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Is the book dead? Long live the book!

Studies reveal new reading trends with e-readers

LAURA DAVIñA / YOUWORKFORTHEMThe first digital conference dedicated solely to debating the use of technology in the publishing of books for children is to be held immediately before the opening of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the most highly regarded event of its kind, on the 27th of this month. The Tools of Change for Publishing will bring together educators and experts on this subject, to analyze education cases using digital books. “Do children learn more and better with this tool?” This is one of the questions that the gathering “will try to answer” at this event.

If a few years ago there were still doubts as to the future of digital books, current thoughts are more concerned with how to use them beyond mere entertainment. Proof of these new views is that Brazil’s Federal Senate Commission for Economics Issues (CAE) has just approved a bill to change the National Book Policy, updating the definition and expanding the list of products considered equivalent to books. With this project, which is to be put to the vote by the middle of the year, electronic equipment designed for reading texts (the e-readers) will be equated with books. As one of the doubts of editors that is hindering the expansion of the digital books market in Brazil is the high price of e-reading in the country, passing this bill might give a boost to e-book dissemination. After all, thanks to such a change, the tax benefits of books would be extended to e-readers, even though the commission’s spokesman is against extending such benefits to the iPad, as he regards it as more than a mere e-reader. Another indication of the publishing changes in the pipeline was the meeting held in late 2010 by six publishing companies (Objetiva, Record, Sextante, Intrínseca, Rocco and Planeta) to create DLD – Distribuidora de Livros Digitais, an e-books distribution company that hopes to incorporate 300 new books a month into its catalog. However, it is merely an intermediary between the consumer and digital bookstores, as it will not sell the works directly to the public.

Though still incipient in Brazil, the subject is giving rise to heated discussions abroad. One of the people delivering a talk at the Bologna meeting, Lisa Edwards, is one of the parties responsible for a recent research study into the future of digital books for children, “Kids and family reading reporttrade”, conducted by Scholastic Corporation, the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, including the Harry Potter series. According to this study, 57% of the children interviewed preferred e-readers to hard copies, despite parental fears (41% of the interviewed parents) that the technology might put their children off reading. Furthermore, although only 6% of the parents owned an e-reader, this year, according to the study, this figure should rise to 16%. Additionally, despite the cost of e-readers such as the Kindle or the iPad, 83% of parents would not hesitate to leave these delicate pieces of equipment in the hands of their children to encourage them to read. Another survey, conducted by Marketing and Research Resources, clarifies the new trend, indicating that 40% of the interviewees started reading more books thanks to e-readers. Eleven million Americans are expected to have an e-reader by the middle of this year. The sales of digital books in the United States increased by 183% in 2010 relative to 2009.

However, how might this debate reach Brazil’s reality, which is so different from that analyzed in the American research? After all, even in the United States, studies on the issue are scarce and the major publishers are still being “cautious” as to what the future will bring. “Brazilian readers are still unaware of e-books and don’t know how to gain access to them; this even includes younger people, who associate them with the internet,” warns Galeno Amorim, the new chairman of the National Library Foundation (Fundação Biblioteca Nacional) and director of the Book and Reading Observatory that, along with the Brazilian Chamber of Books and the Official Press of the State, conducted the survey “Brazilian readers and e-books” last year. However, the experiences are very different in that everything is more interactive and the readers can change the place of letters and images, find links that lead them to other subjects using the words of one book as the starting point, gain access to images and sounds and, for children, enjoy the feeling of turning a book upside down and watching everything move with the iPad, for which one can get a free app via the Apple website. “The only unanimous view of the Brazilian readers is that the demise of printed books is not going to come about soon because books are still prized in the collective imagery of Brazilian society as a symbol of knowledge and learning. As for e-books, they are seen as more “ecological,” cheap or even free.”

LAURA DAVIñA / YOUWORKFORTHEMAccording to the CBL study, approximately 3% of Brazilians have had some form of access to e-books, but they are highly resistant to them because they find it uncomfortable to read on a computer screen. “Everything is always heavily associated with the internet only. When one shows that what is in question are the e-readers, everything changes; most of the interviewees loved the devices, finding them light and easy to operate,” says Galeno.

Mobile phones
However, many of the respondents would not buy an e-reader for the time being, as they believe that in the future the devices will be smaller and have more applications, as was the case with mobile phones. The price that people believed would be suitable for e-readers to become disseminated in the market would be about R$300. It would also be acceptable for an e-book to cost one quarter of its printed price: for example, a R$90 technical book should be sold for R$20 in a digital format. “But it’s undeniable. When one inquires whether the person is willing to buy e-books, the answer invariably is “no.” The trend is for everything to be free, following the same line of thinking as that of downloaded songs: it it’s on the internet, it should be free.” Another study, conducted in 2010 by GfK, a privately owned market research company, showed that 67% of Brazilians are unfamiliar with e-books and their readers, although 56% of Brazilians plan to acquire a device provided it is affordable. A curious piece of data is that the Northeast Region is more receptive to buying e-books (70%) than the South Region (61%), the area least inclined to buying e-readers, a peculiarity that repeats itself in the comparison of the buying intentiions of classes C and D (58%) vs. classes A and B (54%). The study’s explanation for this is the lack of information of the less wealthy classes, which for this very reason might be more interested in looking for knowledge and information in order to overcome barriers to the job market.

However, there are only five digital bookstores in Brazil: Saraiva (with a catalog of 2 thousand titles in Portuguese), Gato Sabido (the first Brazilian eBookstore, established in 2009, with a collection of 1.9 thousand titles in Portuguese), Cultura (with about 1 thousand titles in Portuguese), Simplíssimo (with about 200 titles) and Ponto Frio (100 titles in Portuguese). Most of the works offered consist of recently released books by renowned authors. The one offering the largest amount of material for youngsters, Gato Sabido, has no more than 130 titles for children and adolescents. The books are merely a PDF or e-pub version of the originals and only some of them include a measure of interactivity. The sales expectations regarding iPads and other similar devices seem to lend strength to this early enthusiasm. According to the IDC Brasil research, the number of tablets sold in the country should more than triple. Sales are expected to reach 300 thousand units versus the 100 thousand units sold in 2010. The best-known device here is the Kindle, which introduced its international version in 2009. It is sold by Amazon, the American online bookstore, for about R$500, a sum that includes the Federal Revenue Service customs duties (though those who bring the device in their luggage when they return from abroad are exempt). The Cool-ER, marketed by Gato Sabido since 2009 and using electronic ink technology similar to that of the Kindle, is sold for R$599. Saraiva and Fnac sell the IRiver Story, that has few resources and no colors, for R$1,099. At the end of last year, Positivo launched its e-reader, Alfa, with a touch- screen and an Aurelio dictionary included, for about R$700.

LAURA DAVIñA / YOUWORKFORTHEMThe main object of desire, however, is Apple’s iPad, which is imported and first appeared in Brazil in December at a rather high price: R$1.6 thousand. The domestic production of tablets has begun, having been pioneered by MXT, a company from Minas Gerais state. The firm released its iMXT, a tablet for the corporate market that costs between R$1.6 thousand and R$2 thousand. The manufacturer expects to sell about 200 thousand units by December of this year. However, other issues are getting in the way of the dissemination of new means of reading, such as the criteria of standardization, given that a book created for the iPad will not run on a Galaxy, for instance. Most of the Brazilian e-book stores cannot handle animated content. Another prosaic hindrance is the lack of specialized labor to transform books into the digital format. As a result, books must often be sent in edited form to firms in India and the Philippines for their conversion, but they tend to return with damaged format or serious orthography errors. The most delicate issue is copyright, as it will become necessary, henceforth, to discuss with authors the issue of digital versions along with the printed ones. This will also apply to work already available in hard copies.

Will all this effort be worthwhile? Many Brazilian publishers say that they only invest in this market so as not to miss the bus. “There’s still no consensus about the impact of e-books in the publishing market, because so far the presence of this technology in the country is still incipient. Only few readers own e-readers in Brazil, but the arrival of such gadgets may trigger a major digital e-book revolution in the country,” believes Rosely Boschini, the chair of the Brazilian Chamber of Books (CBL). “The effects will only be social, but above all psychic, affecting the traditional notions of reader and of reading, which will be expanded beyond the purist vision of deciphering letters. The electronic screen reader is moving along the networks’ information highways and creating a new type of reader that browses through the liquid and non-linear architecture of the hypermedia in cyberspace, becoming an immersive reader,” notes the semiologist Lucia Santaella, a senior professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) and the author, among other works, of Navegar no ciberespaço [Browsing through cyberspace]. “Reading on a computer screen on an iPad raises the possibility for the reader to blend, cross , and bring together texts that are inscribed on the same electronic memory. It’s an entirely new way of reading and one that is different from the contemplative form of the printed language. This is a reader whose browsing brings him reading material, creating a universe of evanescent and permanently available signals. He is in a state of readiness, connecting himself with nodes and nexuses, on an unlimited journey that he himself helped to build by interacting with the nodes among words, images, documentation, music, videos, etc.” Here, of course, one is talking not only about the downloading of texts into a computer but also about using the more sophisticated technologies that are being developed that enable the opening of hyperlinks and text, as well as sounds and images that are combined with  reading, among other applications. “If reading is a form of deciphering the world, the new media provide new tools for carrying out this task that used to be so complex. The new media have done away with linearity so that today any youngsters can listen to music, browse the web and play a game at the same time. This process assumes a different brain operation,” explains the literature professor Regina Zilberman, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and author of the book Das tábuas da lei à tela do computador [From the boards of the law to the computer screen].

According to the researcher, books and computers are not mutually exclusive: if on one hand they may seem to be antagonistic, on the other hand they are partners. The same is true of the actual reading. “Access to virtual reality depends on being a good reader, so that reading is not at risk and faces no competition. To the contrary, it becomes stronger, as there is a greater arena for its dissemination. The more writing expands via digital media, the more reading will be called upon to help consolidate the tools, the competence of its users and the growth of its audience,” she assesses. Therefore, what might the differences consist of? “I think that reading digital media is spontaneous, whereas reading a book tends to be induced: the school is the institution to which one ascribes the responsibility for getting children and youths started. Digital reading, however, increases the possibility of interfering with the text as one reads it. This opening that digital text provides is highly appropriate for studying and for text games,” notes the literature professor Marisa Lajolo, from the School of Philosophy, Literature and Education at Mackenzie Presbiterian University, who wrote the study A leitura rarefeita: livro e leitura no Brasil [Rarified reading: books and reading in Brazil]. For Lúcia Santaella, the key is understanding the languages that are added together and blended and that complement each other. “Unlike the book reader that holds an object in front of him that he can manipulate, the writing on the screen on which electronic text is read creates a distribution, an organization, a structuring of the text that is by no means the same that book readers encountered in the past. However, media history has shown us that when a new medium appears, it doesn’t cause the prior one to disappear: an exchange process takes place whereby one medium enriches the other by providing it with resources; in other words, one learns from the other.”

Indeed, one of the results of the Scholastic research showed that 25% of the youths interviewed considered using Facebook, Orkut, etc. as a form of reading. “Adolescents read and write a lot; they communicate much more in writing. The prior generations only read schoolbooks. That is not the case with today’s youth: they are always retrieving information within this digitized social life,” states Rosa Farah, coordinator of the Center for Research into the Psychology of Information Technology at PUC-SP. “The definition of what a text consists of is changing fast and today it’s more than written words and images. The current readers dive into multimode experiences and have an sharp awareness of the possibilities of combining media to receive and transmit messages,” believes Lotta Larson, a professor from the School of Education of Kansas State University and author of the research study E-reading and e-responding: new tools for the next generation of readers (Digital Literacies), who used the Kindle with a group of students to analyze their relationship with reading. “The e-books offer multimedia content and invite readers to interact with the text directly. In most of these interactions I witnessed intelligent and creative impulsiveness and spontaneity. They undertook new literary practices upon perceiving new ways to access their thoughts in response to what the e-books provided. There was more motivation to read, to understand what was going on in history, etc.” For the professor, e-readers are particularly useful to co-opt reluctant readers and to extract from them a remarkable interaction with reading. “The sky is no longer the limit regarding the way in which imagination not only of young people but of older people as well is being stimulated in this era of semiodiversity, this era of pluralistic ecology of communication and culture,” agrees Santaella. According to some researchers, there is an entire universe of hypertext powers being created. “It is the overtaking the author’s authority, the very dissipation of the hierarchy between author and reader via transgressions and choices conducted by means of multiple reading of non-linear texts, devoid of authority, and by means of a subjectivity that can gain freedom and develop creativity,” notes Luis Cláudio Saldanha, a professor at the School of Education at the Federal University of São Carlos and the author of the article Subjetividade no ciberespaço [Subjectivity in cyberspace]. “From this process, not only a new type of reader, the browser, emerges: the author disappears or, at least, his status is reconfigured. What both give rise to is the rauthor, who brings together both the consumer and the producer of texts,” states Sergio Bellei, a professor of literature at PUC-RS and author of the article Literatura e(m) hipertexto [Literature and(in) hypertext]. One must be careful, however. “There’s a chance that we will get  too much of information, with knowledge becoming simply information: Reading and writing devoid of the mark of genuine experience and reflection, an occasional state of information that is disconnected and ephemeral, soon to become smudged by other information. The reader in cyberspace shouldn’t be merely a user of machines and programs, and his reading shouldn’t do without subjectivity and review. Unless this happens, the distinguishing feature of this reading will boil down to the technical and formal aspects of the new support,” warns Saldanha.

“The digital medium democratizes access to information. The problem is that access per se is not enough. We have too much information and access to it has become increasingly easy. The problem is how to separate the wheat from the chaff. One of the major challenges that schools now face is to help young people do this,” ponders Santaella. “Additionally, the teacher is often “digitally illiterate,” knowing less than the students: he has little to teach in this field and a lot to learn. This is not merely about wanting teaching institutions to be properly equipped, but also about the need to have qualified teachers, because if this does not come about, teachers will continue to advocate that digital support does not mean learning,” analyzes Regina Zilberman.