Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Publishers Take Leaps Into Digital

By ERIC PFANNER
Published: November 9, 2008

PARIS — Long after other media joined the digital revolution, book publishers clung to the reassuringly low-tech tools of printing press, paper and ink.

But now the world of books is starting to go digital, too.

Late last month, American authors and publishers reached an agreement with Google to settle lawsuits over Google’s Book Search program, which scans millions of books and makes their contents available on the Internet. The deal lets Google sell electronic versions of copyrighted works that have gone out of print.

“Almost overnight, not only has the largest publishing deal been struck, but the largest bookshop in the world has been built, even if it is not quite open for business yet,” wrote Neill Denny, editor of The Bookseller, a trade publication based in London, on his blog.

The settlement remains subject to court approval, and the bookshop would operate only in the United States for now. But the agreement is only one of many initiatives under which books are making what may be the biggest technological leap since Gutenberg invented moveable type.

This month, a group of European national libraries and archives plans to open Europeana, an online database of two million books and other cultural and historical items, including films, paintings, newspapers and sound recordings. Letters from Mozart to his friends, from the Austrian National Library in Vienna are there, along with early printings of his work, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Meanwhile, publishers are moving ahead with a flurry of digital initiatives, sometimes in a race against Internet start-ups.

“The book business model is under siege, just as the music industry earlier came under siege,” said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a Silicon Valley company that helps people publish their own books, using the Internet. “The book publishing business has had a front-row seat to see what happened to the music industry.”

Until recently, while the music business was decimated by digital piracy, book sales rose, aided by the ability to browse and buy from online stores like Amazon.

But in the first nine months of this year, book sales in the United States fell 1.5 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Among the few bright spots were sales of so-called e-books, read on devices like Amazon’s Kindle, on personal computers or on mobile phones. Wholesale sales of e-books were up 55 percent from a year earlier.

Questions remain over the best way to deliver digital books. In the United States, a surge in sales followed the introduction of the Kindle last year and upgrades in rival devices like the Sony Reader, which allow users to download books wirelessly or from an Internet-connected computer.

But in Europe, where such devices are only slowly becoming available, sales of e-books remain in their infancy. The price of these gadgets — the Kindle, for example, costs $359 — may put off readers.

In Japan, the mobile phone has been the most popular way to read e-books, according to the Digital Content Association of Japan. Sales of digital versions of manga comic books are leading the way. Penguin said it also had high hopes for selling e-books to mobile phone users in India.

About half a million people in more than 50 countries have downloaded Stanza, an application that lets them read e-books on the iPhone, said Michael Smith, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum in Toronto.

“The adoption is happening,” he said. “It’s not theory. It’s happening.”

A survey published in conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair last month showed that 40 percent of book publishing professionals thought digital sales would surpass sales of paper-and-ink books by 2018.

Now, though, revenue from e-books and other digital sources remains tiny — less than 1 percent of the worldwide sales of Penguin Group, for example, according to Genevieve Shore, digital director for Penguin in London.

But the Google deal with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild could be a catalyst. Under the proposed settlement, Google would share online sales revenue with publishers and authors.

“We’re very excited about it,” Ms. Shore said. “What it means is that a very important player in our online lives, we’re not in conflict with anymore.”

Publishers are exploring other new ways to sell books in digital form. She said Penguin was considering subscription plans, where readers would pay a monthly fee for online access to best sellers. Another possibility would be free or reduced-price online versions of books, supported by advertising — an approach adopted by newspapers on the Internet.

“We will have some interesting new business models on the market in 2009,” she said.

Free electronic versions of some books have been available for years. Project Gutenberg, a volunteer archival effort, makes more than 25,000 books available for download. Feedbooks, a start-up company in Paris, is formatting many of them for use on mobile devices.

There are limits to what readers can find on Feedbooks. George Orwell’s “1984,” for example, is available; the latest best sellers are not. That is because Project Gutenberg focuses on books whose copyrights have expired.

The Google settlement largely concerned works that were still under copyright but no longer in print. Digitizing these books could allow publishers to offer readers vast numbers of additional volumes — the so-called long tail of the Internet.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Kindle: Good Before, Better Now

By DAVID POGUE
Published: February 24, 2009

In the high-tech industry, you live for the day when your product name becomes a verb. “I Googled him.” “She’s been Photo- shopped.”

Amazon, however, is hoping that its product name, a verb, becomes a noun. “Have you bought the new Kindle?”

The Kindle is the most successful electronic book-reading tablet so far, but that’s not saying much; Silicon Valley is littered with the corpses of e-book reader projects.

A couple of factors made the Kindle a modest hit when it made its debut in November 2007. First, it incorporated a screen made by E Ink that looks amazingly close to ink on paper.

Unlike a laptop or an iPhone, the screen is not illuminated, so there’s no glare, no eyestrain — and no battery consumption. You use power only when you actually turn the page, causing millions of black particles to realign. The rest of the time, the ink pattern remains on the screen without power. You can set it on your bedside table without worrying about turning it off.

The big Kindle breakthrough was its wireless connection. Thanks to Sprint’s cellular Internet service, the Kindle is always online: indoors, outdoors, miles from the nearest Wi-Fi hot spot.

This sort of service costs $60 a month for laptops, but Amazon pays the Kindle’s wireless bill, in hopes that you’ll buy e-books spontaneously. “Have you read ‘The Audacity of Hope’?” someone might ask you. “Why, no, but I’ll download it now!” And 45 seconds later, you’ve got the whole book.

It’s all a thousand times more convenient and more exciting than loading books from a PC with a cable, as you must with Sony’s Reader, the Kindle’s archrival. As a bonus, the Kindle includes a simple Web browser, great for quick wireless Wikipedia checks and blog reading.

Starting today, there’s a new Kindle. Amazon calls it the Kindle 2, but Kindle 1.1 would be more like it; the changes are fairly minor. Fortunately, they’re exactly what was needed to turn a very good reader into an even better one.

The page-turn buttons are now much smaller — and the clicky part is on the inward edge of each button — so you no longer set off page turns just by picking the thing up.

The new, square plastic joystick is homely and stiff, but it gets the job done. The back is now brushed aluminum. Turning pages on the Kindle is a tad faster now. The screen shows 16 shades of gray now, not four, so photos look sharper; you can also zoom in and rotate them.

Taking a page from Apple’s playbook, the new Kindle is a sleeker, more sealed-in sort of machine. You can no longer expand storage with a memory card; then again, the built-in memory holds seven times as much — 1,500 books. Think that’ll tide you through the weekend?

The battery is also sealed inside, √† la iPhone. Amazon says, however, that it lasts 25 percent longer per charge (four days of reading with wireless turned on, or two weeks if it’s off). If that battery ever needs replacing, Amazon has to do it ($60).

The Kindle will also read aloud to you through its tiny stereo speakers or headphone jack, and even turn the pages as it goes.

But if you have visions dancing in your head of turning every book into an audiobook, forget it. The Kindle’s male and female voices are very good, but nobody will mistake them for the voices of humans, let alone the professionals who record audiobooks. Kindle voices have some peculiar inflections and pronunciations — they sound oddly Norwegian, sometimes — and, of course, they’re incapable of expressing emotion. They read Hemingway the same way they read Stephen Colbert.

As before, your books, annotations and clippings are auto-backed up on Amazon.com. But now, if you buy multiple Kindles (dream on, Amazon), all of them remember where you stopped reading in each book. (This feature will be more useful if, as Amazon has hinted, you’ll soon be able to read your e-books on other machines, like your laptop or iPhone. And why not? The Kindle is just the razor. The books are the blades — ka-ching!)

The Kindle catalog is bigger, too; now 240,000 books are available. New York Times bestsellers are $10 each, which is less than the hardcover editions. Older books run $3 to $6.

That said, Amazon is still a long way from its “any book, any time” goal. You don’t have to look far to find important titles still among the missing; they include all Harry Potter books; “An Inconvenient Truth”; “The English Patient”; and “The Associate” (the No. 1 fiction best seller) or anything else by John Grisham.

You can have any of 30 newspapers, including this one, wirelessly beamed to your Kindle each morning ($10 to $14 a month) — minus ads, comics and crosswords. Magazines (22 so far, $1.50 to $3 monthly) and blogs ($2 a month) can arrive automatically, too.

Finally, you can send Word, text, PDF and JPEG documents to the Kindle using its private e-mail address — a huge blessing to publishers, lawyers, academics, script readers and so on — for 10 cents each. Or transfer them over a USB cable for nothing.

So, for the thousandth time: is this the end of the printed book?

Don’t be silly.

The Kindle has the usual list of e-book perks: dictionary, text search, bookmarks, clippings, MP3 music playback and six type sizes (baby boomers, arise). No trees die to furnish paper for Kindle books, either.

But as traditionalists always point out, an e-book reader is a delicate piece of electronics. It can be lost, dropped or fried in the tub. You’d have to buy an awful lot of $10 best sellers to recoup the purchase price. If Amazon goes under or abandons the Kindle, you lose your entire library. And you can’t pass on or sell an e-book after you’ve read it.

Another group of naysayers claims that the Kindle has missed its window. E-book programs are thriving on the far more portable (and far more popular) iPhones and iPod Touches. Surely smartphones, which already serve as cameras, calculators and Web browsers, will become the dominant e-book readers as well.

The point everyone is missing is that in Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything. E-book readers won’t replace books. The iPhone won’t replace e-book readers. Everything just splinters. They will all thrive, serving their respective audiences.

With those caveats, the new Kindle edges even closer to the ideal of an e-book reader. The reading experience is immersive, natural and pleasant; the book catalog, while not yet complete, is growing and delivered instantaneously; and apart from the clicky keyboard (an unnecessary appendage 99.9 percent of the time), the design feels right.

If the Kindle’s popularity keeps growing, then it may be remembered as the spark that finally ignites mainstream e-books. Someday, other gadgets may even be described as “Kindleizing” their fields. In that case, “Kindle” will be the first product name that ever went from verb to noun — and back to verb again.
[*bold formatting added]

MORE READERS A roundup of devices and software for reading books electronically will appear in the Circuits section on Thursday.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 24, 2009, on page B1 of the New York edition.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab

By MOTOKO RICH
Published: January 27, 2009

The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them.

At least, that is what the evidence suggests. Booksellers, hobbled by the economic crisis, are struggling to lure readers. Almost all of the New York publishing houses are laying off editors and pinching pennies. Small bookstores are closing. Big chains are laying people off or exploring bankruptcy.

A recently released study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while more people are reading literary fiction, fewer of them are reading books.

Meanwhile, there is one segment of the industry that is actually flourishing: capitalizing on the dream of would-be authors to see their work between covers, companies that charge writers and photographers to publish are growing rapidly at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground.

Credit for the self-publishing boomlet goes to authors like Jim Bendat, whose book “Democracy’s Big Day,” a collection of historical vignettes about presidential inaugurations, enjoyed a modest burst in sales in the hoopla surrounding President Obama’s swearing-in.

After failing to secure a traditional publishing deal in 2000, Mr. Bendat, a public defender in Los Angeles, paid $99 to publish the first edition of his book with iUniverse, a print-on-demand company. He updated the book in 2004 and 2008, and has sold more than 2,500 copies. IUniverse takes a large cut of each sale of the book, currently on Amazon.com for $11.66.

As traditional publishers look to prune their booklists and rely increasingly on blockbuster best sellers, self-publishing companies are ramping up their title counts and making money on books that sell as few as five copies, in part because the author, rather than the publisher, pays for things like cover design and printing costs.

In 2008, Author Solutions, which is based in Bloomington, Ind., and operates iUniverse as well as other print-on-demand imprints including AuthorHouse and Wordclay, published 13,000 titles, up 12 percent from the previous year.

This month, the company, which is owned by Bertram Capital, a private equity firm, bought a rival, Xlibris, expanding its profile in the fast-growing market. The combined company represented 19,000 titles in 2008, nearly six times more than Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books, released last year.

In 2008, nearly 480,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from close to 375,000 in 2007, according to the industry tracker Bowker. The company attributed a significant proportion of that rise to an increase in the number of print-on-demand books.

“Even if you’re sitting at a dinner party, if you ask how many people want to write a book, everyone will say, ‘I’ve got a book or two in me,’” said Kevin Weiss, chief executive of Author Solutions. “We don’t see a letup in the number of people who are interested in writing.”

The trend is also driven by professionals who want to use a book as an enhanced business card as well as by people who are creating books as gifts for family and friends.

“It used to be an elite few,” said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a print-on-demand company whose revenue has grown to $30 million, from $1 million, in just two years and which published more than 300,000 titles last year. Many of those were personal books bought only by the author. “Now anyone can make a book, and it looks just like a book that you buy at the bookstore.”

To be sure, self-publishing is still a fraction of the wider publishing industry. Author Solutions, for example, sold a total of 2.5 million copies last year. Little, Brown sold more than that many copies of “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer just in the last two months of 2008.

But in an era when anyone can create a blog or post musings on Facebook or MySpace, people still seem to want the tangible validation of a printed book.

“I wanted the satisfaction of holding the book in my hands,” Mr. Bendat said.

As a result of his iUniverse book, the British news channel Sky News asked Mr. Bendat to provide live commentary on Inauguration Day. A group of Washington hotels ordered 500 copies to give to guests who were in town for the event.

“O.K., it’s not a best seller,” Mr. Bendat said, “but I’m happy for what’s happening.”

Vanity presses have existed for decades, but technology has made it much easier for aspiring authors to publish without hefty upfront costs. Gone are the days when self-publishing meant paying a printer to produce hundreds of copies that then languished in a garage.

Now, for as little as $3, an author can upload a manuscript or collection of photos to a Web site, and order a printed book within an hour. Many books will appear for sale on Amazon.com or the Web site of Barnes & Noble; others are sold through the self-publishing companies’ Web sites. Authors and readers order subsequent copies as needed.

The self-publishing companies generally make their money either by charging author fees — which can range from $99 to $100,000 for a variety of services, including custom cover design and marketing and distribution to online retailers, or by taking a portion of book sales, or both.

Some, like Lulu Enterprises and CreateSpace from Amazon.com, allow the author to create the book free, but then make their money on a small printing markup and a profit split with the author.

For some authors, the appeal of self-publishing is that they can put their books on the market much faster than through traditional publishers.

Of course, authors who take this route also give up a lot. Not only do they receive no advance payments, but they also often must pay out of their own pockets before seeing a dime. They do not have the benefit of the marketing acumen of traditional publishers, and have diminished access to the vast bookstore distribution pipeline that big publishers can provide.

Still, many self-publishing companies allow authors to take more than the traditional royalty of 15 percent of the cover price on hardcovers and 10 percent or less on paperbacks.

Michelle L. Long, an accountant who advises small businesses, published “Successful QuickBooks Consulting,” a guide for others who want to help businesses use a software package made by Intuit through CreateSpace a little more than a year ago. She said she had earned 45 to 55 percent of the cover price on each sale and had made $22,000 in royalties on the sale of more than 2,000 copies.

During an economic downturn, books tailored to such narrow audiences may fare better than titles from traditional publishers that depend on a more general appeal.

“A lot of this niche content is doing fairly well relative to the rest of the economy because it’s very useful to people who have a very specific need,” said Aaron Martin, director of self-publishing and manufacturing on demand at Amazon.

For many self-published authors, the niche is very small. Mr. Weiss of Author Solutions estimates that the average number of copies sold of titles published through one of its brands is just 150.

Indeed, said Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, N.C., a majority of the company’s titles are of little interest to anybody other than the authors and their families. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” Mr. Young said.

Still, the dream of many self-published authors is that they will be discovered by a mainstream publishing house — and it does happen, however rarely.

When Lisa Genova, a former consultant to pharmaceutical companies, wrote her first novel, “Still Alice,” a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s disease, she was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents.

Ms. Genova paid $450 to iUniverse to publish the book and sold copies to independent bookstores. A fellow author discovered the book and introduced Ms. Genova to an agent, and she eventually sold “Still Alice” for a mid-six-figure advance to Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which released a new edition this month. It had its debut on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list on Sunday, at No. 5.

Ms. Genova likened her experience to that of young bands or filmmakers using MySpace or YouTube to attract a following. “It’s really tough to break into the traditional model of doing things,” she said.

Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said publishers now trawl for new material by looking at reader comments about self-published books sold online. Self-publishing, she said, is “no longer a dirty word.”

Diamonds in the rough, though, remain the outliers. “For every thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there’s two that should have been published,” said Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver, who said she had been inundated by requests from self-published authors to sell their books. “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 28, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.

The Future of Reading

Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

By MOTOKO RICH
Published: July 27, 2008

BEREA, Ohio — Books are not Nadia Konyk’s thing. Her mother, hoping to entice her, brings them home from the library, but Nadia rarely shows an interest.

Instead, like so many other teenagers, Nadia, 15, is addicted to the Internet. She regularly spends at least six hours a day in front of the computer here in this suburb southwest of Cleveland.

A slender, chatty blonde who wears black-framed plastic glasses, Nadia checks her
e-mail and peruses myyearbook.com, a social networking site, reading messages or posting updates on her mood. She searches for music videos on YouTube and logs onto Gaia Online, a role-playing site where members fashion alternate identities as cutesy cartoon characters. But she spends most of her time on quizilla.com or fanfiction.net, reading and commenting on stories written by other users and based on books, television shows or movies.

Her mother, Deborah Konyk, would prefer that Nadia, who gets A’s and B’s at school, read books for a change. But at this point, Ms. Konyk said, “I’m just pleased that she reads something anymore.”

Children like Nadia lie at the heart of a passionate debate about just what it means to read in the digital age. The discussion is playing out among educational policy makers and reading experts around the world, and within groups like the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association.

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.

Even accomplished book readers like Zachary Sims, 18, of Old Greenwich, Conn., crave the ability to quickly find different points of view on a subject and converse with others online. Some children with dyslexia or other learning difficulties, like Hunter Gaudet, 16, of Somers, Conn., have found it far more comfortable to search and read online.

At least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading. What is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the Web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even britneyspears.org, entails some engagement with text.

Setting Expectations

Few who believe in the potential of the Web deny the value of books. But they argue that it is unrealistic to expect all children to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Pride and Prejudice” for fun. And those who prefer staring at a television or mashing buttons on a game console, they say, can still benefit from reading on the Internet. In fact, some literacy experts say that online reading skills will help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs.

Some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy, but the United States, for now, will not.

Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.

Last fall the National Endowment for the Arts issued a sobering report linking flat or declining national reading test scores among teenagers with the slump in the proportion of adolescents who said they read for fun.

According to Department of Education data cited in the report, just over a fifth of 17-year-olds said they read almost every day for fun in 2004, down from nearly a third in 1984. Nineteen percent of 17-year-olds said they never or hardly ever read for fun in 2004, up from 9 percent in 1984. (It was unclear whether they thought of what they did on the Internet as “reading.”)

“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in the report’s introduction, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

Children are clearly spending more time on the Internet. In a study of 2,032 representative 8- to 18-year-olds, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half used the Internet on a typical day in 2004, up from just under a quarter in 1999. The average time these children spent online on a typical day rose to one hour and 41 minutes in 2004, from 46 minutes in 1999.

The question of how to value different kinds of reading is complicated because people read for many reasons. There is the level required of daily life — to follow the instructions in a manual or to analyze a mortgage contract. Then there is a more sophisticated level that opens the doors to elite education and professions. And, of course, people read for entertainment, as well as for intellectual or emotional rewards.

It is perhaps that final purpose that book champions emphasize the most.

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”


What’s Best for Nadia?


Deborah Konyk always believed it was essential for Nadia and her 8-year-old sister, Yashca, to read books. She regularly read aloud to the girls and took them to library story hours.

“Reading opens up doors to places that you probably will never get to visit in your lifetime, to cultures, to worlds, to people,” Ms. Konyk said.

Ms. Konyk, who took a part-time job at a dollar store chain a year and a half ago, said she did not have much time to read books herself. There are few books in the house. But after Yashca was born, Ms. Konyk spent the baby’s nap time reading the Harry Potter novels to Nadia, and she regularly brought home new titles from the library.

Despite these efforts, Nadia never became a big reader. Instead, she became obsessed with Japanese anime cartoons on television and comics like “Sailor Moon.” Then, when she was in the sixth grade, the family bought its first computer. When a friend introduced Nadia to fanfiction.net, she turned off the television and started reading online.

Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors. One of her recent favorites was “My absolutely, perfect normal life ... ARE YOU CRAZY? NOT!,” a story based on the anime series “Beyblade.”

In one scene the narrator, Aries, hitches a ride with some masked men and one of them pulls a knife on her. “Just then I notice (Like finally) something sharp right in front of me,” Aries writes. “I gladly took it just like that until something terrible happen ....”

Nadia said she preferred reading stories online because “you could add your own character and twist it the way you want it to be.”

“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.”

Nadia also writes her own stories. She posted “Dieing Isn’t Always Bad,” about a girl who comes back to life as half cat, half human, on both fanfiction.net and quizilla.com.

Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

The simplest argument for why children should read in their leisure time is that it makes them better readers. According to federal statistics, students who say they read for fun once a day score significantly higher on reading tests than those who say they never do.

Reading skills are also valued by employers. A 2006 survey by the Conference Board, which conducts research for business leaders, found that nearly 90 percent of employers rated “reading comprehension” as “very important” for workers with bachelor’s degrees. Department of Education statistics also show that those who score higher on reading tests tend to earn higher incomes.

Critics of reading on the Internet say they see no evidence that increased Web activity improves reading achievement. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Mr. Gioia of the N.E.A. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”

Nicholas Carr sounded a similar note in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine. Warning that the Web was changing the way he — and others — think, he suggested that the effects of Internet reading extended beyond the falling test scores of adolescence. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote, confessing that he now found it difficult to read long books.

Literacy specialists are just beginning to investigate how reading on the Internet affects reading skills. A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books. The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.

Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.

One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

Neurological studies show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. Scientists speculate that reading on the Internet may also affect the brain’s hard wiring in a way that is different from book reading.

“The question is, does it change your brain in some beneficial way?” said Guinevere F. Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University. “The brain is malleable and adapts to its environment. Whatever the pressures are on us to succeed, our brain will try and deal with it.”

Some scientists worry that the fractured experience typical of the Internet could rob developing readers of crucial skills. “Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode,” said Ken Pugh, a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale who has studied brain scans of children reading.

But This Is Reading Too

Web proponents believe that strong readers on the Web may eventually surpass those who rely on books. Reading five Web sites, an op-ed article and a blog post or two, experts say, can be more enriching than reading one book.

“It takes a long time to read a 400-page book,” said Mr. Spiro of Michigan State. “In a tenth of the time,” he said, the Internet allows a reader to “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view.”

Zachary Sims, the Old Greenwich, Conn., teenager, often stays awake until 2 or 3 in the morning reading articles about technology or politics — his current passions — on up to 100 Web sites.

“On the Internet, you can hear from a bunch of people,” said Zachary, who will attend Columbia University this fall. “They may not be pedigreed academics. They may be someone in their shed with a conspiracy theory. But you would weigh that.”

Though he also likes to read books (earlier this year he finished, and loved, “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand), Zachary craves interaction with fellow readers on the Internet. “The Web is more about a conversation,” he said. “Books are more one-way.”

The kinds of skills Zachary has developed — locating information quickly and accurately, corroborating findings on multiple sites — may seem obvious to heavy Web users. But the skills can be cognitively demanding.

Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site (http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/) about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.

Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem.

“Kids are using sound and images so they have a world of ideas to put together that aren’t necessarily language oriented,” said Donna E. Alvermann, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia. “Books aren’t out of the picture, but they’re only one way of experiencing information in the world today.”

A Lifelong Struggle

In the case of Hunter Gaudet, the Internet has helped him feel more comfortable with a new kind of reading. A varsity lacrosse player in Somers, Conn., Hunter has struggled most of his life to read. After learning he was dyslexic in the second grade, he was placed in special education classes and a tutor came to his home three hours a week. When he entered high school, he dropped the special education classes, but he still reads books only when forced, he said.

In a book, “they go through a lot of details that aren’t really needed,” Hunter said. “Online just gives you what you need, nothing more or less.”

When researching the 19th-century Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for one class, he typed Taney’s name into Google and scanned the Wikipedia entry and other biographical sites. Instead of reading an entire page, he would type in a search word like “college” to find Taney’s alma mater, assembling his information nugget by nugget.

Experts on reading difficulties suggest that for struggling readers, the Web may be a better way to glean information. “When you read online there are always graphics,” said Sally Shaywitz, the author of “Overcoming Dyslexia” and a Yale professor. “I think it’s just more comfortable and — I hate to say easier — but it more meets the needs of somebody who might not be a fluent reader.”

Karen Gaudet, Hunter’s mother, a regional manager for a retail chain who said she read two or three business books a week, hopes Hunter will eventually discover a love for books. But she is confident that he has the reading skills he needs to succeed.

“Based on where technology is going and the world is going,” she said, “he’s going to be able to leverage it.”

When he was in seventh grade, Hunter was one of 89 students who participated in a study comparing performance on traditional state reading tests with a specially designed Internet reading test. Hunter, who scored in the lowest 10 percent on the traditional test, spent 12 weeks learning how to use the Web for a science class before taking the Internet test. It was composed of three sets of directions asking the students to search for information online, determine which sites were reliable and explain their reasoning.

Hunter scored in the top quartile. In fact, about a third of the students in the study, led by Professor Leu, scored below average on traditional reading tests but did well on the Internet assessment.

The Testing Debate

To date, there have been few large-scale appraisals of Web skills. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, has developed a digital literacy test known as iSkills that requires students to solve informational problems by searching for answers on the Web. About 80 colleges and a handful of high schools have administered the test so far.

But according to Stephen Denis, product manager at ETS, of the more than 20,000 students who have taken the iSkills test since 2006, only 39 percent of four-year college freshmen achieved a score that represented “core functional levels” in Internet literacy.

Now some literacy experts want the federal tests known as the nation’s report card to include a digital reading component. So far, the traditionalists have held sway: The next round, to be administered to fourth and eighth graders in 2009, will test only print reading comprehension.

Mary Crovo of the National Assessment Governing Board, which creates policies for the national tests, said several members of a committee that sets guidelines for the reading tests believed large numbers of low-income and rural students might not have regular Internet access, rendering measurements of their online skills unfair.

Some simply argue that reading on the Internet is not something that needs to be tested — or taught.

“Nobody has taught a single kid to text message,” said Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English and a member of the testing guidelines committee. “Kids are smart. When they want to do something, schools don’t have to get involved.”

Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford who lobbied for an Internet component as chairman of the reading test guidelines committee, disagreed. Students “are going to grow up having to be highly competent on the Internet,” he said. “There’s no reason to make them discover how to be highly competent if we can teach them.”

The United States is diverging from the policies of some other countries. Next year, for the first time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers reading, math and science tests to a sample of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries, will add an electronic reading component. The United States, among other countries, will not participate. A spokeswoman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, said an additional test would overburden schools.

Even those who are most concerned about the preservation of books acknowledge that children need a range of reading experiences. “Some of it is the informal reading they get in e-mails or on Web sites,” said Gay Ivey, a professor at James Madison University who focuses on adolescent literacy. “I think they need it all.”

Web junkies can occasionally be swept up in a book. After Nadia read Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night” in her freshman English class, Ms. Konyk brought home another Holocaust memoir, “I Have Lived a Thousand Years,” by Livia Bitton-Jackson.

Nadia was riveted by heartbreaking details of life in the concentration camps. “I was trying to imagine this and I was like, I can’t do this,” she said. “It was just so — wow.”

Hoping to keep up the momentum, Ms. Konyk brought home another book, “Silverboy,” a fantasy novel. Nadia made it through one chapter before she got engrossed in the Internet fan fiction again.


A version of this article appeared in print on July 27, 2008, on page A1 of the New York edition.

The Future of Reading: In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update

By MOTOKO RICH
Published: February 15, 2009

It was the “aha!” moment that Stephanie Rosalia was hoping for.

A group of fifth graders huddled around laptop computers in the school library overseen by Ms. Rosalia and scanned allaboutexplorers.com, a Web site that, unbeknownst to the children, was intentionally peppered with false facts.

Ms. Rosalia, the school librarian at Public School 225, a combined elementary and middle school in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, urged caution. “Don’t answer your questions with the first piece of information that you find,” she warned.

Most of the students ignored her, as she knew they would. But Nozimakon Omonullaeva, 11, noticed something odd on a page about Christopher Columbus.

“It says the Indians enjoyed the cellphones and computers brought by Columbus!” Nozimakon exclaimed, pointing at the screen. “That’s wrong.”

It was an essential discovery in a lesson about the reliability — or lack thereof — of information on the Internet, one of many Ms. Rosalia teaches in her role as a new kind of school librarian.

Ms. Rosalia, 54, is part of a growing cadre of 21st-century multimedia specialists who help guide students through the digital ocean of information that confronts them on a daily basis. These new librarians believe that literacy includes, but also exceeds, books.

“The days of just reshelving a book are over,” said Ms. Rosalia, who came to P.S. 225 nearly six years ago after graduating at the top of her class at the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. “Now it is the information age, and that technology has brought out a whole new generation of practices.”

Some of these new librarians teach children how to develop PowerPoint presentations or create online videos. Others get students to use social networking sites to debate topics from history or comment on classmates’ creative writing. Yet as school librarians increasingly teach students crucial skills needed not only in school, but also on the job and in daily life, they are often the first casualties of school budget crunches.

Mesa, the largest school district in Arizona, began phasing out certified librarians from most of its schools last year. In Spokane, Wash., the school district cut back the hours of its librarians in 2007, prompting an outcry among local parents. More than 90 percent of American public schools have libraries, according to federal statistics, but less than two-thirds employ full-time certified librarians.

Lisa Layera Brunkan, a mother of three in Spokane, said she recognized the importance of the school librarian when her daughter, who was 7 at the time, started demonstrating a PowerPoint project. “She said, ‘The librarian taught me,’ ” Ms. Brunkan recalled. “I was just stunned.”

School librarians still fight the impression that they play a tangential role. Ms. Rosalia frequently has her lessons canceled at the last minute as classroom teachers scramble to fit in more standardized test preparation. Half a fifth-grade class left in the middle of a recent session on Web site evaluation because the children were performing in a talent show.

“You prepare things to proceed in a logical sequence and then here comes a monkey wrench,” Ms. Rosalia said. “We are teaching them how to think. But sometimes the Board of Ed seems to want them to learn how to fill in little bubbles.”

In New York City, Ms. Rosalia is a relative rarity. Only about one-third of the city’s public schools have certified librarians, and elementary schools are not required to have them at all.

Ms. Rosalia ran beauty salons with her husband and volunteered in her sons’ school libraries before pursuing her graduate degree. She was recruited to P.S. 225 by Joseph Montebello, the principal, a brother of a middle school librarian in Brooklyn.

In the school, just a block from a bustling stretch of Brighton Beach Avenue with its overflowing fruit stands and Russian bakeries, Ms. Rosalia faces special challenges. More than 40 percent of the students are recent immigrants. Language barriers force her to tailor her book collection to readers who may be in seventh grade but still read at a second-grade level.

Before Ms. Rosalia arrived, the library was staffed by a teacher with no training in library science. Some books in the collection still described Germany as two nations, and others referred to the Soviet Union as if it still existed.

Ms. Rosalia weeded out hundreds of titles. Working with just $6.25 per student per year — compared with a national median figure of $12.06 — she acquired volumes about hip-hop and magic and popular titles like “Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty.” With the help of grants from the City Council and corporations, she bought an interactive white board and 29 laptops.

Ms. Rosalia introduced herself to her new colleagues as the “information literacy teacher” and invited teachers to collaborate on lessons. The early sessions focused on finding books and databases and on fundamental research skills.

Soon Ms. Rosalia progressed to teaching students how to ask more sophisticated questions during research projects, how to decode Internet addresses and how to assess the authors and biases of a Web site’s content.

Even teachers find that they learn from Ms. Rosalia. “I was aware that not everything on the Internet is believable,” said Joanna Messina, who began taking her fifth-grade classes to the library this year. “But I wouldn’t go as far as to evaluate the whole site or look at the authors.”

Combining new literacy with the old, Ms. Rosalia invites students to write book reviews that she posts in the library’s online catalog. She helped a math teacher design a class blog. She urges students to use electronic databases linked from the library’s home page.

Not all of Ms. Rosalia’s efforts involve technology. The license plate on her black BMW says “READ,” and she retains a traditional librarian’s passion for books.

During a lunch period earlier this month, Gagik Sargsyan, 13, slunk into the library and opened a laptop to research a social studies paper on the 1930s and 1940s.

“Have you looked at any books?” Ms. Rosalia asked.

A look of horror came over Gagik’s face. “No,” he said.

Ms. Rosalia, who has a bubbly manner, went to a shelf and returned with a stack of volumes on the Empire State Building, fashion in the 1930s and life during the Great Depression. Gagik recognized the Empire State Building as the place he spent his 13th birthday and started paging through the book.

At the end of every week, Ms. Rosalia opens the library for classes to come in solely to check out books. One Friday, she wore a T-shirt imprinted with the words “Don’t make me use my librarian voice.” Whirling from child to child, she swiftly pulled volumes off the shelves as third graders requested books on sharks and scary topics. By the end of one period, more than 30 students stood in line at the circulation desk.

Still, Ms. Rosalia understands the allure of the Internet. Speaking last fall to a class of a dozen seventh graders who recently immigrated from Russia, Georgia, China and Yemen, Ms. Rosalia struggled to communicate. “We have newspapers in all of your languages,” she said. She turned to the digital white board.

When she clicked on the home page of Izvestia, the Moscow-based newspaper, the Russians in the group cheered.

“Does anybody like books?” Ms. Rosalia asked. Several students stared blankly. The Russians, who spoke some English, shook their heads.

So Ms. Rosalia pulled up the home site for Teen People magazine, and Katsiaryna Dziatlouskaya, 13, immediately recognized a photograph of Cameron Diaz. Ms. Rosalia knew she had made a connection.

“You can read magazines, newspapers, pictures, computer programs, Web sites,” Ms. Rosalia said. “You can read anything you like to, but you have to read. Is that a deal?”


A version of this article appeared in print on February 16, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.