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You are being counted

“You very rarely get a glimpse into the reader’s mind,” David Levithan of Scholastic Books says. “With a printed book, there’s no such thing as an analytic. You can’t tell which pages are dog-eared.”

A new piece at the Wall Street Journal by Alexandra Alter about how publishers are finally getting into the audience metrics game courtesy of e-readers. How quickly do people read certain novels? Where do they often stop reading? What sentences do they tend to underline/highlight? What do they buy next after finishing a book? (Best insight so far: “Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.” So much for “close reading.”)

These are some of the questions that e-readers allow publishers and booksellers to track. They will no doubt get more sophisticated as they correlate age and geographic data with reading habits. And we will no doubt worry more about the privacy of reading.  As I write in my book, “No one is looking where you are looking when you read a printed book.”

In the meantime, a host of new services are trying to capitalize on the phenomenon of “social reading.” Copia allows you to share your annotations or join conversations around certain books. Coliloquy is a platform of ebooks with a “choose-your-own-adventure” format, allowing readers to customize characters and plot lines. The company’s engineers aggregate and pool the data gleaned from readers’ selections and send it to the authors, who can adjust story lines in their next books to reflect popular choices. The line between reader and writer blurs every day (harkening back to John Cayley’s old formulation from the ’90s of the new “wreading”).

Social reading will no doubt become an increasingly important aspect of our interactions with electronic books. And it will no doubt be a great boon to commercial publishing. As with television, this will probably take the form of trending towards ridiculous levels of banality followed by episodic resurgences of quality (and by episodic I mean you, Episodes, the best show on TV right now).

Of course what this also means is that we will need both technologies and places that are out of view. Part of the value of reading has not only been the way it brings us together around shared texts (whether sacred or very profane), but the way reading produces a kind of social opacity, the way the book stands between us and others. We need more reading bowers today.

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