Technology is definitely changing the way we read and I often listen to audio books as I go about my daily life but I hadn’t given a second thought about the ramifications of this; that data from our reading habits can now be transmitted back to authors and publishers.
The implications and arguments (for and against) of using e-books are well documented. E-readers might be a little difficult to use on the beach or by the pool (screen glare, sand and water are not great technology companions) but they do let you sync the same book across numerous devices, thereby increasing the opportunity to read your current book in different ways and at different times. It’s well documented that the rise of the e-reader accounted for some of the success of Fifty Shades, as well as the rise in popularity of Mills & Boon-esque novels because people no longer need to feel embarrassed reading them in public when no one can see the cover. Moreover, streaming services allow us to read in a much more liberating way, maybe trying out a book by reading the first couple of chapters in a way that we can’t in a bookstore (don’t get me started on the decline of libraries!).
The increased use of e-readers also means that people don’t have stacks of books in their houses anymore; we no longer need to keep that copy of War and Peace on our mantelpiece and pretend that we’ve read it. We can no longer browse people’s bookshelves as a window to their soul.
Or so I thought.
After reading They’re Watching You Read by Francine Prose at NYBooks (which itself quotes this Guardian article by Alison Flood) I realised that this isn’t entirely true. A few people are actively tracking what we’re reading because data from how we use our e-readers is going back to the e-reader provider. So they know which books we haven’t started, haven’t finished or worse, marked as finished when we haven’t even started – yes, the lying to ourselves is now a public pastime. Francine Prose makes a great point: “Will readers who feel guilty when they fail to finish a book now feel doubly ashamed because abandoning a novel is no longer a private but a public act?”
Moreover the implications are a little more far-reaching: “Since Kobo is apparently sharing its data with publishers, writers (and their editors) could soon be facing meetings in which the marketing department informs them that 82 percent of readers lost interest in their memoir on page 272. And if they want to be published in the future, whatever happens on that page should never be repeated.”
As an author, I think this could be incredibly useful if not a little painful. I would love to know when people take a break from my book (if it’s always on page 19, I know I’ve done something wrong), how long they take to read it, and when people give up altogether. As an individual, however, I feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea, as if someone is snooping on me and my reading habits.
So, I won’t stop listening to my audiobooks or using my subscription service (because it’s just too much of a game-changer for me) but it will make me doubly-happy to know that when I snuggle into bed to get intimate with a physical book, it will only be me that tracks what I have or haven’t read.
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