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.

With ebooks it’s different. When you buy an Amazon Kindle reader you agree to allow the company to access and store information from the device on what books you are reading, how fast you are reading them, what you get stuck at, what you skip over and where you finally give up and dump the thing.

Todd Humphrey of the Canadian ebook manufacturer Kobo finds this all very exciting. The information collected, he says, “provides the publisher with pretty interesting insights to work with the author, on the style of the book and the story . . . It is more power to the people, who are essentially telling publishers and authors what it is they want to read.”

Many of the more negative reactions to the implications of the information-gathering capability of electronic books centre on the issue of privacy; the metaphor that comes readily to hand is the Orwellian one, as in the title of a recent Guardian piece, “Big e-reader is watching you”.

But in fact big ereader is not watching you, at least not as an individual, and has no interest in whether you are a subversive or the most docile of citizens. What ereaders do is aggregate information on reading habits. If you give up at page 140 of The Prague Cemetery perhaps you just have no stamina, but if 30,000 readers give up that may be interesting to the publisher. And if you have taken 27 minutes to read a particular four pages of Fifty Shades of Grey, that may also be of interest.

A Barnes & Noble executive, Jim Hilt, has spoken of identifying the “drop-offs” and working with publishers to avoid them. For, as he says: “If we can help authors create even better books than they created today, it’s a win for everybody.”

Not everyone agrees that this is either possible or desirable. Feedback from readers, for example, is almost certain to persistently indicate that Leo Tolstoy’s most famous novel is just too damn long. And yet perhaps War and Peace remains a better book than War and Pea. Listening to all opinions may not be a win for everyone, and certainly not always for literature.

The ebook and the ereader are what really count now in the US for those involved in producing books for young adults and in certain popular genres: science fiction, fantasy, erotic, gothic, romantic fiction. It is in these areas that detailed knowledge of reading habits will initially be most intensively studied, and if readers of Intensive Care are seen to sign out every time drippy Nurse Peters signs in, then Nurse Peters will certainly have to go.

At this stage ebook-reader analysis is being enlisted chiefly by producers of genre fiction. But how long will editorial departments at traditional literary publishers be able to resist this precious gift their sales departments are sure to press on them? The – perhaps somewhat idealised – picture of publishing we have been given by graduates of the great patrician firms of the recent past (Jonathan Cape, Secker, Allen Lane; Scribner or Random House in the US) is of an enterprise where the bestselling books subsidise the others, where editors are committed to seeking out and fostering talent and originality and where commercial success is of course welcome, as it keeps the whole thing afloat, but is not the be all and end all of being a publisher.

Such a model, of course, depends on the presence of editors who know what good writing is and who are prepared to engage, where necessary, in patient dialogue with the writer to coax it into being. But editors of this kind have been disappearing from the literary world for some time, as publishers are taken over by conglomerates and copy-editing departments are shrunk and marketing and sales departments become more engorged and arrogant.

In time, scrutiny by publishers of books that “read the reader” is sure to expand from the quite limited areas where it is currently employed to become a tool used and valued by all publishing enterprises, just as ereaders will go on to occupy more and more of the space now held by printed books. Worries about privacy may be slightly exaggerated; in fact the appropriate Orwellian reference is not so much to Big Brother as to the Ministry of Truth’s fiction-writing machines, which in Nineteen Eighty-Four churned out entertainment for the proles – that is the vast majority of the population.

There is no reason to be unduly worried about a threat to formula fiction, which we have had with us since the arrival of mass literacy and which makes many people happy. But let us hope that editors and publishers of the old school are not entirely squeezed out of the system to be replaced by a nonhuman reader-meter, lest some Joyce of the future is told: “Well Jim, we test-marketed your ‘work in progress’ thing on a 5,000 sample. I’m sorry, but frankly the readers are not with us on this one.”

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