Reading me, reading you

In an attic room in a cheap part of town, the writer sits at a battered desk. Two years of solitary effort, and the book is finally finished. Into the brown envelope, off to the post office. Maybe this one will be published. And maybe, against all the odds, this one will be a best-seller. Only time will tell.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. So familiar that it’s a painful cliché — the struggling author, hoping against hope to strike a chord that resonates with the reading public.

And if the book is a hit, what then? Can the magic formula repeat itself? Will the second book be as well received as the first? What was it about the first that made it work?

Who knows. The only thing we can say for sure is that, for some reason, it sold well. All the writer can do is hope for the same kind of luck, or the same unconscious artistry, the next time.

The only thing wrong with this story is that it’s completely, irrevocably passé. And it’s not just that quaint part about the post office.

Illustrating how much the book industry is changing, the Wall Street Journal published “Your E-Book Is Reading You” on June 29th. Alexandra Alter’s article described at some length the way that companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble track readers of their e-books, gathering mountains of reader data of a sort never before available, or even imaginable.

How many pages do you read at one time? How long do you linger on a particular page? What kinds of notes and highlights are you making? If you’ve read one book by an author, do you go on to read another? How far do you read into a book that you ultimately abandon without finishing?

These and many other questions are a snap to answer when every e-reader you sell is back-linked to you, sending piles of information about your readers’ habits, information that goes far beyond sales figures.

Two very different but very large issues come immediately to mind. One has to do with yet another electronic invasion of privacy. The other concerns how this sort of information may change the way that many writers write.

There is more than a little disingenuousness in the outcry against electronic information gathering. Are there really many people left who were thinking that they had any privacy to protect? Everything from the security camera at the corner store to the supermarket club card you carry in your wallet is an invasion of privacy. The GPS in your smart phone, the character tracker on your office computer, the content of your Facebook page, the toll history you generate commuting to work — what part of your life isn’t subject to constant data collection? If you really, really don’t want Amazon to collect information about you, don’t trade with Amazon. Go to a local independent bookstore and buy the book you want. With cash.

Not that there aren’t outrageous examples of electronic corporate overreach. In one well-reported case, when Amazon discovered that it had sold an e-book with iffy copyright clearance, the company didn’t just stop circulating the book. To erase their mistake, Amazon used its electronic link to every Kindle out there to delete the offending book from every reader on which it existed. You bought it, it’s yours, but only until we decide that it’s in our corporate best interest that it not be yours. Zap. It’s gone. Talk about your revision of the past. That’s quite an impressive little cyber Memory Hole you’ve got there, Amazon!

But extreme electronic data collection’s impact on the consumer may pale in significance next to the ways that this level of marketing knowledge can change the way that writers create the books that E-tailers sell.

Alter quotes one publishing executive, who said “If we can help authors create even better books than they create today, it’s a win for everybody.”

What would such a “better” book look like? As with all of the other kinds of commodification that permeate our present culture, a better book would be more popular, and more profitable. Its value would be measured by how well it met the marketing targets generated by all of that electronic data. If readers started to slow down and fall away after 2/3 of your last book, make your next one shorter. Not because the rest is badly written or unimportant to your story, but because your typical readers get bored after 200 pages. Why would you want to give them 300?

This kind of market-driven thinking has long pushed movies, television, journalism, music, etc., toward the bottom line. Why not books? After all, aren’t almost all books already watered down and formulaic? Why worry about the artist who won’t be able to get a book published without cutting out all of the dull parts, the parts to which the E-reading demographic doesn’t respond with sufficient enthusiasm.

The good news is that, for now at least, there are some in the industry who are sensitive to the threat. Again from Alter:

Others worry that a data-driven approach could hinder the kinds of creative risks that produce great literature. “The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn’t have anything to do with,” says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it.”

If you ask me, this second problem is much more troublesome than the first. I wouldn’t mind being tracked while I’m reading as much as I’d mind not having anything worth reading in the first place.

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One thought on “Reading me, reading you

  1. The need for novelty probably will take care of formula stuff if media that operate that way are anything to go by. As for classics, they tend to take a while to be recognized anyway and when they are everyone wants to read them to be seen as up to date.

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