Is your book reading you? Publishing in the twilight of the printed word continued

by John MacBeath Watkins

There exists a press copy of James Joyce's Ulysses signed by Ernest Hemingway, which was published back when you had to cut the pages of a novel in order to read it (with form printing, someone has to cut the pages, which are printed with several pages on a large piece of paper, then folded before being bound, though now it's the publisher who does the cutting.)

The pages are not cut.

This may make your think this means that we know Hemingway didn't read the book, but actually, we don't. We know he didn't read the copy in the Ernest Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy library, but reading a book is such a private act, we cannot know if Hemingway read Ulysses, because he might have read a different copy. Book did not report back to the publisher.

Only now, they do.

The technology of the e-book make it possible for the book to report back to the company that sold you the product, be it an Amazon Kindle or a Barnes & Noble Nook, how many pages you read, what you highlighted, and what book you downloaded next.
Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers' digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company's vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people's attention.

What kind of details are companies like Barnes & Noble and Amazon collecting? From the same story:
It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour. Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them." And on Barnes & Noble's Nook, the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first "Hunger Games" book is to download the next one.
I'm actually less worried about a corporation learning these things about me than I am about a government learning such things (and frankly, if I highlighted the quoted line from Collins's book, I wouldn't want anyone to know I found something so banal deep and meaningful.) Of course, it's not a problem as long as you trust your government with such private information (or, right now, if you trust your corporation.) A traditional book is as untraceable as a samizdat. You pay for it, often with cash, take it home, read it, and pass it on or keep it on the shelf for future reference. Even the store you bought it from, if it's anything like mine was when I kept an open shop, has no record of which books you've bought in person, let alone which you've actually read. Reading is a private act for most of us, but not for the e-reader.

We've already seen that Amazon can at will remove a book from your e-reader, a thing that with a real book would at least require that they hire some thugs and equip them with jack boots, whatever that sort of footwear looks like. Oh, wait, Wikipedia has a picture:

"Stalin's Boots" sculpture in Hungary.
More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: