Short Reading

Formats that take advantage of short opportunities to read help encourage reading among those that are pressed for time, reluctant to read, or distracted by technology.

How It’s Developing

Short or serialized reading is not a new invention, but several new innovations have pushed short reading into more modern formats and venues.

A Pew Research Center survey found that 73% of Americans had read a book in the last twelve months – a number that has remained largely unchanged since 2012, but less than the 79% who reported doing so in 2011. [1]

At the same, books may be steadily increasing in size by up to 25% from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014, part of a growing shift toward digital publishing that allows publishers to be less concerned with the costs of printing and readers to be less concerned with the size and heft of books. [2] As books grow in length, publishers are also investing more money in author advances and marketing budgets for a smaller number of releases, increasing the pressure for titles to succeed and possibly driving greater interest in understanding and testing reader habits. [3]

Publishers and technologists recognize an opportunity to expand into the non-reading market and take work against the trend of longer reading to push more accessible forms of reading.

In June 2016, bestselling author James Patterson and publisher Little Brown launched BookShots, a new line of short (less than 150 pages and meant to be read in one sitting) and propulsive (plot-driven to feel more like a movie) novels that will be priced at less than $5 and may make their way beyond bookstores to drugstores, grocery stores, and other retail outlets. [4]

In the United Kingdom, the newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror launched the first new national newspaper in over thirty years, New Day, designed for time-poor readers with the day’s news condensed to just forty pages. [5] New Day ceased publication shortly after launching, a result of less than expected ad revenue and no partner web site from which to collect revenue from digital advertising.

Technology innovators are also exploring short reading. Amazon’s Kindle Singles and Singles Classics promote short-form fiction and non-fiction, including older stories and essays from celebrated essayists and magazine writers. [6] For the younger set, Amazon Rapids is a paid app that offers middle readers hundreds of stories, all told in dialogue animated to look like text messages, encouraging kids to keep reading through texts that may be 500 to 1,000 words and take only five to ten minutes to complete. [7]

Similar to Amazon Rapids, Hooked, one of the top-grossing book apps in the United States, delivers suspenseful stories to teenagers in the form of messages, with each story composed of four to five 1,000 word episodes. [8]

Additional apps like Crave, The Pigeonhole, Rooster, and Serial Reader target adult readers. Serial Reader delivers serialized content from classics of literature to readers daily in batches that can be read in twenty minutes. [9] Publisher Simon & Schuster launched Crave to let romance fans subscribe to favorite authors and receive bite-sized previews of new novels, while editors might receive information about when readers stop reading certain new works. [10]

New innovators are using short reading to reinvent publishing. Serial Box releases reading content like a television series, with multiple episodes written by different authors which can be purchased one by one or subscribed to as a season. [11]

Short reading is also being used as a civic and social innovation tool. As part of a promotion for newly installed Wi-Fi service in subway stations, New York City’s MTA partnered with Penguin Random House to launch Subway Reads, a web platform to deliver novellas, short stories, or excerpts from full-length books to passengers’ cellphones or tablets based on how long rides will be on the subway — a 10-page selection for a 10-minute ride, a 20-page selection for a 20-minute excursion, a 30-page selection for a 30-minute trip. [12] In Brazil, the Leitura de Bolso (pocket reading) campaign delivered five-minute installments through WhatsApp, helping to democratize reading and make it more accessible to everyone. [13] And in France, publishing startup Short Edition installed machines at Grenoble’s city hall, the tourism office, and in libraries and social centers that dispense short stories to be read in one, three, or five minutes. [14]

Why It Matters

With a persistent public brands of “books” and a deep value for literacy, short reading’s growing popularity could lead users to expect short reading innovations at libraries.

As many libraries have experimented with quiet reading programs, short reading might also provide a new opportunity for programming or user engagement.

Short reading interventions could be particularly helpful for reluctant readers, including teenagers. The founders of the Hooked reading app took the first 1,000 words from fifty bestselling young adult novels and had 15,000 people test read them on a mobile optimized site; the stories that did the best had about 35% of readers reaching the end, while their first text-based app story had a completion rate of 85%. [15]

At the same time, short reading may test notions of quality reading. While text message-formatted reading might keep readers reading, the quality of comprehension, learning, or even enjoyment may not be considered.

In Chicago, the Chicago Public Library and the city’s CTA have partnered to create CPL on CTA, which provides riders with access to the library’s digital content including e-books by Chicago authors, blog posts written about Chicago, and other city-focused content, all meant to help riders use transit time for quality reading instead of technological distraction. [16]

Notes and Resources

[1] “Book Reading 2016,” Andrew Perrin, Pew Research Center, published September 1, 2016, available from

[2] “The big question: are books getting longer?” Richard Lea, The Guardian, December 10, 2015, available from

[3] “American Literature Needs Indie Presses,” Nathan Scott McNamara, The Atlantic, July 17, 2016, available from

[4] “James Patterson has big plans for small books,” Alexandra Alter, New York Times, March 22, 2016, available from

[5] “New Day newspaper targets 'time-poor' readers,” BBC News, February 22, 2016, available from

[6] “Amazon is bringing some of the best non-fiction classics to Kindle,” Nick Statt, The Verge, July 19, 2016, available from

[7] “Amazon has a new plan to get kids reading more,” Emma Hinchliffe, Mashable, November 2, 2016, available from

[8] “American teens are getting hooked on fiction by text message,” Thu-Huong Ha, Quartz, December 1, 2016, available from

[9] “Serial Reader: An app that delivers literature to your phone in daily snippets,” Hayley Tsukayama, Washington Post, February 19, 2016, available from

[10] “Bite Sized e-books are Taking the World by Storm,” Michael Kozlowski, Good E-Reader, February 22, 2016, available from

[11] “This Ebook Publisher Doesn’t Have Authors. It Has Writers’ Rooms,” Charley Locke, Wired, September 14, 2016, available from

[12] “Now Arriving on the New York Subway: Free E-Books, Timed for Your Commute,” James Barron, New York Times, August 28, 2016, available from

[13] “Bite-Sized Books for the Supermarket Checkout Line,” Laura Yan, PSFK (blog), PSFK, February 3, 2016, available from

[14] “How a city in France got the world’s first short-story vending machines,” Pauline Bock, The New Yorker, January 22, 2016, available from

[15] “American teens are getting hooked on fiction by text message,” Thu-Huong Ha, Quartz, December 1, 2016, available from

[16] “Grab your reading glasses: Chicago Public Library and CTA partner to offer free content,” Rianne Coale, RedEye, November 28, 2016, available from