Confessions of a Digital Immigrant

The most important things to understand about the digital transition aren’t going to come from writers, publishers, or pundits. They’re going to come from readers. How are ebooks and digital reading devices affecting their habits, their purchasing decisions, their intake?

I’ve asked hundreds of people over the years. I bug strangers in airports and restaurants to find out what they’re reading, how they do most of their reading, and why. I was curious as an avid reader, then as a bookseller, and now as an author.

So I thought it might be useful to come clean about my reading habits. I’ve made the transition to all-digital reading. That might be hard to admit, but I’ve never been happier as a reader. I read a lot more, and it costs me quite a bit less.

What follows is an incredibly boring video. It’s me talking about my reading habits. But I wish, as an author and book lover, that I had access to hundreds of videos like this. It would help me understand the data on digital adoption, and it would help me plan for the future of publishing.

This is my confession as a digital immigrant.

One of the things I left out that I should have mentioned: Kindle Unlimited gets a lot of press on the writing side, but how does it affect my reading? When I finish a book and get several recommendations from Amazon, if one of those books is in KU (and one often is), I end up reading that book next. All else being equal, the free book wins out. (Not really free, because I pay a monthly subscription, but you know what I mean.) I read a lot of non-fiction, and I’m always surprised at how many quality books from major publishers are in KU. One of my current reads, The Joy of X, was picked up for this reason. It definitely influences my “purchasing” decisions.

33 responses to “Confessions of a Digital Immigrant”

  1. Fascinating and brilliant.
    I split my reading between hard cover and my iPhone. I don’t use my Kindle much anymore, but maybe I’ll take a look at the Voyager. I still have an affinity for paper but can see the benefits you outline.
    I’d never thought of those two reasons for younger readers lesser participation in digital book reading. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. And it’s why Indie authors have a tougher time penetrating the children’s and YA markets because they often don’t do print editions and aren’t distributed in book stores.

    1. I know a lot of people who now do their reading on their phones, especially as the screens are getting bigger and crisper. If they ever get the battery life to last for really long reading sessions and still keep the phone going for an entire day, they’ll be even better digital books.

    2. Hi Robert,

      I’m the same as you where I read both formats. Sometimes I buy in print but then realize I’d rather read it on my phone on transit. Thought I’d leave a note to let you know about an app called BitLit that lets you get ebook versions of your print books. (Full disclosure, I work there too.) I haven’t made the switch totally to ebook and it sounds like you haven’t either. BitLit is something that might interest you in case you find you wish you’d bought the ebook edition!


  2. I’m right there with you about the Voyage; it’s so much better than the Paperwhite that when I went back to double-check I’d gotten all the side-loaded content off the Paperwhite, I thought something was wrong with my eyes! Just an hour or two of looking at the Voyage was enough for me to acclimate to how much crisper it is. (Also, wow, so much faster; all the UI/interface stuff is far more responsive.)

    Like you, I clung to my paper books with all the fanaticism of someone who works in visual art as well as words. But the e-ink readers have revolutionized my reading. While I remain one of those stubborn people who hates change and wrinkles her nose at people who are all over the latest gadgets, I am nevertheless the first in line to upgrade my kindle and pet and coo over it and decorate it in pretty covers. I even shop for purses based on whether it will fit in them, and if that’s not ridiculous then I don’t know what is. -_-

    1. I do the same with regard to purse shopping.

      And the connection we develop with our e-readers really highlighted for me that our love of books is acquired due to the content, because that love and affection is easily transferred to any other device that can give us the same connection or knowledge.

      1. It’s called a murse.

  3. Donnie Brownsey Avatar

    I’m one of those older people that loves reading on my IPad. It is easy on my hands and eyes. I spend a lot of time visiting friends and family and am continually surprised that so many guest rooms don’t have a decent bedside lamp to read by. I’ve shied away from all the kindles because I’ve heard they aren’t lit up.

    1. The new ones have a backlight that’s really easy on the eyes. If you get a chance to play with a Voyage, do so. The backlight is now very even. With the Paperwhite, it was stronger at the top and bottom edges. They’ve really nailed it with the latest tech.

  4. I hadn’t thought about buying more books than I used too since I have always bought a lot but realize you are right. E-books seem easier to pick up & easier to impulse buy. With the free books offered it is easy to take a chance & I have discovered new authors that later I have purchased other titles from. Especially love when I read books that are offered for free thru promotions for a weekend or whatever & I can share the link with friends I know would love them.

    Love my Kindle Fire for so many reasons. Simple to keep several books handy to switch around. I tend to keep a book of quotes, something nonfiction & a novel going & like to check in right before bed. Instead of 3 separate texts, they are all in one small place. When my Mom’s health was deteriorating, she was physically unable to hold a book but was still interested in reading. The Kindle was a savor in being light enough that she could have it propped up on her stomach or holding it without it being too heavy. They ability to change the font sizes also came in handy as was me being able to find the place she left off quickly without worry about a bookmark falling out.

    My one drawback with e-readers is being able to take them to the beach. There may be cases to protect them from the water & sand, but the few times I have tried to read sun glare has prevented it. In this case traditional paper wins hands down. Also as far as cover art I find many e-books just don’t put in the effort that physical editions did or do.

    So I am probably 85% e-reader & 15% paper.

  5. I’m pushing 50, rather than your 40 (holy crap that’s a scary thought!) and I was reluctant as well, even though I’d begun to publish books in e-format a few years ago. My mother first got an e-ink Kindle and I tried it soon after. After reading on it for a week or two, I went back and grabbed a paperback book I’d enjoyed as a youngster to read again and could barely make myself slog through it! The print was so tiny! How on Earth did I ever read like that? Younger eyes, I’m sure, had much to do with that, but the e-ink screen is simply amazing. Like you, I’m reading more than I had been.

    Welcome, Digital Immigrant!

  6. OH! One more big advantage to me…

    Previously I never did because I wanted to keep the books in good condition to read later or share. Now I just highlight & go back to reread the parts I want to really remember without worry.

  7. The biggest effect I have noticed in my reading habits since going 95 percent digital is I typically no longer buy books priced higher then $5. I browse for new books and authors all the time and when I learn about a book or author I might enjoy and find they are priced at $10 or higher I pass. When you have access to fun and interesting works which are priced low it is double the enjoyment.

    1. I’m the same way…..anything over $5-6 gets checked out from the library….anything under that price point I buy on my Kindle.

      For me, the situation may be a bit different than for everyone else, however, in that I have lived for most of the past five years in Beijing, China, a place where it is difficult to find reasonably priced English language books. So from that perspective, my Kindle has been a lifesaver, especially since is it small and lightweight and therefore very practical for travelling. However, when I’m back home in Seattle, though, probably 70-80% of my reading is still done on books checked out from the library.

      And as an aside, Hugh will probably get a kick out of the fact that I’m probably his only reader who read a significant portion of WOOL, SHIFT, and DUST on my Kindle while riding Beijing buses…..

  8. I started using a kindle in 2008. I was diagnosed with cancer and knew I’d be in the hospital and wouldn’t have the ability to go buy a book. Since then I’ve not been in the hospital near as much as expected but I have devoured books on the kindle app. I use my iPad at home and phone on way to work. I won’t read hard cover books as it’s just too tough to carry around.

    I’ve discovered so many authors, like yourself, that I never would have found in a store. My kids at starting to read off the iPad but they still like a real book to hold. However, the number of books available digitally for kids has grown drastically over the last three years. Still a ways to go but much better offerings.

    I’m a huge fan!

  9. Paper books are vintage, and millennials like vintage things. Although they have a somewhat confused view of what vintage really is. On Halloween a young woman wanted me to see her “Victorian” dress. It was a Marie Antoinette costume, complete with white wig. Okay.

  10. I find that the very people who say they prefer paper are the ones that, albeit slower, are going more wholeheartedly to digital. That’s because they buy books–tons of them–far more than they can ever read. It’s a type of hoarding, and I’m guilty as ever. My wife saying to me, “ANOTHER book?” is a common sound in my house. I may not like reading digital as much, but it still allows me to buy more, so I do. It’s like buying a twinkie. You know it’s not as good as a homemade cake, but you get your fix. It’s cheaper, too. More and more serious non-fiction–including academic stuff that I read for reference, not emotional satisfaction–is increasingly available on digital. So as a “paper guy,” I am starting to doubt I will be one in five years or less. There’s also an entire generation coming up who will grow with a mostly digital reading experience. It’s what they’ll know and they may look at paper as old fashioned and a waste of space. “Wait, dad, you can’t even UPDATE that thing?”

    1. Good point. It applies to me. I also think future generations are just going to get more and more mobile, and also more urban, where living spaces are smaller. Both of which are a deterrent to buying heaps of physical books.

      1. I do think paper will persist, but more as an arthouse thing. They will be a special object to give as gifts, with beautiful covers and textured paper. In a way, they’ll become more treasured because of their rarity. And I think they’ll be produced more by smaller, independent and artistically-oriented producers than the big houses, which will actually be kind of cool.

  11. Two things:
    First, thank you for dumping (I mean sharing) your personal reading habits onto the internet for good or bad, as it is interesting to hear since I am also an “immigrant”…

    Second, there is one bit of psychosis that you missed with the physical book that I would like to comment on. At 45 I also started out with cabinets and cabinets full of books (hardcover and paperback) that I loved to covet and display but a few years ago jumped into the Kindle. And yes, I found myself reading more and downloading more books than ever. And, as I finished the good ones, and didn’t finish the bad ones, they all eventually fell off my kindle home page and left to become digital Ether and forgotten. Not immediately forgotten (my mind hasn’t slipped that far yet) but these digital stories seem to come and go like a continuous river flowing through my mind. Read one and get the next “recommended for you” . Turn on my reader and I am right back on the page I last left off…

    OK, to the point, I look at my bookshelf and see a dusty title from my childhood that I haven’t even looked at or even thought about in years…decades…and I am immediately pulled back into that story and emotion. I find myself pulling the book out and reveling in the cover art and the smell of those dog-eared pages remind me not only of the emotions of the story but of my own youth. Maybe even remnants of an old meal that I had while not being able to put the book down to eat at the table :). Where are the digital “reminders” in 20 years of that neat old silo story Wool?? Maybe forgotten forever to dust and Sand (get-it) unless there is that old Printed Book to pull me back in… It was a wise old wizard that once said…”It is the doom of man that they forget”.

    It’s like the millions of digital pictures I now take and delete and eventually forget and delete. Where-as my wedding album and 3-month backpack tour through Europe I can pull off the shelf and relive just after a glace at the bookshelf where they lie. That’s why new companies like Sh*tterbug are doing so well I think.
    Now maybe if my Kindle can print out and bind the books I really like so I can remember them later as well…

  12. Last year I read 45 ebooks and 8 paper books, but I actually spent more on those physical books as I did in the Kindle store (a total about £70 on the paper ones, and £44.82 on ebooks – all the ebooks I’ve bought and not read yet [if I ever will, as I continue to buy faster than I read] pretty much equal the total spend though).

  13. Like Thomas, I am often impelled to re-read an old favorite just by seeing it on the shelf. OTOH, those oldies have migrated to the shelves under the crown molding due to space considerations, so they’re harder to see anyway.
    I now read fiction almost exclusively on my Kindle, which I never go anywhere without. I love it. I can read standing in line at the supermarket. I read on the elliptical machine at the gym. It’s marvelous! I still read tatty used paperbacks in the bathtub (love to read in the tub.)
    But I read non-fiction in physical formats, often from the library. I write historical fiction, so at least half of my reading time is history. I’m studying those books, so I need to do my little sticky notes to mark the bits I want to keep, then go back and type up those notes. I consult the indexes and flip back and forth. I don’t like the Kindle for that kind of work. Nor do I like it for cookbooks or yoga books or other how-tos.
    I do check out ebooks from the library occasionally, but I’m so far not interested in KU. I have so many good books by indie authors lined up TBR that I don’t need to pile on any more. I probably spend KU sub rate buying fiction per month… maybe a tad more. I’m just as happy having the book on my computer and backed up at amazon. I might very well read a favorite again one of these days — you never know.
    Thanks for a great article and topic!

  14. I am a complete Luddite and relish the feeling of a book in my hands but your confession makes me feel like I can possibly take the leap. However, that brings me to one huge issue, I have a confession of my own. I am addicted to reading like a full blown crack head. For a few years now I have been working on a novel, my husband is so supportive. His advice .. don’t read, write. Which, I need to be reminded of almost daily. I cannot stop myself from reading, I read the shampoo bottles in the shower, the back of the toothpaste while brushing, I will read anything, anywhere. I hide books under the bed, in my drawers, in my car, in the trunk, in my purse. I read them in one sitting and then give them away to a friend, co-worker, library or donation shop as if getting rid of the evidence quickly alleviates me of any guilt . Half of my brain chides me each time I walk thru the doors at the bookstore, the other half sings like a hymn in church. I have sworn that I will not buy another book until the first draft is done. I don’t know why I lie to myself. That ‘vow’ lasted 18 days. Then I swore I could read Wool as a reward when I get 10 Chapters done, then I snuck into the bookstore and read CH 1. This year I tried NaNoWriMO and spent a month outlining (people complete whole books in the time I tortured myself with an outline) but it has been helpful since i had never outlined before. I have committed to an hour a day even if it only is 1/2 of 1 decently crappy paragraph. Question to you: by making reading EVEN easier and MORE accessible should I just resign myself that I will continue to read more than write? Thoughts.

  15. […] Hugh Howey’s Confessions of a Digital Immigrant he asks for other people’s story about their adoption of digital reading. So Hugh, here you […]

  16. I was exactly the same way, Hugh. I did NOT want to give up my paper until I was given a Kindle. A little bit later on I got my first smartphone (extravagant!) and discovered that I could read in bed with the lights off and not disturb my wife (magnificent!)

    I think one of the reasons kids aren’t adopting ereaders as quickly as other ages is money. They don’t have credit cards, like you say, but they don’t have much income either. What money they do have is going towards cars, maybe car insurance, definitely gas, and their cell phones. Kids who have all their stuff paid for by parents often don’t have a job at all. On the other hand, kids do a lot of digital reading, just not paying for it. That could turn out to be a big factor in how Kindle Unlimited and other sub services develop.

    You were talking about how we transfer our feelings about reading and stories onto the physical object of books themselves. I hadn’t thought of that in terms of ebook adoption and how it could benefit or be hindered by our associations with books, but it makes sense. It’s one of those tools our minds use to help us process the stupid amounts of information we encounter, so we probably can’t help but do it.

    Recommendation: Try a collapsible stand for your tablet and/or kindle. Makes it a lot easier to read, especially over breakfast. My wife and I have a pair that fold down into roughly a 3″ x 4″ x 0.5″ shape, great for travel and they don’t clutter.

  17. […] Hugh Howey posted a video about his reading habits and thoughts on the state of e-readers last week, and I was inspired to create my own version. […]

  18. I was a big paperback reader and never thought I’d make the switch to ebooks. Then, my wife bought me my first kindle for my birthday in 2010. I started to get hooked and the transition was final when I got my kindle paper white. The eink with the backlighting, allowing me to read in bed without bothering my wife needing a lamp on.

    I still love to read, but now my family knows that if they’re going to buy me a book as a gift, it is best to get me an ebook.

    Now, I love the portability, the ability to have multiple books with me at once to match my mood to what I want to read, I can read across multiple devices and be in the same spot in a book. I read on my paperwhite, iphone and PC.

    Last, the highlighting and notes capabilities are great if I’m researching something.

    Love the digital books.

  19. […] how they consume books.  Given we write them, you can expect we’d also be big consumers.  Hugh Howey started it off here and Joanna Penn chimed in here. And no, I won’t be making a video about my reading. […]

  20. […] Hugh Howey posted a video about his reading habits this past week and then I read Joanna Penn’s version last night and thought that I’d […]

  21. I listen to audiobooks all the time, but if I’ve enjoyed the audiobook I’ll buy the hardback, preferably a signed edition, keep it pristine and consider it as beautiful furniture (and sometimes kid myself that it will appreciate in value). My Goldsboro “Wool” trlogy for example! My wife loves her Kindle OTOH.

  22. My reading habits changed drastically once I got an ereader. I was initially against ebooks for various reasons. Since I’m a bit of a gadget person my wife gave me an ereader for Christmas 4 years ago. Prior to getting that I would read 12-30 books a year. Since getting the reader I read on average 60 a year.

    So what happened, why did I have a large increase? I have kids, they love to pull my bookmarks out (now where was I?). My wife decides to read the same book I’m reading (can’t you wait until I’m finished?). I get stuck on a book I don’t like and it sits next to my bed (you mentioned that one in your video and it’s true). All reasons to get stalled and out of reading habits.

    Now with ereaders I can switch between books easily if I get bored. I can also start several books simultaneously based on my mood. I can sync locations and read on my phone when I’m expectantly waiting somewhere.

    But here’s the #1 reason I prefer my ereader, I use one with a backlight (paperwhite), and I can read in any position in bed and not worry about light. I’m simply more comfortable! No more trying to pry a book open, no more looking for the right amount of light vs shadow. Just find a nice comfortable position and enjoy.

  23. […] just watched Hugh Howey’s vlog, Confessions of a Digital Immigrant, which he posted a couple of weeks ago, and it got me thinking about my own experience of going […]

  24. Great post! I am definitely of the immigrant generation and find it hard to accept that my reading habits have slid into the realm of, almost exclusively, digital. You really got me thinking about this subject and inspired a blog entry of my own on the subject. If you have time and the mood takes you, you can read it here:
    Thanks for all the time that you put into gathering and sharing information, especially for new authors– it’s really appreciated!

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