Reading on Mobile: All Your Prose Are Belong to Us

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A game guy thinks about prose fiction for mobile.

I love a well-told story. In particular, I love a good book. A book, or better yet prose fiction, is not just entertainment but a collection of life lessons and a cheat sheet on how to be human. As John LeFevre, author and@GSElevator creator put it, reading “allows you to borrow someone else’s brain.” (btw — I have no idea if it’s his quote) But if I love books so much why do I find myself unable to find time for them, yet I’m seemingly able to play countless hours of meaningless mobile games? This got me thinking about the current state of prose fiction consumption on mobile and I wanted to share a few thoughts.

The future of prose fiction will not be trapped inside a book

When I say prose fiction, many of you will picture a book. That makes sense since it’s a 500-year-old format and you have read books all your life. The format has proven very resilient to change. When I think about our options as readers to experience prose fiction today on mobile — things like ebooks, audiobooks, “interactive books” — they are nearly all a derivative of the physical format, often right down to the concept of a page and to the digital simulation of the turning those pages.

We experience things differently on mobile, right?

I am new to the publishing world, so I come to it with fresh eyes. As someone who spent the last 12-plus years in the video game industry (probably the most transformative time for gaming ever), I can make some observations based on that experience. Imagine taking a traditional console game and slamming it onto a mobile phone with minimal changes to the experience. You could call it a mobile game and, technically, you’d be correct. But it wouldn’t be what we think of as a modern mobile game experience. Reading on mobile kind of feels like that to me.

But it shouldn’t. The experience should be different. Better.

We spend most of our day on our phones — from alarm clock to alarm set.Mobile is the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth screen. We steal moments on our device to get things done and satisfy nearly every need. A mobile session lasts only about 5 minutes on average, yet we fit these sessions into our everyday existence. It can be tough to squeeze in some fiction time in those 5 minutes, so you spend your time doing other things, like playing games or checking Instagram. Sure, you can open a reader app and read a page or two — but the content was not really designed for that so most of us don’t enjoy doing that. But many of us would love to make better use of those spare minutes getting immersed in a story if we could.

The experience for nearly everything has been reimagined for mobile — why not for prose fiction?

“Deep reading” is possible on mobile

In a recent WSJ article on the Rise of Phone Reading, Maryanne Wolf, neuroscientist at Tufts University who studies the reading brain said, “The phone is antithetical to deep reading.”

I went to a public school so I had to look up “deep reading” and here is what I found:

Deep Reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text.

Hmm…I do this all day on mobile already. I get nearly ALL my information from mobile.

I’m sure I know way less on this topic than a neuroscientist, but I know you can deliver meaning, feeling, and information via mobile. That’s what I want from prose fiction. I think when simple text is presented in a book format, then perhaps Ms. Wolf might be correct. However, maybe I would just say it differently, “A big fat book on a phone can’t hold my attention.” The game industry learned very quickly that to succeed on mobile took a new approach — and that means a willingness to change everything about your business.

Change everything to expand the market and monetize reading on mobile

For most publishers and platforms, “mobile” has been a business initiative, not an exploration in delivering a compelling new experience. It’s been about changing their business in as small a way as possible to support their position in an old value chain. That leaves plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs to reimagine prose fiction and try to better fill those 5 minutes of your time.

The opportunity to make reading interesting in a whole new way to a whole new set of mobile users is really exciting. Consumers spend their time differently and communicate in new ways on devices that did not exist nearly 8 years ago. Publishers have witnesses bookstores close (and open); they have watched indie authors kill it without them; and they have strategized against an all-powerful Amazon that is both partner and competitor. There is a battle going on for your time, and prose fiction wants to regain some territory.

To do that, prose fiction needs to be designed, delivered, and monetized in a way that is natively mobile.

First, re-imagining the user experience needs to go beyond merely designing book covers with mobile phones in mind.

Second, creators of prose fiction need to be able to do a few things that game companies do well: run a service on a strong software foundation, manage their own data, and build a community (with actual community management.)

Third, they need to change how they market. Just Google “book marketing” and you’ll see endless lists filled with strategies that focus on email blasts, Facebook posts, book tours, and something called a website. All necessary but insufficient. Prose fiction is light years behind the video game industry when it comes to both user acquisition and franchise development.

The book has a bright future, but so do new formats.

In the same WSJ article referenced above, Judith Curr, publisher of the Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books (one of my favorite imprints because they have Brad Thor) said, “The future of digital reading is on the phone. It’s going to be on the phone and it’s going to be on paper.”

I agree with Ms. Curr.

The book has a bright future, but so do new formats designed specifically for mobile. Traditional publishers have some more hurdles ahead if they intend to switch to a service-driven business model (free chapters on Amazon won’t cut it) — the same way that video game console publishers did 10 years ago. I am getting to know the publishing space and I am very excited to see entrepreneurs with mobile and service-driven business model experience really bringing fresh approaches to market.

Thanks for reading. If you found this interesting, I would love it if you would recommend it if you think someone else might find it valuable.

Please check out our new company, Bound, a prose fiction platform for mobile.