Can Books Compete With Smartphones? Yes, But Only If They’re Smarter

I wanted to make today’s post short, because the sun is shining in Ireland. This happens so infrequently that anyone caught spending too much screen-time is immediately taken into protective custody and placed beside a body of water with Factor 50 and no Wi-Fi.

Also, I thought this post would be short because it’s my Blogiversary, and seeing as that’s technically news, I shouldn’t have had to waffle on about anything else. However, when WordPress informed me that I began this blog 5 years ago, it resulted in a revelation of gargantuan proportions, which that is that people are still not listening to me.

Can Books Can Compete With Smartphones? Yes, But Only If They're Smarter

Oh, people read this blog, all right. They come for the LOLs, and stay for the cynicism, self-deprecating bitterness, and jokes about bosoms.

But are they listening? Of course not. Because in the past 5 years, I have utterly failed to change the world.

I haven’t overthrown a single government, let alone a publishing cliché. I have failed to stamp out literary stereotypes, or the rampant populism of copycat genre fiction. People are still self-publishing without getting their stuff professionally edited, and I myself haven’t hit the New York Times bestseller list with even one of the books I never published.

Accordingly, I am going to celebrate my blogiversary by asking the publishing industry once again for something I have been asking for, for years:


Now, could this BE any more boring, I hear you think in a Friendly Chandlerian whine?

Well, yes, quite frankly. Because every day of the week, people wail about problems in the book world. We keep banging on about authors not being able to make a living, or certain business models in publishing being broken, or trade paperbacks being too heavy, or books being too cheap, or books being too expensive – sometimes even the same books…

Can Books Can Compete With Smartphones? Yes, But Only If They're Smarter

But do we ever offer solutions? No. Or, rarely, at least. So shouldn’t someone listen when we do?

Innovation is the only way to beat the new reality, which is that fewer people are reading fewer books, despite there being far more ways of consuming books than ever before. And this is because no book can ever compete with the hand-held internal portal and window on the world that is the smartphone.

I was once that old cliché – the ‘Voracious Reader’. Once upon a time, I never left the house without a book. There wasn’t a form of public transport I didn’t read books on. Any time my arse settled into a seat of any description, I had a book in my hands. I read at lunchtime. I read at goinghometime. I read at bedtime.

I was never without a book. But then smartphones happened.

Social media didn’t kill reading. Smartphones killed reading. Because no matter how much time I spend on social media, it cannot compare to the amount of time I spend reading the news on my phone.

When you only have between 5 and 10 minutes to spare, a little voice whispers in your head. “Don’t read your book, you don’t have time to get into it,” the voice says. “Read an article about dumbsplaining financial derivatives to Donald Trump instead. That’ll only take 30 seconds.”

20 minutes later, however, you’ve read 9 articles, and somehow still found time to disappear into a YouTube or blogging wormhole which made you miss your stop.

This makes me think that books just have to become more app-able. By this they need to become flexible, portable and present the same choices, so that they don’t seem like an inferior alternative to 4 articles about how a pair of pink socks made an actress look either fat or pregnant (depending on how misogynistic you are).

Can Books Can Compete With Smartphones? Yes, But Only If They're Smarter

It’s all about competing for those 10-minute attention windows. So in that vein, what if you knew you’d have to stop reading a book, because you had to go out, or get off the train – but what if you also knew you could just put on headphones and have the audiobook pick up exactly where you left?

Or let’s just say I don’t want to read an e-book right now. Maybe because the sun is shining, or I want to refer to the cover, or I don’t want to look at a screen, or I just don’t like them really.

What if I knew I could switch between the paperback version at home, and the e-book in a queue, and the audiobook version while I’m walking or driving?

What if I had all of those delivery options available to me as a bundle for every single book I bought, which might mean that I’d finish a book quicker, meaning I might then BUY ANOTHER BOOK, meaning I might even DOUBLE my reading consumption over the course of a year?

Just sayin’. I know I can’t expect people to listen to me all of the time. But if I’m talking sense, could someone maybe just listen some of the time?

Help me out, here. Validate me on this, my 5th Blogiversary.

Would it make a difference to you if book formats were bundled like this? Would you read more? Could you care less? Or could this be the way forward?

  35 comments for “Can Books Compete With Smartphones? Yes, But Only If They’re Smarter

  1. June 24, 2018 at 10:38 am

    PS: You seem to have already made a difference – it’s now possible to buy SOME paperbacks, ebooks AND get a FREE audio book (by Audible) on Amazon – IF the author provides them. 😎
    Otherwise, do the old Kindle Text to Voice thingy that I still haven’t got the hang of 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2018 at 2:58 pm

      Oh, I couldn’t listen to Kindle Text to Voice, Chris! Audiobooks are so well produced I couldn’t imagine listening to a computer read a book to me. But outside of the self-publishing space I can’t see any widespread bundling, and it’s traditional publishing that needs it..

      Liked by 1 person

  2. June 24, 2018 at 10:47 am

    Happiest blogiversary and any other occasion you happen to be celebrating this weekend, Ms. Sparling. You know, just in case there’s anything else, some other annual observance you politely neglected to mention…

    Whispersync accomplishes the e-to-a book part of what you’re after and I personally hunger to have that for my books. Of course, it still comes in a pumped-up, fat-stuffing, publishing-oligopoly-propping price bundle which keeps the e-book way above market value and gives the a-book for typically a whopping $2-3 less than bust-out retail. But perhaps that sounds like griping. Which incidentally, it is. But at least I broke my personal record for hyphens in a single sentence, so there’s that.

    Now linking in the paper book, that would be a feat. The only solutions I can think of there would require us to BE in a sci-fi setting first. But fun to dream!

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2018 at 5:22 pm

      Does Whispersync actually pick up the audio where the e-book leaves off, Will? If so, it must be an innovative utopia combined with the worse pricing package known to man. Books will never compete with the internet if they’re going to charge people more for the privilege. It’s a nonsense business strategy to overcharge for bundling, and deserves to fail if they do.

      The only reason I think it’d be good to make paper books part of the package is to cater for every choice. And I’d have no objection to taking the trouble to find my place, if only it didn’t cost me more to do so!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. June 24, 2018 at 10:51 am

    I often do the e-book and audio book bundle. Usually means paying more for the e-book, but it’s worth it for the ability to chop and change. So the world is sort of listening to you … in a distracted ‘can’t-listen-on-my-smartphone’ sort of way. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 24, 2018 at 5:24 pm

      There you go, though – you consider it worthy to pay for the ability to chop and change. Thousands wouldn’t. The only way to compete with the distraction of the internet is to make the choice readily available for little or no extra cost, and nobody seems to want to do that!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. June 24, 2018 at 11:18 am

    At the age of 49, I can recollect sitting in the school library, simply reading. Although computers did exist there was no internet to distract me nor where there any smart phones, let alone mobiles of any description. The only interruption I encountered was the entry of a fellow pupil or a teacher. I believe that we have lost something precious (or are in danger of doing so), namely the ability to switch off from the world and lose ourselves in a good book.

    The problem goes wider than the amount of time spent reading. Earlier today I was walking my dog through the woods near to my home. As I strolled through this beautiful place, a young woman passed me, not engrossed in the beauty of the day or nature, but in her mobile telephone.

    As regards your suggestion that books should be bundled, anything which encourages reading is to be welcomed. It is, however also important to educate people about the importance of switching off. Of course one can’t tell adults what to do. However schools could follow the example of one educational establishment in France where mobiles are banned. Okay pupils may need their telephones on the way home to call family in an emergency. But there is really no good reason why they should require them during the school day.

    As someone who is registered blind I welcome the way in which technology has expanded my horizons by, for example the proliferation of accessible ebooks. However I do worry about technology moving from being our servant to our master.

    Best – Kevin

    Liked by 4 people

    • June 24, 2018 at 5:28 pm

      I’m afraid the battle for attention has long been lost, though, Kevin. I too was raised in a distraction-free environment, but I’m now addicted to reading news, no matter how much I lament it. For others it’s social media or Instagram pics – for me it’s news articles, which I read far too many of, regardless of which respectable journalist might have written them.

      Given that I wish I read more, rather than just being someone that other people wished read more, the only solution I can see is to make books more competitive. The distractions which are currently winning the war are here to stay.

      Liked by 2 people

      • June 24, 2018 at 6:40 pm

        I agree that we can’t uninvent (what an ugly word that is) the mobile phone. We can, however read to children from a young age and thereby implant a love of literature in them. We can, also educate them to “switch off” from time to time. So, while we can’t return to a pre-internet/mobile age, we can still, I believe do much to encourage reading both in its traditional (paper) form and in digital formats.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. June 24, 2018 at 2:09 pm

    Happy Anniversary!

    This is a very good idea — a seamless transition when reading a physical book (I prefer) to electronic form (although why not keep reading the physical book), and finally to the audiobook version (however, I’ve been known to miss my train stop). Do you always come up with good ideas when it’s sunny in Ireland?

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2018 at 5:29 pm

      Not at all, Stanley. We’re usually far too busy trying to think of ways to complain about how hot it is. We’re not raised with the vocabulary for it, you see…. 😂


  6. June 24, 2018 at 2:56 pm

    I can tell you right now the one thing that would cause me to read far more than I currently do: the availability of more books (in the genres I prefer to read, of course) that aren’t riddled with multiple errors per page. My job involves a lot of translating bad grammar and punctuation into something coherent, and I don’t want to have to do that all during my leisure time, too. It’s not inconvenience or lack of time that makes me read less than I used to; it’s the shortage of things I can enjoy reading.

    IMO, it would be really, really nice if the general populace would stop pathologizing the preference not to use a smartphone for everything: “You don’t spend all your time looking at your phone? What’s wrong with you?” I really like being able to read ebooks, partly because some books aren’t even available in print editions. Plus, no idjit can look at the outside of my Kindle, see exactly what I’m reading, and exclaim, “Science fiction? You mean like witchcraft?” *rolls eyes* But I like print books, too, because… well, books. I’m not fond of audiobooks myself, but they’re a great thing to have available for those who want them, and I know people who’d “read” more if they could listen to books on their drive to work or whatever.

    Liked by 3 people

    • June 24, 2018 at 5:33 pm

      I agree, Thomas – those are the very reasons I like ebooks too, but also because having access to an entire library on my smartphone means that I’m even less likely to be without a book than I was before. My problem is actually reading them!

      It’s all about flexibility. Click-bait headlines work because they win the attention of people with short attention spans. I’d like to see flexible content formats win the same battles.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. June 24, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    Okay, will admit the WORST THING EVER. I hate my smart phone. I only use it for texting. After months of distraction from book deadlines that loom over me, I’ve relegated my phone back to a phone. (going to hide in a cave now). But I suspect there are others out there like me.
    So…audio books are a no go. I can’t listen and make sense of them. But I wonder if shorter fiction isn’t the answer. We’re used to 22 minute television shows. Why not 22 minute reads? Thing is, we need to get the trad publishers on line with this, because otherwise no one will get paid. And I’d miss my 48 cents a book. (I hope you’re laughing now.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • June 24, 2018 at 5:36 pm

      That’s absolutely spot on, Melodie – and there is evidence to suggest, in the self-publishing space in particular, that there’s a whole new market in shorter fiction. I think Anne R. Allen did a piece on that a while back?

      There’s still room for 1,000 page historical epics – at least on my shelf – but shorter lit-fic in particular would go down a storm…

      Liked by 1 person

      • annerallen
        June 24, 2018 at 6:05 pm

        Tara–Thanks for the shout-out. You know, I think short audiobooks would be very cool too. And happy blogiversary!

        Liked by 1 person

        • June 24, 2018 at 6:40 pm

          Shorter anything, Anne! I’m all for it… they also lend themselves to series, I think. And look how well that’s gone down in TV!


  8. June 24, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    Congrats on your blogoversary. That said, seamless transitions between the various media is a cool idea, but it assumes readers and listeners are the same people. Is that a good assumption or are they different consumers who prefer different media for their stories? I do both things, but I’ve never considered switching between the two – audio is for driving trips, books (e or preferably paper) are for home or train/air trips. Yeah, I just violated the first rule of marketing (assuming you’re a representative of a market), but my kids – who are the target audience of my own writing – seem to follow the same pattern as do their friends. The one thing I do notice among young readers (I coach a swim team with long meets and waits between practices) is the predominance of graphic novels. Comic books to me and my age group seem bigger than ever. Even my 17 year old daughter, not your stereotypical comic book kid, enjoys books with visual content. She’s read the Harry Potter books more than 20 times in paperback, a few of them in French, and is now reading unabridged versions with quality artwork inserted. Maybe having videos or sound bits inserted in an e-book would work – yeah not original nor really my cup of tea – but maybe. Obviously, if I knew the answer I’d be doing it. Once again congrats on five years and best of luck to many more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2018 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks Armen! It’s been a long 5 years, in that it feels like I’ve been blogging all my life, quite frankly!

      I think the key here is opening up new markets, not trying to convert the current one. I don’t currently listen to audiobooks, but I might, if one was simply picking up a story where my eyes were forced to leave off.

      And as you say, more innovation is key – after all, that’s what the internet did to distract us in the first place. It caught our attention for short, visual-driven content, no matter how shallow, and created a whole new market for newsless news and the realityless reality of social media.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. June 24, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    Happy Blogiversay, Tara! And I want those book bundles too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2018 at 7:03 pm

      Good stuff – I’ll write a strongly-worded letter (in several formats 😉 )


  10. June 25, 2018 at 2:10 am

    Happy Blog-O-Versary! 😀

    That’s a very interesting concept. The technology is certainly there, but could it be scaled up to connect paper, digital, and audio? Possibly. Would the present systems of creating all three disparate platforms have the vision to do it? A big fat nope! Or at least not in the foreseeable future. They’re still desperately trying to hold on to their individual pieces of the pie to even think of coopperatively with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 25, 2018 at 7:00 am

      I suppose it’s all about investment, and who’s prepared to make it. All it’ll take is for one publisher to succeed in it & the rest will follow… as long as it’s not too late! We wouldn’t want to see book publishers go the same way as music publishers, or indeed bookshops go the same way of record shops.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. June 25, 2018 at 8:48 am

    Congrats! I listen to you. I wouldn’t listen to an audio book though unless it’s Martin Jarvis reading Just William, and I would never, not if it was the only option available, read anything but a text message on my phone. I hate the bloody thing. I have one because you have to and my children would cease to exist of they couldn’t text me because they are phone people. You’re certainly right though about competing for the few minutes that people think they have spare, when in fact they have hours spare. They just choose to do different things with their spare time, like fall asleep in front of a terrible film.
    One of the big problems I see is the image problem. Kindle, smartphones, ereaders in general, and audio books have coincided with self-publishing. I’m not knocking self-publishing, I’ve done it myself, but it has meant there’s been an explosion of what’s available. It’s like China. Cheap rubbish has flooded the market and become the norm. Nobody expects a power drill to last more than a couple of outings, likewise they don’t expect to get a literary thrill from a bargain priced ebook. You’re right, I’m sure, that making it even easier to access said book will drive reading figures up. Whether it will drive quality up, I doubt. But then that has always been a fallacious argument, that because there are about a trillion more books available means there is a huge upsurge in readers keen to get at them. You’re not only competing with other books, you’re competing for the same number of readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 25, 2018 at 3:45 pm

      That’s an excellent point, Jane. I think you’re right. Most innovation in the book world has been synonymous with the explosion in cheap titles. Seems like the whole industry needs a makeover from a ruthless PR mistress! I wonder if I have any lying about…


  12. June 25, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    Short answer… Yes. I would read more. I’d love for my car to pick up where my kindle left off. That would be cool. I could just have my phone read to me in the car. I’ll have to try that.
    Happy Blogiversary, Tara.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. June 25, 2018 at 4:33 pm

    re: shorter books… aren’t they called chapters. 22 minutes to read a chapter works for me.


  14. August 20, 2018 at 9:48 am

    Interestingly enough, we seem to have reached the same conclusion. It’s why I’ve been writing a lot of short stories and giving away the Kindle editions of my books to anyone who has bought the print one. Sadly enough, not enough people seem interested in my shorts (not that kind of shorts, silly. You can stop giggling now) or in downloading the free editions. Maybe we’re just ahead of our time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 20, 2018 at 1:40 pm

      I would never giggle at your shorts, Nick. Everyone knows there’s only comedy in NO shorts. And bananas. Always the bananas.

      You’re always good to spot market trends, though, so people should sit up and take notice of this…

      Liked by 1 person

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