The Nation's Pulse


Who Is Reading Whom?

Another post-privacy portal into our lives.

By 7.3.12

Send to Kindle

From even before Gutenberg in the 15th century, reading has been a solitary and private business. For those non-techies among us who insist on reading real, physical books, the kind with paper pages and glue and ink, reading can still be one-on-one between reader and writer, with no one else in on the transaction.

But in a long and disturbing piece in the Wall Street Journal last week, Alexandra Alter reports that for the millions who now read on clunky and soulless e-gadgets (my words, not Alexandra's) traveling under the names of Kindles and Nooks, and probably some other devices I've been fortunate enough not to hear about, reading is the work of a committee. And nothing is private. Big Publishing Brother is looking over your shoulder.

Perhaps this isn't that big of a shock in the age of tracking cookies. But most of the folks who read with these devices are not aware that the "terms of agreement" they approved without reading give e-book publishers like Amazon, Apple, Google, et al. the right to track in detail how and what they read. (Who can demonstrate that anyone on the planet has ever read those online terms of agreement before, well, agreeing to them with a click?) 

E-readers aren't buying a book. For what they pay they're just licensed to read the book or story in question. And with this license, the seller is licensed to track how often readers open a book, how long they spend with a book or story, how far they read, even what they underline and what notes they make (in the clunky way you have to do these things with e-readers).

You can see from the publishers' points of view how they might want this information -- and how they might fool themselves that this will enable them to increase their sales by publishing better books. The publishing biz is going through a rough patch just now. So publishers are subjecting the data they get from unknowing readers to something they call "deep analytics," another charmless term let loose on an unsuspecting world by the marketing majors, who, at the Final Accounting, will have a lot to answer for.

This is pretty high stakes stuff, or at least publishers consider it so. E-books are no longer just a sliver of the publishing business. I've seen all manner of stats on this subject, most of which indicate there are more e-books being read now than what I will refer to until I'm shovel ready as real books. Alter cites Forrester Research that there are 40 million e-readers and 65 million tablets in use in the U.S. She quotes the Association of American Publishers that in the first quarter of 2012, e-books outsold real books $282 million to $230 million. 

With real books publishers have to rely on sales figures and reviews. With e-books they now have all kind of snoopy stuff they can analyze, much in the way ancient shamans analyzed sheep entrails, and use what they think they've learned to shape their products.

Some publishers even suggest they will use data on when readers' attention begins to flag to determine if story lines need to be changed, or even if a novel is too long. I'm sure this will be a hit with writers, many of whom already have problematic relationships with their editors and their publishers' marketing department. Amuse yourself by speculating on how receptive Leo Tolstoy might have been to a request to put out a shorter version of War and Peace because a secretary in the motor pool thought it was too long.

Not every writer is hostile to creative guidance from readers. Scott Turow, a writer of long and popular legal thrillers (Presumed Innocent, Burden of Proof, et al.) and president of something called the Authors Guild, told Alter, "If you can find out that a book is too long and you've got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I'd love to get the information."

Well, you're in luck Scott. You don't even need your publishers to spy on their customers to get this info. I read your first two novels, and they were too long. John le Carré and Stephen King, you also natter on way too long.

It's really hard to work up much moral indignation about this. Cyber-technology has long since made personal privacy just a fond memory. But many readers, when they think of the detailed information about their activities that are open through their two-way Kindles and Nooks, may consider this a bridge too far. It's one thing for a woman to agree to be part of a focus group, or to keep a diary of her television viewing. It's another to have a gnome at some publishing house counting the tears that hit her Kindle as she reads a romance. You don't have to have an over-active sense of propriety to recognize that there's just something wrong with this.

I don't like to make a moral case out of what is, after all, a matter of preference. I've no patience with the various "improvements" to the book that the techies have thrust upon us. But I know that various of my reading friends, sound in other ways, have bought these devices, and, I suppose, use them. I'd never try to talk them out of this "new and improved" approach. But I could more easily imagine an armadillo wearing a tuxedo than imagine myself reading a novel on one of these abominations.

I like books, the real kind, in all their aspects and have a library of a couple of thousand well-thumbed volumes. Books furnish my part of the house as much as the chairs and tables. A friend who is both a lawyer and a successful mystery writer, by way of supporting her enchantment with e-reading and giving evidence why I should consider going down the technical road, informed me that her Kindle can hold hundreds of books. I told her this was one of the most depressing things I'd ever heard.

Millions now are comfortable with their e-readers of various sorts, and have sent their physical books and book shelves to the encore store for the likes of me to pick over. I certainly won't lecture them on their choice. But if any of these folks feel like there is someone looking over their shoulder as they read, it's not just their imagination. And it's not much of a stretch to foresee a day when the reading habits of citizens are in the hands of more than just publishers, perhaps with a less benign intention than selling books.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.