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No, Books Should Not Tell You How Long It Will Take To Read Them

Dennis Abrams has a post over on Publishing Perspectives that asks a question that I would like to answer:

…Should books then come with a label telling you how long it should take to read them?

Reddit co-founder Alexi Ohanian thinks that books should tell you how long they will take to read as well. His forthcoming book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made Not Managed (Business Plus), has a small mark on the back cover, indicating that the book is a “5-hour read,” equaling the approximate time it takes to fly from San Francisco to New York City. In a picture of the cover that Ohanian posted on imgur, he added, “Hope this becomes a trend — I believe we’re the first book to do it, yes?”

In a word: No.

The idea of an estimated reading time has so many inherent assumptions that any resulting estimate is rendered meaningless.

Before you can create a time estimate you must assume that:

  • Everyone reads at the same speed.
  • Everyone reads at the same skill level.
  • Everyone reads the same type of content.
  • Everyone reads with the same technique.

The first is obviously not true, so I’ll skip it. As for the second, I’m sure you know that not everyone has the same reading skills. It’s not just that reading skill levels vary, but also that a reader can process a book faster if they are familiar with the topic and or language. For example, a book related to a reader’s profession or hobbies will be an easier read than a book on a completely unrelated topic.

And when it comes to content, I know from my own experience that I read fiction differently from nonfiction. I also know that I read different types of fiction at different speeds and that background noises can affect my reading speed. And I am sure I am not alone in that.

And finally, an estimated reading time mostly useless because it assumes that the reader will proceed in a linear fashion. I don’t always read a fiction book linearly (without skipping around), and I never read a nonfiction book from beginning to end.

I almost always jump around inside a nonfiction book. I might read a section because it has covers a topic I am researching, or I might read it because it contains an instance of a keyword. But I almost never start at the beginning and continue to the end. And if I did, chances are I would restart the current chapter/section each time I picked up the ebook. This would help me remember what I had read putting the ebook down, and it would invalidate the time estimate.

Frankly, I am puzzled that anyone would suggest that an estimated reading time would be useful, much less put that time on their own book. Does that author really never user the index in the back of a book? Hasn’t that author ever used a search function in a reading app?

Surely I am not the only one who reads in a non-linear fashion. Am I?

What do you think?

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R September 18, 2013 um 11:14 pm

I think the estimated reading time is misleading. Also, how was it calculated? Did they ask a person to read it and tell them the time used?

Popup September 19, 2013 um 3:14 am

I can see that it could be useful in some very limited sense, but only if it was universally implemented.

I’m surely not the only one who has bought a book (typically on-line), hoping for a nice long read, and then been rudely awakened from that fantasy when the book arrives and turns out to be a short novella.

Page numbers is one way around this – but with varying book formats and font sizes it’s becoming less of a guide.

Kindle 'locations' is another objective measure – but for some reason Amazon don’t publish this among the 'book details'.

I really like the way the kindle shows the length of the books on the 'home screen'. (And I think that the logarithmic-like scale works very well!) It’s often useful to be able to choose between a long or a short read depending on context.

Bob September 19, 2013 um 6:31 am

The Kindle Paperwhite does this–tells you how long it will take to finish the chapter or book.

fjtorres September 19, 2013 um 7:25 am

But it generates the estimate after watching you read the book for a while.
What it reports is personalized.

DavidW September 19, 2013 um 7:59 am

Books should not for the reasons you stated. Kindles should since it learns your speed per book.

Nate Hoffelder September 19, 2013 um 8:01 am

Agreed. This is an important distinction.

David Haywood Young September 19, 2013 um 8:03 am

Yeah…I think that’s just about the most annoying feature of my KPW. I mean, I don’t fucking care to begin with. For nonfiction, as Nate points out, it means nothing at all. I do actually tend to read straight through, but my speed varies wildly with content. For fiction? I’m generally living in another world as I go. It’s sort of helpful to glance at the % remaining, ’cause it helps me figure out whether it’s time to transfer more content once in a while, but the minutes remaining? Please. Either I’m reading straight through and have no use for the info (because it doesn’t affect a decision) or I’m not reading straight through and it’s inaccurate. Am I supposed to get into a race with the thing? Or what?

Yes, logically I could just translate mentally from the "minutes remaining" to a percentage, at least roughly. But why should I have to bother? Why deliberately introduce gratuitous inaccuracy into my day?

And my Kindle keeps flipping back to the "minutes" display. Just irritates me that someone’s so positive I’ll love the feature that I can’t shut it off. Or if I do, it comes back.

Okay. I feel better now.

Robert September 19, 2013 um 9:43 am

The real question is: who cares? Just read the book. You’re done when you’re done.

This game-ification of reading stuff that Kobo and others have introduced seems completely pointless and distracting. Maybe I’m just a grumpy old fart but I read books for the books, not for "achievements". Nor do I need to schedule my time to the point where I need to know precisely how long a book is going to take me to finish. Does it make a difference if the book is going to take 2 more hours to finish or 5? Who cares? Why does it matter?

kurt September 19, 2013 um 11:02 am

My Kobo Aura does indeed tell me how much longer I should take to finish the current book but i don’t really care – though i could visualize an A-type personality feeling pressured by this

I do like the achievements though – they are cute/amusing
Haven’t received one in quite some time – there must be something wrong with me 🙂

Diane September 19, 2013 um 10:24 am

I agree that it wouldn’t be meaningful on a print book, but it’s one of the features I love on the Paperwhite. I love knowing if I have enough time to finish a chapter before it’s time to leave or go to bed.

Steve September 19, 2013 um 10:35 am

Exactly. Its all about how many minutes left in chapter. This is a great feature. This is also why I ditched Aldiko. It wouldnt tell the pages or time left in chapters. havent tried the new version though.

T.J. September 19, 2013 um 11:07 am

Agreed, I don’t care how long the author thinks it will take me to read the book, because chances are, they’re wrong. It turns out there is already a more reliable metric in place to gauge the length of a book: its page count.

On the other hand, it might be useful to know how much time the average reader actually spends with the book. Did they check it out three times and read it twice from cover to cover? Or did they check it back in after reading the first few pages and deciding they didn’t like it?

TW May 16, 2015 um 2:22 pm

So stupid, it defies belief. Kindle does this -> one reason why I don’t buy Kindle books anymore. I want my Kindle book to look like my other books. Function like a PDF WITH page numbers! Ugh. Some people think themselves so clever. Not really. Like I can’t estimate a reading time myself? And… like it’s a race?!

Anne May 16, 2015 um 5:06 pm

The switch to page numbers if they’re available. Did you even check your user’s guide? You don’t say which model you have but if your kindle shows reading time-

While reading, select reading progress from the menu and choose your preferred option. These options include:

Page in book (if provided by the publisher)
Location in book
Time left in chapter
Time left in book

If this doesn’t work for your particular model or if you have other questions you will find the user guides on Amazon’s site.

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