You Don’t Read Your E-Book, Your E-Book Reads You

The Wall Street Journal reports that publishing companies have unprecedented access to people’s personal reading preferences, thanks to innovations in technology and the rise of the E-Book. For example, they know that the most “highlighted” line in any novel comes from The Hunger Games. The second most-cited line is Pride & Prejudice’s opening.

With this access inevitably comes legal questions regarding privacy:

Some privacy watchdogs argue that e-book users should be protected from having their digital reading habits recorded. “There’s a societal ideal that what you read is nobody else’s business,” says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for consumer rights and privacy. “Right now, there’s no way for you to tell Amazon, I want to buy your books, but I don’t want you to track what I’m reading.”

In addition, many writers are skeptical about how the data gathered from E-Books will be put to use. Will creative risks be challenged because they are not marketable enough? Will new novels, more than ever before, have to appeal to certain demographics? Essentially, will the independence of the author be questioned?

Others worry that a data-driven approach could hinder the kinds of creative risks that produce great literature. “The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn’t have anything to do with,” says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it.”

Yet some authors may find satisfaction in seeing what exactly readers like about their work, as the data becomes increasingly sophisticated and precise, to the point where a writer may see how certain passages or pages moved readers or even turned them off from finishing the piece. As publishing becomes increasingly accessible, this will undoubtedly become an even more pressing issue in the literary world.
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