Culture //

Rise of the readers

Evelyn Araluen Corr investigates how ebook data could change the world of literature.

They know you tend to read your textbooks in the morning, but prefer fantasy novellas at night. They know you skipped through the first half of Vanity Fair. They know how many times you reread Rue’s death scene in The Hunger Games. They know which quotes you highlighted in The Fault in Our Stars before Tumblr made fun of them. They know you dragged through all those descriptions of meals in The Song of Ice and Fire series, and they know you couldn’t turn the page fast enough in the sexy scenes. And you disgust them.

By ‘they’, I mean publishers. It’s all thanks to the data-collection capacity of e-readers, which are capable of logging your reading times, your account activity, the speed at which you turn the page, and what you’re most likely to want to read next. While an insight into my recent Wodehouse binge and propensity to forget to buy my textbooks until ten minutes before class begins may not seem particularly useful to anyone, there is a distinct commercial advantage to the acquisition of this information.

As sales in e-books rise, new opportunities are emerging for publishers to study the ways in which we read, and tailor their products to suit the habits of “the average reader”. In the days of boring old paper books, for example, it was difficult to identify the demographics and intimate habits of customers. E-book data collection thus gives publishers access to information and tools that had previously been restricted to television or film producers. Publishers, too, are now able to use online analytics to determine precisely who is reading, when they want to read, and what they think of their book.

Meanwhile, apps like GoodReads are introducing a social media aspect to reading, which means not only can you rate and review your favourite books, but you can catalogue a reading history to show off to all your friends about how much extra free time you have to spend on your enviable online persona. Although a relatively new aspect to publishing, these developments do suggest some fairly ominous implications for authors.

On one hand, the ability to maximise books’ marketability may lead to greater sales numbers, and allow the publishing industry to compete more effectively for “eyeballs” with the film and television industry. On the other hand, it could also give rise to a push for books which are written in accordance with a set of conventions devised from the study of an average Kindle user’s reading habits. This makes very real the possibility that books being released over the next few years will exchange originality and innovation for 500 per cent more breasts and dragons in order to maintain user interest.

Without even considering the potential for our evil overlords to use Kindles to control our minds, by studying how we read, what we read might soon become fifty shades of stock standard, “average reader”-approved plot.

Illustration by Emily Woods.