Books may have been thought to be dangerous in the past, but it was a matter of having your mom find the steamy novel under your bed, or having to read subversive titles in secret. The reader was still in charge, and the book was an object, even if that object was a symbol of something else .Now, we learn, our e-readers are anything but passive objects. Like the eye behind a hidden two-way mirror, they're looking back at us, and passing along what they learn to a higher authority. (Imagine if Lady Chatterly's Lover or Das Kapital had been able to do that?) But, in true 21st -century form, political and moral snooping are taking a back seat to the real payoff: how to maximize profits.
An article in the Guardian, "Big E-reader is Watching You," tells the details of the types of information being collected:
"With digital content we have the ability all of a sudden to glean new insights into our customers," says Todd Humphrey, Kobo's executive vice president of business development. "How often do they pick up and engage with a book? What's the average time when they start to read? How many pages do they read an hour? How long does it take to read a book? And through bookmarking, people tell us where they stop. If we were to dive into that reader space, we could see they picked up a book, read the first five pages in five hours, then never picked up and engaged with the book again. What does that say, if 90% of readers stop after chapter five? It certainly provides insight for the publisher and the author."
Yes, no doubt it does. And that's what I find the scariest of all, because of its implications not just for book publishing in general, but for literature. We live in a society where budgets are increasingly determined through quantitative, not qualitative, measures. Teachers are judged by their students' scores on standardized tests; even university courses sink or swim on the bottom line: how much income they generate for the institution. The resources available for artistic endeavors of all types are dwindling, along with the energy of those who are willing to champion excellent work which may appeal to a small market.
But if that's not bad enough, now, for the first time, we have the spectre of quantitative information being used by publishers to influence not only what is written, but how it's written. In genre fiction, perhaps, this isn't so outlandish as it sounds. Here's British fantasy/sci-fi writer China Mieville:
"I hope it wouldn't change how I wrote, but conversely I do wonder if getting specifically worked up about this is simply a kind of neophobia, because if it did change how you wrote, wouldn't it just be a new variant of what authors have done for centuries, which is writing to a market?" he says. "In other words, that writing to algorithm, while I'm certainly no fan, is just writing to what one believes readers want – no more or less infra dig than writing in response to demands from the marketing department, or in response to one's analysis on perusing the bestseller list, or trying to second-guess what makes a best seller. A bit more micro-level in its analysis, but not qualitatively 'worse' or 'better'."
Reader privacy is another major issue. And while e-book manufacturers like Kobo say they will only use and pass along (read: sell) information to publishers that has been aggregated -- not individual statistics - do you really want your e-book reading habits used in this way? Or has social media altered our view of privacy so much that we can accept that even reading a book is no longer a private act?
"If they don't bookmark, and they're not online when they're reading, and they're not taking notes, we're not going to glean much information except for the purchase itself," Humphrey says.
But, he readily admits, they want more. The knowledge of where people stop reading, or how particular books are read, "could eventually affect what's published."
"You can understand what books are selling, where in the world, how fast people are reading them, how long it takes them to finish, where they accelerate or decelerate through a book – all of that at the end provides the publisher with pretty interesting insights to work with the author, on the style of the book and the story, and from a publishing perspective how to market based on where it is selling. At the end of the day, it does allow publishers more information than they would have if they just put the book on a shelf," he says. "It is going to be interesting to watch how it evolves over time. It is more power to the people who are essentially telling publishers and authors what it is they want to read."
Books as reader-driven commodity? We're already almost there. So what's the implication for literature? I predict that here, as in all the arts, a small sub-group of writers and publishers will emerge, largely separate from what's going on in the big-business side of publishing, and continue to create and make available works of enduring quality, for a smaller group of readers. But to preserve that level of care for the written word in human culture will take a level of selflessness, ingenuity, and determination we've only seen before when culture is threatened by totalitarianism, war, or extreme poverty.
In the long run, I fervently hope that Darwinian capitalism will run its course and that a more benevolent and humane world society will emerge. That long run may be very long indeed, and if human society does indeed survive, the process is going to be ugly, threatening, and at times truly dangerous to our bodies and particularly to our spirits.
Books have always been a symbol of human freedom. What we do with them is always significant. Are we prepared for the next phase in our relationship, and for what it's going to take to preserve not only the very best writing, but those who write it?
(This article is cross-posted to the Phoenicia Publishing blog.)