By JULIE BOSMAN and MATT RICHTEL
Can you concentrate on Flaubert when Facebook is only a swipe away, or give your true devotion to Mr. Darcy while Twitter beckons?
People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.
Email lurks behind the e-book, tantalizingly within reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.
That adds up to a reading experience that is more like a 21st-century cacophony than a traditional solitary activity. And some of the millions of consumers who have bought tablets and sampled e-books on apps from Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble have come away with a conclusion: It’s harder then ever to sit down and focus on reading.
“It’s like trying to cook when there are little children around,” said David Myers, 53, a systems administrator in Atlanta, who got a Kindle Fire tablet in December. “A child might do something silly and you’ve got to stop cooking and fix the problem and then return to cooking.”
“These apps beg you to review them all the time,” he said, adding that he was still a fan of the device.
For book publishers, who have seen many consumers convert from print books to e-readers, the rise of tablets poses a potential danger: that book buyers may switch to tablets and then discover that they just aren’t very amenable to reading. Will those readers gradually drift away from books, letting movies or the Internet occupy their leisure time instead?
Maja Thomas, senior vice president for Hachette Digital, part of the Hachette Book Group, is hoping just the opposite occurs.
“Someone who doesn’t have a habit of reading, and buys a tablet, is going to be offered all these opportunities for reading,” Thomas said, noting that tablets tend to come with at least one e-book app. “We’re hoping they will grow the number of people who will read.”
Sales of e-readers surged during the Christmas holiday season, according to a Pew Research Center report, which showed that the number of adults in the United States who own tablets and e-readers nearly doubled from mid-December to early January.
But there are signs that publishers are cooling on tablets as e-reading devices. A recent survey conducted by Forrester Research showed that 31 percent of publishers believe that iPads and similar tablets are the ideal e-reading platform; one year ago, 46 percent thought they were ideal.
“The tablet is like a temptress,” said James McQuivey, the Forrester Research analyst who led the survey. “It’s constantly saying, ‘You could be on YouTube now.’ Or it’s sending constant alerts that pop up, saying you just got an e-mail. Reading itself is trying to compete.”
Indeed, the basic menu for the Kindle Fire offers links to video, apps, the Web, music, newsstand and books, effectively making books (once Amazon’s stock in trade) just another menu option. So too with the multipurpose iPad, which Allison Kutz, a 21-year-old senior at Elon University in North Carolina, bought in 2010. She says her reading experience hasn’t been the same since.
She is constantly fending off the urge to check other media, making it tough to finish books. For example, in late September 2010, she bought “Breaking Night,” a memoir about a homeless girl turned Harvard student. Kutz said the only time she was able to focus on it was on an airplane because there was no Internet access.
“I’ve tried to sit down and read it in Starbucks or the apartment, but I end up on Facebook or Googling something she said, and then the next thing you know I’ve been surfing for 25 minutes,” Kutz said.
The issue of changing reader habits has been widely discussed by executives at Amazon, maker of the Kindle and Kindle Fire. Russ Grandinetti, vice president for Kindle content, said one reason the original Kindle, introduced in 2007 for $399, was a dedicated e-reader — and not a multipurpose device — was precisely so that people could immerse themselves without interruption.
The new Kindle Fire, by contrast, costs $199 and offers a variety of media options: video, Internet and all the potential interruptions that come with it. But Grandinetti said the device was not meant as a replacement for the first Kindle but, rather, a complement to it; different devices for people who want different experiences.
Many publishers believe that the market for both print books and black-and-white e-readers is not going away, despite the pull of tablets.
Voracious book buyers were the first people to latch onto e-readers, prizing them for their convenience, portability and features like text zooming that made it easier for older people to read. Now those e-readers are lighter, sleeker and cost less than $100 — even a cheap tablet is more than double the cost — so tech-shy consumers who want a device just for reading books and not much else have little incentive to upgrade. As long as e-readers remain significantly less expensive than tablets, there may be a market for them for a long time.
But McQuivey of Forrester said it was more likely that tablets would eventually edge out black-and-white e-readers. “The historical precedent suggests that’s the case,” he said, citing the Palm Pilot, digital point-and-shoot cameras and portable GPS systems for the car as items that have been gradually displaced by multifunction devices. “There’s less and less reason to have these as stand-alone devices.”
For Erin Faulk, a 29-year-old legal assistant and voracious reader in Los Angeles, the era of e-readers has had one major effect: She has accumulated many more books that she categorizes as “DNFs” — Did Not Finish. But she is also buying more books, she said, and she thinks that all the interruptions have, in a way, made her a more discerning reader.
“With so many distractions, my taste in books has really leveled up,” Faulk said. “Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.”