With the growing popularity of streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+, bingeing has become a mainstream phenomenon. Roughly 80% of adults in the UK say they binge-watch content to some extent. But for reading enthusiasts, how does bingeing a book compare to indulging in a moreish TV show? And how has this culture of excessive consumption impacted the book industry?
For those unfamiliar with the word, bingeing is a fairly modern concept where consumers watch or read content available to them in as short a time span as possible.
Bingeing isn’t an exclusively digital thing, nor is it limited to television shows. Bookworms have been binge-reading long before the era of streaming services; libraries might be considered the physical precursor to Netflix. Interacting with media this way provides stress relief and instant gratification, which is why we find it so tempting to just read one more chapter every time we tell ourselves to put a book down. I have fond memories of spending summer holidays as a child binge-reading Nancy Drew books borrowed from my local library.
But part of the appeal of bingeing comes from our ability to access an unprecedented amount of on-demand content—it’s right at our fingertips. While libraries present us with big rooms full of books to read with little restriction, it’s not quite the same. You still have to physically go to a library, planning your day around specific opening hours. You do have access to potentially thousands of books, but if someone else is reading the one you want, you have to wait for it to be returned. There are therefore restrictions to libraries that you don’t have with streaming.
The real bookish equivalent to TV streaming would be e-book services like Kindle Unlimited and Audible, which have similarly immense volumes of easily accessed content. So, while bingeing isn’t exclusive to digital media, it’s definitely enabled and encouraged by it.
With the growing popularity of binge-watching, some production companies like Netflix have opted to move to a binge release schedule, where all episodes of a new series are released at once. This replaces the traditional weekly episode schedule that was standard for satellite TV shows.
There are pros and cons to this. Releasing all episodes at once allows viewers to conveniently fit them into their own schedule. However, it means that shows don’t have the same build-up of anticipation and opportunity to discuss our theories as the series progresses. Bingeing creates a lot of short-lived hype and interest before the public quickly moves on to its next fixation.
A comparable shift in content release can be observed in the book industry. The BBC reported that the publishing cycle has sped up in recent years. Before, readers could expect to wait several years between new instalments in a book series; but their tendency to get through books quickly meant that big publishers looked for ways to accommodate and maintain interest—by binge-releasing books. For example, George R. R. Martin is known for making fans wait years for sequels, whereas the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E. L. James was released over a six-month period.
But compared to the publishing rate of some e-book authors, even the Fifty Shades series was slow to launch. According to The Atlantic, Kindle Unlimited has been central to authors’ success and to Amazon’s influence on publishing. Authors earn around half a penny per page read, so by producing more content and on a faster release schedule, writers can potentially earn a lot of money.
There are certainly many authors who thrive on Kindle’s model; I. T. Lucas has self-published 21 novels over the last three years, and two writers publishing under the pen name Alexa Riley have released over 100 romance novels in the past seven years.
However, this style of publishing isn’t suitable for everyone. Nonfiction authors, whose books typically require lots of research, referencing, and fact-checking, wouldn’t be able to churn out content at this rate. Similarly, those who aren’t able to commit to full-time writing would struggle with this, as the aforementioned authors described their work as a “production”. They work from 9am to 5pm, writing stories that fit the most popular formula for readers.
Since readers can “borrow” books (similar, really, to have Netflix operates), there is less of a direct monetary commitment to select a given book. Paying for a monthly subscription makes it feel like individual books are free. So, if readers only read the first chapter, they won’t feel like they’ve lost out, and the author still earns from those pages. Perhaps the shift in traditional publishers wanting to increase release rates is a response to the success of this form of self-publishing.
This new model has also allowed more authors who might have been rejected by traditional publishers to flourish and make a lucrative career from writing. However, the focus on creating large quantities of content to earn more might be off-putting to some aspiring authors and make certain genres less profitable. Writing can be a time-consuming process and it usually takes authors a year or longer to finish a book. The bingeing mentality could further pressure authors to complete their next book in a shorter timeframe, resulting in publishing work they’re not entirely happy with.
As binge-watching TV has become commonplace, researchers are studying its effects on our minds and wellbeing. The obvious physical downside to binge-consumption is that it involves prolonged periods of inactivity and sitting, which could contribute to an overall unhealthy lifestyle.
According to an Ofcom report, while 70% of viewers find binge-watching relaxing, a third of respondents lost sleep due to this habits; additionally, 7 in 10 people watched more than they intended to, which suggests that bingeing may be addictive. Though this is based on TV, the same risks can apply to reading.
In terms of mental engagement, this study found that binge-watching a show results in strong immediate recall, but also lower long-term retention and lower enjoyment of the content. Whether this applies to binge-reading is unclear, as there isn’t as much research into it right now. Reading is different to watching TV. The latter is in some ways more passive, so it’s possible that the concentration required to read a book could imprint it in our memory better than TV or film, even when binged. We’ll have to wait for more research on this.
However, one effect of binge-reading I can discuss from personal experience is what another blogger called the “bookish hangover”. This refers to the feeling you get when you’ve finished binge-reading a book and find yourself suddenly ejected from whatever world you were just absorbed in. Perhaps it’s not a clinical concern, but you can definitely feel a bit unsure of how to carry on with your day once you return to reality, and it is a strange sensation to experience.
So far, we’ve looked at binge-reading in relation to full-length books, but day-to-day reading encompasses a lot more than that nowadays. Thanks to social media, we have constant access to a never-ending stream of information. On Facebook, we frequently see posts that link to various news articles, covering topics that algorithms think we’ll find interesting. With the amount of time we spend on our phones and laptops, we’re exposed to a great number of words every day, essentially binge-reading without even meaning to.
There’s evidence to suggest that the scrolling format of digital reading, as opposed to the traditional static page of print books, can impact our memory and attention negatively. We tend to read digital content more passively as well, so while we’re reading more than ever, we’re retaining less information than in the past.
It’s also important to recognise that trying to process all the content we come across in a day is practically impossible. To engage in the necessary mental, critical evaluation of everything we read would mean no time for anything else. We see information and simply move on because we don’t have the capacity to really understand its implications. The term “doomscrolling” feels particularly apt, as the news we encounter daily is rarely uplifting.
Therefore, it’s vital to limit our binge-reading, both in terms of books and more general internet-based content, for our own mental health and to better appreciate the material we choose to read.
The publishing industry is responding to its customers’ habits. Bingeing is a popular way of engaging with content, so companies are producing media to appease this appetite. Even for self-published authors, the model provided by Amazon through Kindle Unlimited encourages mass content production for greater profit.
Bingeing can relieve stress and gives us the opportunity to really lose ourselves in something we enjoy, but we should stay aware of the potential effects overindulgence can have on our health.
What are your opinions on this? Do you think binge-reading has positive or negative effects? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter or Instagram.
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