In the past, reading a novel or book of nonfiction was a private matter, and publishers had no way of knowing how much you liked a book or if you flipped through it quickly or became immersed and enchanted. If they COULD know this, they would design books that were more compatible for readers’ tastes. Well, now with the kindle and other e-books, they’ve found a way to do this–and reading isn’t private anymore.

In the June 29th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter writes: "Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins?"

But with E-books, retailers now have this information. Alter writes: "Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how quickly (people) read and how readers of particular genres engage with books." Alta quotes Jim Hilt, vice-president of Barnes and Noble e-books, as saying that they are still in "the earliest states of deep analytics," shifting through "more data than we can use."

But they HAVE learned a few things. Readers of nonfiction tend to read in fits and starts, while readers of popular fiction (especially series) tend to plow through a book without stopping. Readers of literary fiction "quit books more often and tend to skip around between books."

However, Alter quotes Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar Straus, as saying, "We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it."

She quotes Scholastic president David Levithan as saying, "You very rarely get a glimpse into the reader’s mind. With a printed book, you can’t tell which passages are dog-eared."

Some authors are elated. Alter quotes Scott Turow as saying, "I once had an argument with one of my publishers when I said, ‘I’ve been publishing with you for a long time and you still don’t know who buys my books."

Tawna Fenske wanted to kill off one of her main characters, but e-book data warned her not to do it. Alter quotes her as saying, "So much of the time, it’s an editor and agent and publisher telling you, ‘This is what readers want,’ but this is hands-on reader data. I’ve always wondered, did that person buy (my book) and stop after the first three pages? Now I can see they bought it and read it in the first week."

Movies and TV have been doing this type of data collection for years and the result HASN’T been good: A series of dull, formulaic films and shows that all seem the same, because they are aimed at a specific demographic rather than being the result of artistic expression. In other words, they’re following, not leading.

And what about books on "sensitive" topics? Alter quotes cyber-security expert Bruce Schneier as saying, "There are a gazillion things that we read that we want to read in private."

We can never tell what will happen in the future, but imaginative novelists can give us some wonderful ideas about what MIGHT happen. For instance, could there be a mental hospital where the patients are really all CIA agents and a painting turns out to be a time machine?

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