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La Novella Orchidea

Digital VS real, a small reflection on the world of eBooks

On 11 April, Kobo, one of the most famous eBook Reader companies, unveiled its own little revolution. These are two devices, the Kobo Clara Colour and the Kobo Libra Colour. As one can imagine, both devices project users into the hitherto almost unknown world of colour eBooks. The colour screen, albeit at a lower resolution than in black and white (150 PPI), finally allows access to the wide range of products that need colour to be fully appreciated. Examples are trade magazines, art publications, productions following exhibitions or museum events. But above all comics, the great excluded, at least in their colour versions, from devices using electronic ink as display technology.

This news serves as a cue to make some small reflections on the impact and the incessant considerations on the role of digitisation, and of the eBook in particular, in our society. Apart from last year’s Italian data, which are just data and do not always photograph the sociological impact of the electronic book on readers’ habits, it is worth collecting a few more impressions.

Digital as a support for reading

Regardless of the usage figures of eBooks compared to paper books, digital has already brought about a revolution. Online channels are indeed the preferred choice, worldwide, to learn about and choose one’s reading. Whether these are then defined in the purchase of a paper version of the work, that is another point. But the channels for acquiring the information necessary to finalise a purchase, not so much in terms of price and availability, but especially regarding type, plot, author and many other details, take place online.

The lion’s share is, of course, played by social media. TikTok, in particular, has in recent years proved to be a rather suitable tool for choosing one’s reading material. From the recommendations of simple users to the more structured opinions of dedicated influencers, ‘digital word-of-mouth’ on the choice of readings is constantly growing. This has also made it possible to create defined communities around a single work, genre or author. Real modern versions of those ‘book clubs’ of totally paper-based and purely twentieth-century culture that seemed to have disappeared from the world. An Italian figure? According to a 2023 Netcomm research on the reading styles and habits of Italians, 70% of regular readers buy on both digital and traditional channels. However, 61% of all readers inform themselves online to decide what to buy (and then buy in bookshops).

The Format Issue in eBooks

Not only DRM, EPUB, TXT, MOBI or other. The issue of format in eBooks is quite acute, especially overseas, and not only with regard to compatibility. We are in fact talking about the actual reading format, i.e. what we readers literally see on the screen when we read. In practice, the very nature of the eBook leads to profound advantages and just as many disadvantages.

On the advantages side, the use of an electronic text that can be ‘formatted’ at will is a real convenience. It allows, for instance, an immediate increase in font size or adaptation to a vertical or horizontal screen, not to mention the possible different sizes of the devices from which one reads. On the other hand, however, these features are also the ones that alienate traditional readers the most. Indeed, the choice of a fixed format, predefined by the publisher and proposed to the reader, is often an intrinsic feature of the pleasure of the reading process. Not only that, several studies have confirmed the advantage of reading in print, such as that of linguist Naomi Baron in 2021. The conclusions were that traditional reading brought better comprehension, increased concentration and a greater likelihood of remembering details and events from the story read.

This last detail, above all, is interesting. The very nature of the paper book requires the physical scrolling of pages. The movement, forward or backward, within the narrative, to find a detail or annotation, has been decisively flattened in the eBook. Of course, in the latter there is the possibility of marking notes in an orderly and immediately recallable screen, as well as the immediate reaching of a page or even just a term. A real panacea for those who do not want to waste time or need error-proof searching.

In order to solve the objective ugliness of the eBook format, technology is not always sufficient, as in the case of more and more powerful screens, but sometimes a pinch of art is needed. A case in point is that of so-called ‘minisites’, which contain a book work and are artfully embroidered to enhance it, also visually, to the user. Stripe Publishing, owned by the inventors of the leading online payment platform Stripe, is an example of the use of this technology.

eBooks, Millennials and Gen Z, a seesaw relationship

The younger generations are the ones most naturally inclined to use a technology like the eBook. There are, however, details that lead to counter, and sometimes contradict, this statement. The use of eBooks is in fact often seen in an ecological light, especially in Gen Z, the most environmentally aware. On the other hand, however, it is this same generation that, the victim of a perennial online and social presence, is trying to adopt certain habits in a detox key. One of these is the use of so-called dump phones instead of smartphones, with the rise of traditional phone models that avoid the worst habits of smartphones, first and foremost infinite scrolling. More or less comparable is the recently detected preference of Gen Z for buying paper books, again in terms of a different sense of ownership and connection to a material device.

Is it possible, then, that massive digitisation may give rise to a desire for something more ‘traditional’? It is too early to say, but the signs are there.

Dopo una lunga esperienza nella gestione dei forum e un'esperienza editoriale triennale a tutto campo in una redazione digitale, gestisco da nove anni la promozione della collana digitale "La Novella Orchidea".

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