Mainstream Publishing Industry “Products” Are About to Get Even More Awful

But first, as to validation.  (See previous post.)

I was stunned to see that there is at least one literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who gets it.  Mr. Wylie said in a recent interview for New Republic what I’ve been saying here in my quiet corner of the Internet for a long time.  That the publishing industry needs to lose its corporate overlords, return to its role as a purveyor of culture, and focus on people who actually like books.  That means reducing its size to fit its real market instead of constantly trying to cobble together an ever-shifting “market” out of people who don’t care for reading.  Mr. Wylie said:

The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.

Thank you, Mr. Wylie.  As an “effete educated snob who reads” and damn proud of it, I feel like the Cassandra in the corner when I say those things.  It’s awesome that you agree.

Of course, we “effete educated snob[s] who read” are a dying race.  Folks don’t read or think critically or appreciate anything fine because they are choosing not to learn how.   Which makes the latest disruption to the culture, brought to you by Scribd, Oysters, Entitle, and other new businesses that provide ebooks to consumers, either horrifying or comical.  I vote for horrifying, based on the impact this will have on us “effete educated snobs” via the corporate-owned publishing entities.

We are now at the point where businesses can monitor your reading.  Not just which books you buy, but which of those books you actually read, when, how far, what parts you skip, what parts you linger over, whether you finish, and where you stop.  If this technology doesn’t spy on your private reactions to the text in your hands and issue reports on your intimate emotional and intellectual relationship with any given book, it’s close enough to make one feel violated.

Oyster’s “privacy” policy tells would-be subscribers: “We receive and record information regarding reading behavior on the services including, but not limited to, the books that users click or open, specific pages opened or read, and words displayed to end users.”  Scribd told David Streitfield, the author of a recent New York Times article on the subject, that it’s “going to be pretty open about sharing this data.”  You’ve been warned.

Does that mean the NSA gets dibs on who seems a bit too enamored with Sufi poetry?  Will spending too much time with the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi or Khalil Gibran get you put on a no fly list?  When are you expected to stop reading your favorite translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám before the authorities want to talk to you about your suspicious interest in Persian poetry?  How many minutes are allowed per page?  What about political books?

Anybody else find this creepy?  Reading is a private act.   Stop monetizing (or whatever the new ugly corporate-speak word is this week) my private activities.  As a reader, I don’t want some Peeping Tom spying out my relationship with the written word and pimping it out for a dime, or excuse me, being “pretty open about sharing this data.”  My reading habits are not free labor for some marketing department.  Piss off.

As a writer, I have zero interest in Big Brothering it around with my readers.  If they want me to know how they react to something I wrote, they tell me.  Voluntarily.  That’s how it should be.

The most awful part of this isn’t the privacy violation, because one can certainly choose not to subscribe to these services.  It’s the assumption on the part of the business-of-disruption types who are cheerleading for this ugly encroachment of private dreams that this data is a meaningful window into what real readers want.  It isn’t.  But the data will get used anyway to dictate the template for future books in the hope that following the model will generate more profit.  Otherwise why would anybody want to collect this information?

Everyone knows what’s going to happen next.  The latest stats will dictate the formula that must be followed for the corporate bean counters to vet a book.  And if you think mainstream “product” can’t get any worse, wait until these kinds of insights become engraved in stone by traditional publishers.  From Mr. Streitfield’s article:

 At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” promoted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” Everyone who starts it finishes it. On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end.

So did Madison Q. Reader pause her screen for 7 minutes and 43 seconds because she hated the passage?  Because she loved the passage and was reading it several times over?  Because a package came to the door and she got distracted and left her ereader on?  Did she stop reading at Chapter 4 because she hated the book?  Or because she loved the book so much she bought a physical copy at that point? (I’ve done that.)  Maybe she ordered the ebook version to have the book right away because she couldn’t wait, and then stopped reading the ebook when the physical book arrived at her doorstop?

We can’t know.  And as to the 1% of readers who finished Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Cycles of American History, which was originally published in 1986, could this be because at this point interest in that book is largely among researchers who only have use for a particular chapter?  To say the book “blows no minds” and compare it unfavorably to What Women Want (entirely different intended audience) is a preview of what’s to come.  Books that have nothing in common, including their intended audience, will be compared on the basis of the data.   Want to write a serious study of American history?  Better force it into the template of a popular dating guide!  Because our data shows that’s what readers want!

And that’s why – as an “effete educated snob” or maybe as just someone who still gets angry at the destruction of the culture – I’m outraged that this is even happening.  That tech and business people who don’t understand what literature is get to determine what sorts of things get inflicted on the reading public based on templates generated out of meaningless data.

So, because corporate culture is the best example I know of touring the world on the back of a single too-simplistic model without ever leaving home, we are in for a deluge of literary “product” written to spec.  Again, from Mr. Streitfield’s article:

The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

Imposing analytics on something as undefinable as writing is going to kill what’s left of creative endeavors.  Limiting stories to whatever template the data spits back isn’t writing.  It’s something else.  Engineering?  Hacking? Writing by numbers?  Isn’t there enough bad formula fiction available now?  Even in the literary section?

Anybody waiting for this to get applied to film?  Music?  Hey, the stats show a lot of people start talking over guitar solos, so let’s re-release classic rock albums with the instrumental breaks removed.

As a reader, I want to be surprised.   I want to encounter something I wouldn’t have been able to imagine liking in the first place, but the way the writer put the story together hooked me and gave me the pleasure of experiencing the world differently.  You can’t capture that kind of thing with data, but you can make it far less likely to happen.


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2 Responses to Mainstream Publishing Industry “Products” Are About to Get Even More Awful

  1. Eva says:

    Data collecting programs are taking the place of human input everywhere.
    The local library now culls books based on them being checked out or not in the last 18 months. Guess what–recently purchased books wind up on the “sale” shelves even when the human librarians attempt to intervene. The Computer Program Rules the library system. Guess how many times it’s crashed and screwed up accounts, its website and disabled searches. Enough times that the staff at the local branch “knows” they’re going to be flooded with complaints.
    As for the non-reading American public–Well, who expects a failed public school system to produce life-long readers? If you can’t handle See Spot Run then you’re not looking forward to reading Les Miserables. But who cares? There’s a movie instead.

  2. Leaving aside how depressing it is that the shelf life of an unused library book is only 18 months –

    It’s 2014 and the library’s computer system can’t distinguish between a book that hasn’t been checked out in 18 months because it’s a new purchase and a book that’s been on the shelf for 18 months unused?

    And this is a known problem but nobody can fix the software?

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