will represent the best of the best in the literary world, print books will come to represent the highest status in literature. Only the best stories will endure as print books; perhaps only the ‘best book’ will even be published in print form. Its existence in print form will define its literary value.” Niche-partitioning, like I said…

In an article called Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right, Washington Post reporter Michael S. Rosenwald reported that, “Textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally.”

students-print-online2014Rosenwald adds, “The preference for print over digital can be found at independent bookstores such as the Curious Iguana in downtown Frederick, Md., where owner Marlene England said millennials regularly tell her they prefer print because it’s “easier to follow stories.” Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers.” Rosenwald adds, “And it can be seen most prominently on college campuses, where students still lug backpacks stuffed with books, even as they increasingly take notes (or check Facebook) on laptops during class. At American, Cooper Nordquist, a junior studying political science, is even willing to schlep around Alexis de Tocqueville’s 900-plus-page “Democracy in America.”

I’ve noticed the same phenomenon at the University of Toronto campus where I teach. Rosenwald writes about Frank Schembary, a young student who loves books—printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place. “I like the feeling of it,” says Schembary, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”

Naomi S. Baron, an American University linguist who studies digital communication, wrote a book Words Onscreen that reported her studies of students’ reading patterns. She found, along with other studies, that readers tend to skim on screens. Her favourite response to her question of what students disliked the most about reading in print was: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.”misty forest path

Students prefer digital for science and math subjects, where they also have access to online portals and resources linked to their subject matter and assignments.

Niche partitioning makes the world go round. Now, if we can only use its logic in economic systems.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Future of “Books”

mushroom forestAn August 2013 survey by bestselling author Marie Force revealed some interesting trends about what American readers like, what format they prefer and where they find their writers. While the survey was fairly small and restricted to Americans (just under 3,000 people responded to 44 questions), I think it provides a good microcosm of what the trend is out there in North America generally.

Here are Marie’s main findings and conclusions:

1. FORM: Readers prefer e-books to paperbacks (77%); many buy in multiple formats, including paperback. 52% of surveyed readers do buy their books in print form. Audio books are slowly gaining popularity.

2. REVIEWS & TESTIMONIALS: Retail reviews such as those on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retail sites were more important to readers than author endorsements and reviews by professional reviewers on review sites. Fifty percent of readers preferred reviews posted on retail sites for their information; 16% used Goodreads; 72% said that the designation of “New York Times Bestselling Author” did not make a difference in their purchasing choice. 81% did not subscribe or read the major review publications (e.g., RT Book Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, NYT Sunday Edition, USA Today)

3. BOOKSTORES: A majority of readers bought their books from a virtual bookseller: 80% of surveyed readers buy from Amazon (Barnes & Noble online was second at 23%; iBookstore/Apple scored 13%). 58% of readers surveyed had visited a real bookstore twice or less in the past year. The remaining percent visited more often.

4. PUBLISHER: readers are more likely to buy a self-published book by an author they know; 94% of readers surveyed are “more likely” to buy a self-published book from an author who is known to them; 68% of readers are “less likely” to purchase a self-published book by an author they don’t know.

5. CONTENT & GENRE: Readers are most interested in stories with outstanding characters, setting, storytelling and writing; 75% chose “all of the above” to encompass each of the elements. Unsurprisingly, 81% of readers chose “Romance” is their favorite genre of fiction; contemporary romance is the favorite subgenre with historical romance as the second favorite.

6. HOW READERS FIND & FOLLOW AUTHORS: the best single-most best social media platform for authors is Facebook, used by 85% of surveyed readers; 75% of readers also subscribed to the newsletters of their favorite authors and 55% subscribed to the blogs of their favorite authors. Twitter was not a major site for readers to find and follow their authors. Goodreads was one of the most frequently mentioned sites in the open-ended portion of the questionnaire.
The numbers don’t always match up; nor is the catchment or method of making statistical conclusions sufficiently explained; but the results as presented make logical sense to me. They make sense because the feedback I am getting in my circles is very similar. So, there you go, writers and readers.

Here’s my take on this phenomenon:

1. Increased sales of Digital Books: the increasing sales of digital books (ebooks) and the rising sales of audiobooks is a wonderful and uplifting icon of rising literacy. More people are reading (and listening) to books now than ever. And we have the digital book, Kindles, Kobos and iPads to thank for it. The “book” has become more accessible and readable. People swarm the public transit, clutching their iPhones and reading devices.

2. Readers still choosing Print Books: Obviously, print books are cherished by readers for their intrinsic value. Books—their tangible tactile presence—will always remain with us; in collector’s showcase libraries, in trendy artistic venues, and funky local neighbourhood venues.

3. My Prediction: print books will become the epitome of publishing value and worth. Already coveted by collectors whose libraries will represent the best of the best in the literary world, print books will come to represent the highest status in literature. Only the best stories will endure as print books; perhaps only the “best book” will even be published in print form. Its existence in print form will define its literary value.mushroom forest

4. Take Home Message to Authors: ensure that your book appears in print form and get it into the hands of classy libraries and classy people.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.