American novelist Jonathan Franzen once claimed that the eBook threatened the sense of permanence found in the printed book, arguing that such a loss may eventually prove ‘incongruous with a system of justice and self-government’. Which is possibly a bit extreme in its rhetoric. However, he is not alone. John Updike too decried the rise of the eBook before his death, noting in its lack of ‘edges’ a loss of artistic integrity. Many other prominent novelists have also come out in opposition to digital publishing.
While such authors may see eBooks as a negative force that encourages ‘shallow’ reading and stupefies the population, publishing companies see it differently. They are more accepting of the realities of the digital age and the change in how people are consuming media - and how much profit can be turned by embracing it. The popularity of digital among the public is also clear. The convenience of the Kindle negates the large amount of space that a book collection takes up in the home, or that a single book takes up in a handbag, and Forbes estimates that Kindle readers now number in the tens of millions.
In order to fully engage with this market, digital publishers are increasingly turning to analytics to widen a book’s readership and increase sales.
One of the key ways this is being done is through the marketing of books. When purchasing a print edition, the customer may have a loyalty card, which would afford the vendor some degree of knowledge about who is making a purchase for use in analyzing customer engagement. When an eBook is downloaded, on the other hand, a wealth of information about the consumer is made available, which can then be used by marketers to better understand a book’s target audience. This leads to better segmentation, and allows for marketing materials to be focused towards those likely to download the product.
Analytics are not just being used to determine marketing strategy. Insights are also being leveraged to better provide recommendations for users. Online eBook emporium Jellybooks recently developed a piece of code called candy.js, which is embedded inside an eBook. They have already partnered with Penguin Random House to roll out the product, which determines a number of a novel's traits so that machine learning can be applied to determine a reader's tastes . Often, it is the case that they will have not have heard of these books, steering users towards newer books that they may otherwise not have heard of. For authors, many of whom will have struggled on poor money as they start out, and a lack of funding for promotion by risk averse publishers who are struggling to turn a profit as they adapt to the digital age, such recommendations are a godsend in raising their profile. A prime example of this is E.L James, whose book 50 Shades of Grey started as an eBook before becoming an international sensation, selling over 100 million copies worldwide.
The psychological impact of digital reading may be up for debate, and, whether or not it is antithetical to the traditional artistic form of the novel, it certainly appears to be a boon to unknown authors. And if it encourages people to do more reading, this may well compensate for the lack of depth at which it is done.