Your E-Book Is Reading You

With the increased proliferation of e-books, publishers are using data analytics to determine what and how people are reading on their e-book devices. The Wall Street Journal provides some detail:

Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers’ digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.

Some details on which books tend to get dropped by readers:

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.

Those insights are already shaping the types of books that Barnes & Noble sells on its Nook. Mr. Hilt says that when the data showed that Nook readers routinely quit long works of nonfiction, the company began looking for ways to engage readers in nonfiction and long-form journalism. They decided to launch “Nook Snaps,” short works on topics ranging from weight loss and religion to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Not very surprising, I suppose. I’d be interested in finding out what the criteria for a drop are: is it starting to read another book? No change in page numbers in a week? Longer?

Another thing to consider: giving readers what they want based on analytics can backfire. Imagine someone who’s read a longer book than they otherwise would have and their sense of accomplishment after finishing versus a publisher that tells authors to limit how and what they put on the page. As one astute publisher noted: “We’re not going to shorten War and Peace because someone didn’t finish it.”

The French Love Their Books

There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books.

That quote is from this New York Times piece detailing how books sales compare in the United States and France:

From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent. E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.

There’s also this:

A 59-page study by the Culture Ministry in March made recommendations to delay the decline of print sales, including limiting rent increases for bookstores, emergency funds for booksellers from the book industry and increased cooperation between the industry and government.

One tiny operation determined to preserve the printed book is Circul’livre. On the third Sunday of every month this organization takes over a corner of the Rue des Martyrs south of Montmartre. A small band of retirees classify used books by subject and display them in open crates.

The books are not for sale. Customers just take as many books as they want as long as they adhere to an informal code of honor neither to sell nor destroy their bounty. They are encouraged to drop off their old books, a system that keeps the stock replenished.


An Objection to Tim Parks’ “E-Books Can’t Burn”

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Tim Parks’ pro-ebooks argument in The New York Review of Books. I’ve still been thinking about possible objections to his thoughts (and they were excellent). This weekend, I stumbled upon a blog post by Epicurean Dealmaker (he remains anonymous on the Web) who eloquently distills his objections:

[M]y real objection to Mr. Parks’ argument has to do with the naive Platonism he attempts to sell us. His entire argument seems to boil down to the assertion that there is some sort of “pure text” at the base of every work of literature—words in inviolate sequence, to use his coinage—and that e-readers, by collapsing and standardizing our access to them, somehow make our experience of literature purer and more authentic. But this is just bullshit. The experience of literature—and reading in general—is always and everywhere a solitary interpretative act on behalf of and by the reader. Readers read literature in time, in space, and through some sort of medium. Time spent reading—pace, duration, intervals when one puts down the book—directly and ineluctably affects the reader’s experience of the text. Readers who read Ulyssess in three years may indeed have read the same text as those who read it in two weeks, but they certainly have not had the same aesthetic and cognitive experience. In addition, solitary reading involves the visual faculties and aesthetic senses, too. Font, line leading, margins, and even pagination affect a reader’s experience of a text, often subconsciously. No-one who has ever compared a cheap, cramped, badly-typeset version of a novel to a well-designed, spaciously laid out one can help but notice the difference. And noticing the difference in and of itself alters the experience of the work. Joyce may be as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman, but I dare you to find him the same author in twelve point Comic Sans.

A book, properly considered, is a recorded performance of a piece of literature, just like a CD is a recorded performance of a particular piece of music. While musicians have more artistic discretion in interpreting a piece than a book designer and publisher do, the latter are not aesthetically invisible. They subtly influence a book’s format and packaging: font, margins, page breaks, cover art, etc. The sequence, timing, pace, and even completion of the work—its interpretation—lie in the hands of a reader, but the packaging and presentation of the physical object is not. And because reading is a performance, the time and place where you read is important, too. Reading Lord Jim on a plane is not the same as reading it on a tropical beach. The former is forgettable; the latter is not, as I can personally attest.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the same music, whether it is interpreted by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boise Symphony. But nobody ever hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: they hear a performance of it. By the same token, nobody ever reads Ulysses, they read a version of it, as presented to them through the medium of some sort of delivery device at a particular time and place, and interpreted according to their own engagement, interest, aptitude, and sensitivity. A Kindle or an iPad is just another delivery device, constrained or liberated, as the case may be, by its technical and aesthetic capabilities and limitations. There are many texts where an e-reader’s ability to standardize, flatten, and minimize aesthetic variation may very well be an advantage. (I think in particular of current non-fiction, biography, history, and other trade books.) But to pretend it is therefore somehow more transparent to a work of literature than a physical book is wishful thinking.

A must-read in entirety. I especially like the strong conclusion with a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

E-Books Can’t Burn

Another pro-ebook argument, this time courtesy of Tim Parks at New York Review of Books:

Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in. The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end. More than any other art form it is pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page. If we say the words in sequence, even silently without opening our mouths, then we have had a literary experience—perhaps even a more intense one than a reading from the page. It’s true that our owning the object—War and Peace or Moby Dick—and organizing these and other classics according to chronology and nation of origin will give us an illusion of control: as if we had now “acquired” and “digested” and “placed” a piece of culture. Perhaps that is what people are attached to. But in fact we all know that once the sequence of words is over and the book closed what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

I am not in complete agreement with the argument (especially the part I bolded above). For instance, there is something intangible that makes me want to read the classics in a hardcover versus an e-book… And what about the sense of smell? I love opening up old editions and partaking in the reading experience: sight, smell, and touch.

Jonathan Franzen on E-Books

Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, expresses his thoughts on e-books:

The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.

I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

I understand where Franzen is coming from, and I used to be in the same camp as he is now (i.e., I wouldn’t read any e-books). But ever since I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone, I’ve become more warm toward reading books on digital devices (I have still yet to get a Kindle, however).

Franzen goes on:

Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

Yes, the concept of being reassured that the text hasn’t changed is wonderful. But he neglects dynamic titles that can be updated over the years (think introductions and forewords to texts). My feeling is that Franzen’s thoughts on e-books will become more malleable (i.e., sympathetic) in the next few years. It certainly takes time, as was the case with me.