Who Cares What You Read? (E-Reading, Privacy, and Engagement)
The Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Alter published an article last month entitled Your E-Book is Reading You, which examined the myriad ways that publishers and booksellers are tracking reading habits on e-reading devices. In the examination of what seems to be a marketing research tactic for the wider publishing industry, the article takes an almost conspiratorial tone, evoking the question of privacy for readers. Alter posits that “for centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act,” but is this really the case? Furthermore, does the average reader actually mind that a publisher knows that it took them an hour to read 57 pages of The Hunger Games? Is Orwell’s Big Brother watching because they want to alter the world of publishing and sell us more information in the form of 1s and 0s, or is this kind of research just business as usual in an information society that has grown accustomed to over-analyzing every consumer-end click for the sake of a few more ad-cents?
While Orwell was a respected visionary, I tend to think that readers are far more willing to share their habits and opinions than the industry may think. E-reading technology simply makes it easier to track this behavior without the need to engage with the reader. Reading might occasionally be a solitary and private act, but I would argue that books have always opened doors to community interaction. From the symposiums of ancient times to the modern-day reading series held at local bars, live author readings to streaming video Q&A sessions on Goodreads.com, customer reviews, and book clubs, the ideas contained in books have always been connected to a tradition of dialogue… And in this day and age, who isn’t a tablet-tap away from social networks where we can share our every waking action?
…Excuse me while I tell my Facebook “friends” and Google+ “circles” that I am writing this…
Some authors are viewing this new age of data-gathering among readers as a beneficial prospect. Local author and president of the Authors Guild, Scott Turow, is quoted in Alter’s article as saying “I once had an argument with one of my publishers when I said, ‘I’ve been publishing with you for a long time and you still don’t know who buys my books,’ and he said, ‘Well, nobody in publishing knows that.’ “ Turow raises an interesting point and simultaneously illuminates the flippant short-sightedness of some publishers that have grown too accustomed to old industry ways. Now that established changes in publishing become obsolete faster than your new cell-phone, it is going to take a group of thinkers with a new skill set to figure out what all of this data actually means beyond an accelerated commodification of books. My hope is that the truly great books written by dedicated and passionate writers will be easier to spot, as they will vividly stand apart from the books that adhere to a matrix of tightly researched e-reading preferences.
Furthermore, who is analyzing the effect and reception of e-reading on the general reading public? The Atlantic recently published A Midterm Progress Report on e-reading that questions the engagement of readers rather than just their rates and methods of consumption. Though some readers will balk at any sign of underlining or marginalia in books, many others find that such markings provide an enhanced reading experience. Unfortunately, nearly all e-reading platforms and devices seem to be catering primarily to casual reading rather than thoughtful, responsive reading.
Personally, the changes taking place in the wider reading world have not come close to my preferred method of participating in the book ecosystem. I enjoy reading a text, occasionally underlining or writing notes in the margin, developing my thoughts about what I just read, then sharing those thoughts in a public forum such as book club or on Goodreads. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that Goodreads is the more accurate site for gauging reading habits of the world’s most voracious readers… no privacy infringement necessary. The authors who care about these things are already active over there, and I guarantee we will see increased engagement as time goes on.
(originally written for Open Books)