As a flurry of excitement mounts about the ebook, the iBookstore and various claims about ebook sales (Naturally, as part of BNC’s staff, I second Nic Boshart’s skepticism and also say “Show me the numbers!”), publishers are spending a lot of time and energy wondering what the ultimate ebook should look like.
One popular vision is that of a book jam-packed with interactive stuff, links, videos, and who knows what else. But before everyone gets carried away in the race to add all these bells and whistles to our nation’s literary masterpieces, I think that Canadian publishers should stop to review the debate about delinkification and link placement that is currently unfolding in journalism circles.
Technology writer Nicholas Carr has been lamenting the decline of our attention spans for long form journalism due to the way we use the internet, most notably in his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic. He has recently expanded his convincing case in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
He’s got a point; we are becoming more distracted readers. Some of us have become better (web) surfers than attentive readers. And many people are blaming the hyperlink—the very thing we’re talking about putting into books. Much hubbub has ensued, which Carr summarizes well (link below). Laura Miller, in her review of Carr’s book, experimented with delinkification by putting all her links at the end of her piece, instead of throughout the text. Her readers, for the most part, approved of this move while some critics are furious with this break from web orthodoxy. In a comment to Carr’s post, Miller reported: “My readers have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the change.”
Hyperlinks distract readers. Whether it’s a minor distraction (taking note of the hyperlink and making a decision about how to react) or a major distraction (leading the reader mid-read over to another page, perhaps permanently), it’s clear that hyperlinks and embedded stuff is a bit disruptive. And this is relevant to book publishers, whose entire business is based on making the longest things we read, a.k.a. the book.
Is it in our best interests to embed hyperlinks in book text?
If someone is reading the ebook, we have the reader already. So is distracting them a problem?
If we don’t embed throughout the text, should we adopt a delinkification model, with links at the end?
Are we creating distracted book readers—and does this threaten the future robustness of book’s audience?—or are we ameliorating the book to cater to the new reader?