Has the digital age changed readers?

[taken from my Koobug blog here]

I’ve had this conversation with my author/editor friends of late, so I thought I’d pose the question here. In this day of instant access (via eBooks, YouTube, OnDemand TV, Netflix, etc.), do you think that has changed the way people interact with Story? Has it shortened our attention spans? If we’re not sucked in right away, do we abandon a story and move on too quickly? If a story doesn’t fit the assumptions we have based on reviews or synopses, do we dismiss it rather than take the time to get to know what’s actually involved? With so much entertainment right at our fingertips, are we really looking for the BEST or just the easiest?
I haven’t been reading eBooks nearly as long as most people, but I immediately noticed the differences in the very formatting of eBooks versus the paperback forms I’m more used to. On the whole, eBooks are shorter. Paragraphs certainly are shorter. It’s as if the formatting itself acknowledges that people are only willing to spend so much time on a story and our minds/eyes will get bored if we have to read anything lengthy. I myself have been guilty of seeing a page-long paragraph in an eBook and thinking, “Ugh,” to only then realize I would have no problem with the paragraph if it was in a paperback book. I think this has forced many authors to chop up their books into formats people are going to accept. Maybe this is why there are so many short eBooks that make up very lengthy collections, when really it could be a few bigger books in a short series – you have to trick people and make it easier for them to read any lengthy story. As a result of readers being shaped this way, I think writers are changing to fit the mold.
Also, we seem to not have time to let something unfold and draw us in. You read in reviews all the time “I didn’t get sucked in right away” or (Heaven forbid) “it made me think too much in the beginning and didn’t jump right into action.” An editor friend explained to me that this whole thing started because writers were instructed to submit their most engaging beginning/chapters first so that the publishing houses could make a decision (this is an over-simplification, but the basic point). Now, that’s trickled over into authors thinking they HAVE to open books in the midst of action, and readers have come to expect that. It might be the style that will most date our era’s books, actually.
It’s interesting to wonder if this is the just the way literature is evolving with technology, or if we really are in some way making readers (ourselves included) simpler, impatient, and maybe even dumber. Would a Dickens, Bronte, Hugo, or Tolkien have made it in today’s world? There are examples of lengthy books that still are amazing bestsellers – think George R.R. Martin’s mammoth books or even the later Harry Potter books – but are little-known authors given as much patience by readers? Even if a new author IS exceptionally talented at writing deep, rich, and interesting stories, it seems like length and style can hold many readers back. Would some of the greats even exist if they were just emerging in today’s literary world? You read a 2-page Tolkien description of a mountain and have to wonder.

6 thoughts on “Has the digital age changed readers?

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  1. I just read a comment the other day (and of course I can’t remember whether it was on Goodreads or someone’s blog) about the sample chapters on Amazon, and how they’re sometimes too short to really show much of the story. One author commented that he likes to start slow, then build the story gradually, and was worried that he’d need to change his writing style in order to provide a sample on Amazon that people would feel “moved fast enough.”

    1. I’ve heard that concern about Amazon samples too – and share it myself. I’ve tried to wiggle around it by choosing for myself what samples to post on some other sites (ChapterSee, for example), and trying to direct people there to see if they’re interested.

  2. I think you raise an excellent point. I’ve often wondered if someone like Dostoevsky would have gotten a query letter for Crime and Punishment past today’s “gatekeepers.” I think the tendency toward quick gratification has changed what gets published (and how). I hate to think of what this has done to our culture, to the extent we have any left, other than fast-food chains and reality television.

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