August 4, 2023

Why AI Won't Revolutionize the Reading Life

artificial intelligence

Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

In 2013, when I was an Editorial Assistant, there were several changes afoot in the publishing industry. If you remember, this was right at the end of the ebook boom, though we didn’t know it then. Everyone was gaga about their Kindle, Nook, and iPad and thought that books were dying. In fact, a few people told me I was crazy for getting a job in publishing because ebooks were going to wipe out the business. (Ha.)

eBook sales had been growing by double digits and publishing companies, ever opportunistic, were perplexed (because we’re book people) but gamely trying to figure out how to capitalize on that growth. QR codes were all the rage and this thing called “augmented reality” was taking hold. In education specifically, many of my team’s authors were known as innovators and they wanted to push the needle with interactive eBooks. My boss agreed to try it out, and we got to work figuring out how to create an eBook that could play videos, link to websites, offer definitions, and many more interesting features.

The argument from tech-forward authors sounded a lot like this one:

But wait—that was written in 2023?!

That’s right. Here we are 10 years later, and people are making the same grand declarations about ChatGPT and the power of AI in general to fundamentally revolutionize the way we read.

The problem is…

It didn’t work then, and it’s not going to work now.

It’s not that ebooks with all of these fancy features are necessarily a bad idea. They sound interesting. They could be engaging. I’m not a Luddite; I embrace new technologies and am all for taking advantage of the ones that truly make my life better.

It’s just that… we don’t need books to be better. They’re already pretty freaking awesome.

Books are incredibly useful tools already, even in their centuries-old, black-ink-on-paper format. I can transport it easily. It provides a wholly immersive experience with no blue light. I can give it to a friend without worrying about paying fees or if they have the same kind of software or do I have the right permissions. I can mark it up and easily keep track of my thoughts within the text itself. Yes, e-Readers have improved significantly and can do many of the same things, which is fine. But e-Readers haven’t succeeded in replacing print books. WordsRated reported in 2022 that for every one ebook sold, there were four print books sold.

Clearly, people still prefer the visual, tactical experience of reading books.

And yet… every year, new start ups continue to try to disrupt reading. (They try to disrupt publishing, too—but that's something else altogether.)

Elizabeth Minkel wrote on this trend for Wired, saying, “These tech enthusiasts promised a vast, untapped market full of people just waiting for technology to make books more ‘fun’ and delivered pronouncements with a grifting sort of energy that urged you to seize on the newest trend while it was hot—even as everyone could see that previous hyped ventures had not, in fact, utterly transformed the way people read.”

The problem with this perspective is that books are not broken. They don’t need fixing. They are as steady as the fork. Readers are not sitting around wishing for someone to come and make their books more “fun.” If someone wants to experience information in a more visual format, then they simply don’t pick up a book; they go watch a video. If they want a more audible experience, then they go listen to podcasts or audiobooks. But people who want to read books want the experience of a book.

It’s not just tech-thusiasts with dollar signs in their eyes who get tempted by this idea of “revolutionizing” reading, though. Authors do, too—though for a different reason. I think for authors, the temptation comes from the fact that writing a truly engaging book is really hard. They think it might actually be easier to make the book interesting and keep readers’ attention if they can embed some Youtube videos and mood music.

These are shiny objects (literally). Distractions.

Readers don’t want all of those distractions. What readers really want is to be transported by the power of your words.

And yes, it is hard to do. But it’s possible.

Take the time to work on your writing skills. Become a writer that can give readers the gift of true engagement. Your readers will thank you for it.