Award-Winning Editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, The Best Science Fiction of the Year, and More

Online stories are read differently than print?

There are two conversations going on over at the Asimovs forum that have me cringing. Here they are:
1. Should stories for online markets be tailored differently than stories for print?
2. Should all SF/Fantasy Mags go to E-Submissions?

Here are some quotes:

  • GSH: “The thought of a print editor reading my story on a screen, however, does bother me. I’m not sure if my concern is valid, or just a projection of my own screen vs. print bias.”
  • Bill Preston: “These are different media. We’re fooled, I think, by their both involving typed letters. The differences are profound.”
  • Byron Bailey: “There are stories I couldn’t stand reading online. Yet when I read them on paper like in one of the YBSF, I thought they were superb.”

Time for a poll. Yes, I know doing an online poll is going to have a bias… but the original conversation is online, so what the heck.


“Watch the Skies” doesn’t mean the sky is falling.


By order of Congress… move your magazine online


  1. Reading a story on paper is a wholistic experience for me. Much more satisfying than adding more time in the day to my “hot & dry eye” computer gaze.

    • Of course, I’m biased to the fact I am a paperback and magazine collector…

      And as a writer, I like print. Something to be able to carry around to show off in a brag moment is neat. Carrying a saved copy in pocket in a flash drive isn’t the same to e for some reason…

      • I’m a collector too. I like print and won’t be giving up my books. However, I’m not going to say that my perception of a story will be changed just because I read it on my laptop screen instead of paper.

        • One of the reasons I admire the heck out of you — you’re living my dream!

          But when I see a story online that I want to read, I usually copy it to word and format it like in a magazine then print it out. And yea, I know I’m at the extreme, but the confort level in reading is as much a part of the fact for me as the story; it just makes an outstanding read have more dimension.

          It’s a matter of environmental programming. Today, most things to read are digital; email, online magazines, rss feeds, etc. Pretty soon we”ll have micro bluetooth-enabled projectors enbedded in our optics to project news and enterainment to the inside of our retinas.

  2. Anonymous

    if i were to go with the logic mentioned above then an email response would weigh differently to them than a snail mail response with the exact same words. . . since to me that is what they are saying about print vs screen.

    i think they are comparing green apples to red apples. in the end, they are still apples.

    • I disagree. An e-mail is different to a story. An e-mail is usually a fairly perfunctory exchange of information. A story is, I hope, not. It’s something more engaging and immersive than that. And if you’re talking lengthier personal correspondence or other narrative e-mails: yes, I will print those out before digging into them. I may skim them on the screen, but I’m just not as comfortable and not as willing or able to engage with the text while I’m sitting at my desk staring into my screen.

  3. Yes, it’s a different experience. When I’m reading online, I’m usually flipping between tabs or windows rather than reading through. I’m also usually sitting upright in a chair staring into a cathode ray tube. When I’m reading the story in print, I’m usually more relaxed, and I’m immersed completely in the story: I read it start to finish, and I’m very simply able to get into it better than I am when it’s on the screen. This is why, though I’ve dipped into the Clarkesworld stories every few months, I’ve by and large been waiting for Realms. The internet is great for getting stories out there, but the fact is I rarely read them there: I either print them out, if I really want to read them) or wait for them to be collected (in many cases, I’m still waiting); either way, I generally can’t get intimate with a story until it’s in hardcopy.

    • I’m the opposite. If I’m reading online fiction (short or novel length), I don’t flip to other windows or let the medium distract me. I’m also using a laptop, so I’m sitting in a relaxed position on the couch with my feet up. I can see how a desktop would be a nuisance in this situation. 🙂

  4. If a story is going to be long (say, more than 3K), I cut ‘n’ paste it into a Mobipocket file and dump it on my cell phone. I used to have a Palm just for this purpose.

    And all this hand-wringing. Good God.

  5. For the most part, I think they’re the same story. But yes, there are some things which one medium will do that the other can’t but that’s the exception rather than the norm. For example, I figure a story with a lot of footnotes will be easier to read in print rather than online unless special measures are taken (i.e. the footnotes appear in a pop-up window). And Strange Horizons has been open to hypertext stories although I have yet to read one…

  6. I’m more likely to scan and scroll with an online story, than I am to scan and skip with a book. My attention is more prone to wander with an online story than a print story, so I’m more inclined to be less patient with it.

    However, I will admit to having the same experience with a spoken story. So after a reading my reaction also tends towards, “That was an okay story, but I would have preferred to read it than listen to it.”

    Also, I read online fiction in my cubicle at work – so I am already in a distracted/multi-tasking state. More so than I would be sitting on the couch or even in the subway with a book.

  7. Some stories are suited to audio, some to paper, some to electrons, some to carvings in stone. We’ve been reading on paper — in page-sized thought units — for so long that I’d be very surprised if people did all switch over to online reading with ease.

    • But what about the continuing improvements in screen and e-readers. Does it seem that unlikely that the difference will only be tactile? And then, what is the difference for the story?

      I heard people making this same argument when typing moved from paper to screen. A generation later and they don’t even think about it. I don’t think books will be replaced (except perhaps textbooks) but eventually people won’t think twice about using e-reader software or devices.

      • A generation later and they don’t even think about it.

        I think that’s very true. I’m curious to see what will happen with how people feel about scrolling in particular. Bugs the hell out of me (I make exceptions for Clarkesworld and Fantasy because of the quality), and a story has to be better to keep me reading online than it does in print. Of course, I’m not one of those newfangled digital natives.

        I like the idea of multiple modes of reading persisting. Writers use pens, computers, typewriters, and other things besides to create their stories. Why not reading as well?

        • Yeah, the digital natives are an interesting breed. I work with them all day and it’s interesting how some things just come naturally to them. My eight year old son doesn’t remember a time where scrolling didn’t exist, so he has a problem understanding why I’d even ask him about it.

          I don’t see paper books vanishing. I do think the market share for ebooks and ezines will grow dramatically overall and likely dominate in some market segments like reference and school books.

  8. The story isn’t different.

    The environment in which it is read is different. And, the perception gained from the reading differs because of the environment.

    It’s difficult to the nth degree to separate the reading experience (yah or nay) in the two different mediums. I’ve read great stories, wonderful stories online, so why do I prefer a publication in hand? I shouldn’t and that calls for a reexamination of the experience on my part.

    • I can buy external forces tinkering with your enjoyment of a story, be it a bad display/layout (print or screen), uncomfortable chair, cold room, motion in a car, or sun shining on your face. Environment impacts all reading.

      I do seem to have a problem when someone says a story is specifically written for paper and can’t be fully appreciated outside that medium.

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