Thursday, July 5, 2012

Big Brother On Your Kindle?

An article from the WSJ is kicking up some online fuss, discussing the plethora of consumer information mined from people's e-book reading habits and the privacy implications of that.  According to The Guardian, the bulk of the responses tend to echo Doug Johnson's "meh."

And on the whole, I agree.  Sites such as Goodreads thrive on people wanting to share their reading content, and if Amazon wants to shove more dystopian novels my way, based on the fact that I downloaded (and devoured) Insurgent, Blood Red Road, and Drowned Cities, more power to them. They'd do that whether I bought an e-book or the physical book, anyway, and I have the power of "No" in my control.

But here's what pulled me up short:
Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.
Those insights are already shaping the types of books that Barnes & Noble sells on its Nook (emphasis mine).

That's a big deal, and we should all be concerned.
As followers of net neutrality issues know, thanks to media consolidation, six companies now control 90% of all media content, limiting the variety of voices and discourse in national debates.

Similarly, there is a finite number of 1)  eBook platforms and 2) large booksellers.  Do you really want B&N or Amazon deciding that, because most people who buy China: A New History fail to finish it, that it's not worthwhile offering, or only watered-down (i.e. shorter, article length) versions?    Because once booksellers start doing that, publishers will stop printing them in the first place.  Maybe I only needed a few chapters for whatever research I was doing.  That doesn't mean the book isn't valuable.

And the English teacher in me just cringed at this. 

Publishers already know that more people would rather read John Grisham than John Barth. Heck, so would I!  Audience testing vs. literary value isn't the point--even Shakespeare changed the endings of plays based on audience reactions (according to on my English profs, anyway).  And, personally, contrary to Jonathan Galassi in the article,  War and Peace could do with a little shortening based on audience drop-off rates.

The question is, do we really want that kind of detailed data driving both a) what publishers will publish and b) what authors write?  They need to make a living after all, so it's not like most of them are going to ignore this.

Furthermore,  it's not necessarily even good data.  Case in point:  Over spring break this year, I went to Thailand and took my Kindle.  I started reading Ken Follett's  (vastly over-rated!) Pillars of the Earth. It's a hefty tome.  I got about halfway through it on vacation, returned to school and finished reading  it using the book from the library.  As far as Amazon is concerned,  I never finished the book.  I can see someone, somewhere, deciding that lengthy fiction just isn't what people want.  Good-bye George R.R. Martin.

I read somewhere that the answer is turning off the wireless and loading books via computer downloads.  I may start doing that.  Most people won't, though, so the issue remains: we don't want publishing decisions made ONLY on what's  going to be #1 on the bestseller lists.  That means booksellers need to be willing to stock books "just because," regardless of whether readers ever finish the thing.

Actually, I think this is another reason to just get rid of publishers and bookstores as the middle-man between authors and the reading public.  It's not going to happen anytime soon, but more authors are experimenting with publishing directly.  It dramatically reduces the cost of a book, while simultaneously increasing the writer's (rather than the publisher's) profits.  Its' win-win.

Of course, currently that mostly works only if an author has already established a name for him/herself.  It's where we're heading, though.


  1. Hi Jeri,

    A total junk food diet of reading? I suspect we will see quality writing being published for a very long time. One of the things that counter-balances the consumer-driven model of publishing is the long-tail theory and self-publishing, I am not as convinced that these six companies have as much power as one would think.

    Oh, quite frankly, I've not read a nonfiction book in the past 10 years (that I remember) that couldn't have been 20% shorter by omitting the 4th and 5th examples of something when 3 do nicely.

    It's an interesting situation, for sure. But somebody DOES need to stop George RR Martin or I may never have time to read any other author!

    Great post.


  2. Hey! It liked you today! : )

    Yeah, I don't think there's any immediate "danger"--I more wonder about long trends, as these things get more and more data driven. Slippery slope and all that.

    I agree, most books need more draconian editing, but GRRM could rewrite the phone book and I'd read it!