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Reading Is Expensive

Brain powerThe human brain uses 20% of the body’s energy while accounting for just 2% of its mass – a whopping 900% premium.  It generates 25 watts of power each day and demands 15% of the heart’s output.  The average reader can comprehend 120 words per minute,  taking nearly fourteen hours to read a typical novel (100k words) at a cost of almost 1,000 calories (or 4.2 kJ), 164 gallons of blood (or 622 liters) and nearly $300 in lost wages (theoretically for average U.S. wage earner at $21/hour).

In terms of energy, blood flow, and time, reading is very slow, expensive, and inefficient.

I think this raises some interesting questions, such as:

  • As an author,
    what is the return on brain-investment for reading my article, novel, or blog post?
  • As a publisher,
    how do I convince the reader to invest in my product(s)?
  • As a device manufacturer,
    how can I make the reading experience most brain-efficient and enjoyable?

Reading for Effect Versus Purpose

It seems to me that there are two reasons for reading; effect or purpose.  Reading for effect is essentially fulfilling some internal, emotional need like escapism, voyeurism, arousal, etc…  Put simply, it’s entertainment and entertainment plays by different rules than other products.  We are, generally speaking, much more willing to give up two hours of our lives to have a good cry or watch a bunch of explosions than to read chapter 12 of our favorite physics textbook.  Reading for enjoyment is an activity that not everyone enjoys, but those who do are willing to invest for the pleasure and emotional fulfillment it brings; they are not necessarily calculating an ROI.

Reading for purpose means doing so specifically for achieving some goal or outcome, or put another way, because one needs to and not necessarily because one wants to.  Reading for educational purposes, staying informed, or as part of one’s job are examples of reading for purpose.  This category is far more sensitive to the high cost of reading than the former.  For example, most people who read newspapers will skim the articles looking for interesting stories, and then skim the story to see if it is worth the investment.  One does not skim War and PeaceThe Catcher in the Rye, or The Lord of the Rings.

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway (Creative Commons license via Frank Kehren's Flckr stream)

I would liken these to the difference between a pleasure ride down the Pacific Coast Highway and commuting to work.  You are performing the same task (driving), using the same tool (car), perhaps for the same amount of time, and maybe even with the same person(s).  Yet everything about the drive is different.  In the case of the former, it’s about enjoying the journey, whereas in the latter it is all about reaching your destination as quickly, efficiently, and painlessly as possible.


There are obvious implications to looking at reading in these two contexts.  Obviously, it behooves the content producers and consumers to understand whether their writing is intended to be a journey or a destination.  Once this is understood, certain strategies and tactics become clear.

For Authors

When writers intend to take their readers on a journey, the style and tempo must be a cognitive banquet.  The experience itself is the return on the reader’s investment.  Efficiency gives way to pace and style takes precedence over not burying the lead.  When writing for purpose, however, the author must understand that from the first word of the title onward, the reader is calculating the return on her investment and may cancel at any time it seems like the deal isn’t profitable enough.  As such, it is important to introduce the value proposition early on (i.e. don’t bury the lead) and get to the point quickly.  Of course, sprinkling in some color so that the reader enjoys the journey won’t hurt a bit either.

For Publishers

Youngstown OH vacation

Nothing says "romance" like a black and white printout taped to a light pole (Creative Commons license via sixes & sevens Flickr stream)

Readers interested in going on a journey will evaluate content much like shopping for a vacation.  Cost is always a factor, but so is scenery, adventure, luxury, relaxation, romance, etc…  Therefore, packaging and marketing are going to mean a lot.  It must appeal to the prospective reader on an emotional level and promise to fulfill not only their needs, but desires as well.  Purpose readers, on the other hand, are hunters scrutinizing the landscape for prey.  They will be intent on getting to their destination as quickly and efficiently as possible; a pleasant journey is a fringe benefit and not a primary concern.

Newspapers are perched precariously between both of these paradigms, and so they have a tough job balancing them.  There are news reports, stock quotes, classified advertisements, and other assorted facts and items people want to quickly scan and read if they perceive some return on investment.  Other sections, like essays, travel, or editorials are much more about journey and need to be packaged and delivered differently.

Business to business publications are by and large firmly entrenched in the purpose-reading camp.  Their mission is to deliver industry-relevant information in a non-biased and convenient format.  They face issues of timeliness, relevancy, and ubiquity.  Timeliness is an issue in the age of real time search, self-publication, and social networking.  Answers are frequently a few mouse clicks and moments away, so a weekly or monthly publication is at a disadvantage.  Relevancy is an issue for similar reasons.  Readers are able to find very specific information on obscure subjects relatively easily, while publications are always trying to balance completeness against overload.  Ubiquity is a reference to the fact that publishers can’t always be in the right place at the right time.  Publish your information on your web site, and the reader may not have it available during that lunch meeting with a vendor.  Publish your information in print, and the reader no doubt will have thrown it out before realizing they needed it.  The challenge in B2B publishing is not as much marketing or style as it is timeliness, relevancy, and ubiquity.  They need to have the information the reader wants at the time he wants it, where he wants it.  But just as importantly, it must be in at an acceptable brain-cost.

For Device Manufacturers

I recently wrote that the iPad is heralding the age of content.  There has been much discussion about the impact it will have on print media and other existing content consumption devices.  If you accept the argument that reading for effect is much less sensitive to cost factors and substitute forms, then the likely conclusion is that the iPad (and subsequent tablet products) will have a different effect on different types of content.  If the key to reading for effect is the experience, then I submit that appliances like the iPad and other color readers deliver a superior experience to books.  Content of this type is also inoculated against infection from other forms of media like video.  When reading for purpose, however, it remains to be seen whether the efficiency and usability can be improved when compared to a computer.  But with the (assumed) increased availability of high quality video, which is a more efficient means for acquiring information, reading for purpose is going to be marginalized to some degree.  The key for the device manufacturers is to understand the features that will address each of these types of reading.

The Bottom Line

As Clay Shirky brilliantly observed, we don’t live in a world of information overload but a world with filter failure.  Part of the price of that failure is shorter attention spans and greater sensitivity to the expense of reading.  As more solutions evolve and improve our ability to filter, it would be easy to conclude that it will be more difficult for authors and publishers to get their content “through the walls” and to their audience.  But I rather believe that the filters won’t simply get stronger, they will get better.  This means that it will actually be easier for readers to find the content they are truly interested in and be more willing to pay the brain-price.  However, I think this also spells doom for purveyors of broad swaths of content like newspapers and magazines.  Once these filters get sophisticated enough, readers will be able to find the very best of the content they want with laser precision.  Rather than subscribing to a sports magazine like Sports Illustrated, readers can subscribe to “stories about the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, any player named Horatio, or cricket matches played in the southern hemisphere on a Monday.”  Publishers of “reading for purpose” content are going to have to find a way to deal with this paradigm.

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