Friday, June 29, 2012

Why I'm Boycotting E-Books and Why You Should too

As you can see from the title, I'm advocating boycotting E-books. It's been a long time since I've told anyone that they should boycott anything. A couple of decades in fact. So why do I think you should boycott e-books? Romantic notions of the physical structure and the history of the book? A desire to preserve something I can touch, flip with my fingers and smell? No. While I admit all of those are why I love non-digital books, I can also appreciate the beauty of a well done digital collection. Besides, I'm not a big fan of imposing my judgments of taste on others. No, this is something much more serious.

In a recent article called Your E-Book is Reading You, Alexandra Alter alerted the public to one particularly insidious aspect of the e-book: that your data is being collected with every e-book you download and read. By this, I don't mean they simply track what you buy, but what you read. They know if you read the introduction or don't, they know what your favorite passage is, they know if you finish the book or if you don't. They track how quickly you read the book. All of this is collected to determine just how popular a book is and has broad ramifications for publishing, civil rights and personal privacy. Alter explains,

Amazon can identify which passages of digital books are popular with readers, and shares some of this data publicly on its website through features such as its "most highlighted passages" list. Readers digitally "highlight" selections using a button on the Kindle; they can also opt to see the lines commonly highlighted by other readers as they read a book. Amazon aggregates these selections to see what gets underlined the most. Topping the list is the line from the "Hunger Games" trilogy. It is followed by the opening sentence of "Pride and Prejudice."

The problem with this is two-fold. First, there is simply the sense of one's privacy being invaded. If you're one of the many people who have become weary of sites like Facebook using basic information about you--who you know, where you met them, where your photos are taken and where you went for your anniversary dinner--to sell so that they might better market to you, this will take it to a whole new level all the while making you pay for the privilege. I know for myself, one of my favorite things to do with a book is underline and make notes in the margins. At the same time, I don't mean this to be for public consumption. I remember one time, I wanted to loan a friend a book on the enneagram. I had made a number of notes and underlined sections that I thought described me. This was more personal information than I wanted to share with my colleague, so I went out and bought another copy of the book to loan to him. It became my loaner copy for anyone else that I happened to meet who wanted to learn more about the subject. However, if I didn't want my colleague, a very accepting and easy going Taoist who had lived an interesting and varied life, to know this about me how much less would I want that information shared with Amazon? If forced to read an e-book, I would likely stop underlining passages altogether and just keep a private, hand written journal in which I could write down quotes and reflections on the material.

There's a bigger problem, though. The problem is that this data is being used not just to market what someone might like but to potentially control what is written as well.

"The bigger trend we're trying to unearth is where are those drop-offs in certain kinds of books, and what can we do with publishers to prevent that?" Mr. Hilt says. "If we can help authors create even better books than they create today, it's a win for everybody."

The problem there, though, is that it then shapes the market. Right now, those types of editorial decisions may be very loosely shaped by trends ("teen horror is really in right now, let's sign on more horror writers!") and general stylistic concerns. Cutting may be as much a subjective choice based on the editor's individual experience and whatever aesthetic sense they may (or may not) bring to the table. However, once you incorporate numbers based thinking, you start tossing all deeper considerations out the window. The numbers become facts and these "facts" dictate reality. If data says that readers really like a certain line in a book, the author then may be pressured to write lines like that in. Yet, the immediacy of data is a problem. Sometimes the most significant works, the ones that have most stood the test of time, had only a modest degree of responsiveness among readers when they were first published. The truly visionary writer may, in fact, yield less promising data than someone who will enjoy brief success but make little long-term impact on literature. I support Galassi on this point when he's quoted as saying,

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."

Additionally, what happens to the book with modest, but not sweeping, success under this model? Many of us have the experience of becoming obsessed with a television show which, while not mainstream, has a huge cult following. We are all too familiar with realizing that, no matter how much we love something, if the numbers don't rank it as highly as the latest reality show, we're SOL. Do we really want the same thing to happen to our books? What if those readers of literary fiction, works which rank a much slower read time than popular novels, suddenly find publishing companies slashing the amount of titles they'll publish in that category because, while there may be modest success in sales, they still don't seem to "grab" people as much as the latest made-into-a-tv-series title?

Finally, the most distressing is the legal ramifications. It's a thin line between information gathered for marketing purposes and information collected by the government to spy on its citizens. However, as Alter points out, the ACLU is on that and some states have already begun to put some restrictions in. Still, one may recall when the Patriot Act first came into existence, librarians were having to stand up against the government en masse in order to protect their patrons' privacy. Laws in place may help, but we've all seen that laws protecting individual rights are seldom set in stone, and all the provisions in the world won't stop that should so-called "exigent circumstances" arise. Do you trust Amazon to stand up for our rights should such a scenario occur? I do not.

My stance as a reader? I will buy print for as long as I'm able to. And as a writer? Well, I may just need to take up playwriting after all.