How tech lets retailers read their readers

PAPER OR PLASTIC: E-readers make literary consumption easier than ever.
PAPER OR PLASTIC: E-readers make literary consumption easier than ever.

Narnia writer C S Lewis apparently used to say that you could never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit him.

Given the vast array of gadgets and apps available these days, if ol' Clive Staples was still around, I think he'd have to drop the part about the books.

With my choice of profession, it's obvious that I prefer a physical medium when it comes to reading.

My livelihood depends on everyone else agreeing.

I'd also been sceptical of whether I could handle reading on a screen for extended periods of time.

But since I started using the Kindle app on the iPad (and to a lesser extent the iPhone), I've realised the simple truth - I was completely wrong. I love it.

The text is surprisingly easy on the eyes, and with the iPad's backlight, you can read in the dark if, for example, your partner decides they want to sleep before you.

It's just convenient to be able to carry dozens of books around.

I've started reading some of the classic works of fiction that I should have done years ago, such as Anna Karenina and A Tale of Two Cities, partly because their copyright period has ended and so they are free.

Having so many on hand means if you find your interest flagging on one, you can tap through to another instantly.

I'm currently reading David Foster Wallace's mammoth work Infinite Jest, a tome that in its physical form goes for more than 1000 pages and probably weighs a ton.

As far as I can tell so far - according to the display at the bottom, I'm 3 per cent the way through it - it's pretty good.

Part of Wallace's schtick is the level of detail that goes into his stories, and this is supplemented in this case by an extensive series of footnotes, which are at the end of the book and take up about 10 per cent of the story.

The Kindle version has an advantage here, because the footnotes are hyperlinked in the text, allowing you to jump from the main text to the footnote and back again, rather than having to manually move around between pages.

Given how frequently the footnotes pop up, I'm glad I don't have a heavy physical copy to leaf through.

But my enjoyment of e-reading is tempered with a small hint of shame and concern.

I like bookstores, and I like reading physical books, and even though I've always said that books will never be completely replaced by e-readers, I'm no longer sure if that's the case.

I'm also a little uneasy about how much control the makers of these e-reader apps and devices have over our reading experience.

A few years ago Amazon deleted George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from consumers' Kindles, without their permission or knowledge.

More recently, the word "kindle" was replaced by the word "nook" in copies of War and Peace stored on the Nook e-reader.

Apparently this was a mistake on the part of the publisher, but you can see how it might have looked a little . . . dodgy.

Those stories show the companies' capabilities, but less obvious is just how much they can read us.

Every time you turn a digital page, you're sending Amazon or Barnes and Noble data about your reading habits.

They can see how far we get through each book, which lines we highlight, how often we "open" the book, and other data.

With physical books, authors have just one metric: sales.

With such detailed information at hand, it's possible for writers to know exactly what their readers like about their stories.

Others love being able to see whether their book is too long, and that they need to cut it back.

But there are also people who feel that such analysis amounts to an intrusion of people's privacy, and that such an emphasis on going with the consensus will result in writers refusing to take risks. I tend to agree here.

Books are generally the product of one person's viewpoint, one person's way of looking at the world.

Music, movies and television shows: all are made in a collaborative process.

Even with certain shows - the obvious examples being David Simon's The Wire and Matthew Wiener's Mad Men - with a clear singular voice behind them, it still takes the efforts of dozens of people to put them out.

I'm sure in the back of an author's mind there is the idea that what they are writing needs to appeal to as many people as possible, but I'd like to think writers write the stories they do because those are the stories they want to tell.

So, e-reading gives us more books, more easily, in a convenient package, but also comes with its own set of issues.

I'm still with CS Lewis on the cup of tea situation though.

The Nelson Mail