The quiet surveillance of readers

I read some months ago that while some people are watching their smart TVs, their smart TVs are watching them and reporting back – I think to the makers of the sets but maybe to the NSA and the Girl Guides as well, who knows?

I now learn that the same is happening to those of us who read ebooks, because it’s possible to track progress through an ebook digitally. My source was financial rather than technical so I don’t know how it’s done, but I would guess the ebook reader has to be connected to Wi-Fi for this to work. So what might we learn from this form of eavesdropping?

According to Kobo, Twelve Years a Slave, written by Solomon Northrup in 1858, was the ninth best selling ebook of 2014 but only 28.2% of British readers made it to the end. Yet when I check Amazon ratings of the paperback I find 741 responses (UK site) averaging 4.5 stars, so it is hard to account for the poor finish rate of the ebook. Could it be that ebook buyers are more given to buying on impulse, in this case fresh from seeing the film? They can download a copy instantly as they enter the foyer with their unfinished popcorn.

Another example. The Goldinch by Donna Tartt was the 37th most bought ebook of 2014 but only 44.4% of British readers reached the end of the ebook edition. Again, I’m not sure why this would be. The percentage of ebook impulse buys may have shot up after Ms Tartt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Or perhaps the book’s length put them off. The physical version is long enough, but the smaller page size of the ebook edition must make it seem even longer. Maybe they flagged.

However this may be, as we lie on our sleepless pillow with our latest ebook for company, do we really want our progress through it monitored? I don’t think we do. And if all this doesn’t put you off ebooks, recent research claims to show that ebook readers disrupt our sleeping pattern. Not all of them, just those which bring with them their own source of light. But these are probably in the majority by now. Too bad you sold that primitive model you used to have.

It is now to be seen in a second hand shop minus the many ebooks it hosted before it was sold. You may have thought that buying ebooks meant you owned them, but you didn’t, so every last title had to be wiped before your trusty old reader could be sold on.

Where will the march of technology end? I think I’d prefer not to know.

Ringing Endorsements

There is an assumption that endorsements are a good thing. From the reader’s point of view it may help them to decide what to read next: from the writer’s point of view that they will help move copies of their books. Both of these assumptions may well be true. Going by the space devoted to endorsements in books these days, I have to assume that publishers are sitting on evidence that they are effective.

Critical acclaim can come from several different sources. One is newspapers and magazines, and  we will form a view over time of their reviewers, as Gore Vidal did concerning the New York Times.  Another source is online reviews from sites such as Amazon or Goodreads (now a branch of Amazon). And the third is critical acclaim from fellow authors.

Online reviews can be dreadful, but they can also be excellent, so those who read them must judge for themselves. But they can’t  in those cases where a review is written by the author under an assumed name – either to praise himself or do down a competitor. There have been several high-profile cases of this and no one can be sure how pervasive it might be.

The area which interests me most is where authors are endorsed by other authors. This might happen for several reasons. The first is that one author genuinely admires the work of another. If they do, and they say so, that is surely a good thing. But what if two authors share the same publisher? It must have occurred to the marketing department that their authors might usefully endorse each other. And even where this is not the case, there is always the possibility that mutual back-scratching is taking place.

The first time I considered this subject was when I bought a copy of Underworld, by Don Delilo. I have since given this book away, but it contained several pages of praise from various sources. I made two attempts to read it, giving up both times.

I recently read The Blue Book, by A L Kennedy. On the back cover was a quotation from Richard Ford. Since I have given this book away too I am going by memory here, but I believe it said, ‘This woman is a profound writer.’ And those were the only words on the back cover.

My first assumption is that Richard Ford meant what he said. But was he right and, if so, why? It has been suggested to me that he must be right because 1) he was a novelist himself and 2) he was such an accomplished novelist that he had won a Pulitzer Prize. I have problems with this, none of them having to do with Richard Ford or the quality of his work.

Do we have to be a writer to evaluate the work of a writer? Plainly not. But perhaps being a writer gives us added insights we can bring to bear in our review? That’s obviously possible, but with at least one caveat: a writer will have certain working prejudices (a good thing) lighting his way along the path as he works. But these may, on occasion, skew his reaction to the work of others. Tolstoy was a writer but had a low opinion of Shakespeare. Do we accept his unusual point of view because he wrote Anna Karenina?

Is there any way through all this? Yes. The conclusion alone it is not enough. To enable us to test it, we need to know how it was arrived at. I have no doubt that Richard Ford, if asked, would tell us exactly why he thinks A L Kennedy is a profound writer. But this information was denied us. So the prospective purchaser of The Blue  Book was left with a back cover occupied by a mere assertion in solitary splendour.

Even if this assertion had been made by a literary Pope speaking ex cathedra (or possibly ex libris) we should not accept it. We must insist on our right to think for ourselves.