What does your e-reader know about you?
Until now you could buy a book and quit after 30 pages without anyone knowing – but ereaders are going to change that forever. How will this affect what we read and what authors write, asks ENDA O’DOHERTY
WE ARE SO INURED to the regrettable fact that a dog will sometimes bite a man that the notion has become the emblematic “not-news” story. Dog bites man: big deal. A man biting a dog, on the other hand . . . well, that is news.
A man reading a book is a pleasant notion, and all the more so perhaps because it is less frequently encountered now than, say, a man shouting into or poking at a mobile phone. But a book reading a man? How could that be, and what should we make of it?
Book publishers traditionally learned what little they knew about the afterlife of the books they chose to publish from the opinions of reviewers, hearsay about reader reception and the sales figures their accountants eventually presented them with. It was the last of these that presented the most solid evidence. Ms A’s second novel, hobbled no doubt by those rather lukewarm press notices, now looked likely to sell only a fraction of what her first had achieved. Half of the initial printing of 10,000 would very likely moulder away in the warehouse, and the publisher’s judgment that this was also a fine and worthy book had been proven wrong. Or, at any rate, the public did not seem to share it.
Can such costly mistakes be avoided? Perhaps. The publisher will not make the mistake of printing 10,000 copies of Ms A’s third effort – if, indeed, he publishes it at all. But could remedial action have been taken earlier? Could the book’s flaws – those features the readers did not warm to – have been identified and removed from the finished product?
Most people will be aware that the world of book publishing and retailing is in the throes of a momentous technological shift, though some choose to be in denial about how much – or even if – this will affect them. Forty million ereaders and 65 million tablets are in use in the US. In the first quarter of this year ebooks generated €230 million in sales, compared with €188 million for print books. At the youth and the most popular ends of the market, ebooks and ereaders are already dominant.
One significant difference between print books and ebooks is that the former, once bought, are absolutely your property. They have been removed from the public retail space into the private and domestic one and can be greedily devoured at one sitting, dived into enthusiastically but later cast aside or parked from the outset on a remote upper shelf and forgotten. It’s up to you, and no one will know unless you choose to tell them.