Readers and Anonymity


You can walk into a random bookstore, browse through the shelves, buy a book with cash, and take it home to read. No one but you and your family will know. You can visit a library and read to your heart’s content, and you’ll be the only one who knows.

When you buy a book with a credit card, in a store or online, you become part of an ecosystem that has data at its core. This means, as we move into a digital-first era, that you are giving up anonymity. We need to fix this.

Data has enormous value for everyone (including readers at times) in the emerging publishing ecosystem. As an author, I would love to know more about how my readers use what I write, including what passages they find difficult or boring, what words they look up in a dictionary and how they annotate. For publishers, sellers and middlemen, increasing amounts of data in all parts of the publishing process means vastly better understanding of supply chains, internal systems, sales, readers’ preferences and so much more. Readers can benefit from the data-ization of books, too; for example, I rather enjoy knowing how much time it will take me, at my current reading speed, to finish a Kindle book.

But readers’ privacy shouldn’t be just an artifact of an analog era. We may, in a general sense, have no objection to others knowing what we’re reading, or even how we’re reading it. But there are times when we want to keep such information to ourselves. This is just as true for books as for web searches; if you or someone you care about contracts a socially awkward virus, for example, you are wise to keep your research about that as closely held as possible. And it’s downright dangerous to hold politically unpopular views, or even read about them, in some societies. What you read may not be who you are, but you should always have the right to read what you want without fear of it being used against you.

We can’t trust the middlemen – old or new – with this information. They may sell or trade it. They may be forced by lawyers with subpoenas to hand it over to third parties. Governments will just collect it, in bulk, for analysis later. The need for anonymity in reading has never been greater.

One of the most obvious impediments to getting this right is digital rights management, or DRM, which at some levels is designed as a user-tracking system. But it’s far from the only one.  We need to create systems that restore anonymity and privacy. If they’re software-based, they can’t be bolted onto the platform after it’s built; they need to be part of the building process.

A few months ago I asked Richard Stallman, the free software leader who’s been thinking about these issues for a long time, for suggestions on how we could buy e-books (and movies, magazines, newspapers, etc.) anonymously. He had four off the top of his head:

1. Pay with a money order.  (You write a code on it and use the code to get your purchase.)

2. Buy them through bookstores (or other suitable stores) where you can pay cash.

3. If Paynearme manages to become usable for smaller companies, that would do the job.

4. Set up a system of digital cash for such payments.

The sooner the publishing world takes this seriously, the better. If we create only systems that abrogate our right to privacy, we are creating a society that breeds conformists, not free thinkers.

The Blurring Line Between Reader and Writer


When I consider how reading will change in the near term, two questions immediately come to mind:

  • To what extent is the future of reading social?
  • How much involvement will readers have in the writing process and final product (to the extent there is a “final” book)? Or: how much of reading will become part of an interactive process with the author or other readers?

Let’s start with the question of social reading. Some of the most interesting work in this area has been pioneered by Bob Stein, at the Institute for the Future of the Book. His argument is that reading has always been a social activity, and that our idea of reading as a solitary activity is fairly recent, something that arrived with widespread literacy. Furthermore, he says, as we move from the printed page to the screen – and networked environments – the social aspect of reading and writing moves to the foreground. Once this shift happens, the lines blur between reader and writer. Stein writes:

Authors [will] take on the added role of moderators of communities of inquiry (non–fiction) and of designers of complex worlds for readers to explore (fiction). In addition, readers will embrace a much more active role in the production of knowledge and the telling of stories.

Going a step further, it has even been suggested by Stein (and others) that the future of reading might look like gaming. One can see an example of this in the Black Crown project, a work of interactive fiction produced by Random House UK. The story begins with a series of questions, then the reader is put into a number of predicaments, as in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel. There is an author behind it, Rob Sherman, who said in an interview, “It’s a scary thing because you need to relinquish control and allow for readers to have an experience different from the one you’re expecting. […] I think pretty much all authors have to accept now that readers are going to take things and manipulate them and make them their own. Whether you give them permission to or not. And they’re going to share them with other people.”

One area where this phenomenon is strongly apparent is in the genre of fan fiction, which represents one of the earliest social reading communities. The bestselling novel 50 Shades of Grey was fan fiction based on Twilight, and written in progress on a public fan-fiction website; it gathered fans and feedback over time before being formally published. Amazon, recognizing the potential in fan fiction – which is not readily monetizable due to rights issues – launched Kindle Worlds to allow fan fiction writers to start publishing and earning money from their fan works through formalized licensing deals.

This begs the question: How many readers really want to be involved in the writing of the story, and how many would just like to be passively entertained? It’s true that the digital era has changed the nature of passive entertainment—we no longer have to accept what media corporations produce for us, we can create our own media, we can engage in active consumption (e.g., live-tweeting a TV show). But sometimes it’s nice to simply escape into a story, without any further obligation.

This reality has been illustrated by Ross Mayfield through his excellent diagram, “The Power Law of Participation.” Reading without interaction is classified as a “low threshold activity,” which engages the highest number of users. Social reading, on the other hand, involves writing, moderating, collaborating and possibly leading (depending on the context), and represents high engagement. Yet only a very small percentage of the community will have that level of engagement; most users will remain on the low threshold side. Mayfield’s point isn’t that one mode is more valuable than the other, but that these two forms of intelligence co-exist in some of the best communities we see online, such as Wikipedia.

Power Law of Participation line graph

But even for readers who don’t wish to be involved in creation, there are ways for them to be unintentionally involved. Amazon collects untold data through their Kindle reading platform, and probably now calculates exactly how people read a particular book: how fast, how slow and the exact paragraph where readers abandon the story. Kevin Kelly described what he thinks the future holds in a blog post “What Books Will Become”:

Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. It can map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways.  […]

Such flexibility recalls the long expected, but never realized, dream of forking stories. Books that have multiple endings, or alternative storylines. Previous attempts at hyper literature have met dismal failure among readers. Readers seemed uninterested in deciding the plot; they wanted the author to decide. But in recent years complex stories with alternative pathways have been wildly successful in videogames. … Some of the techniques pioneered in taming the complexity of user-driven stories in games could migrate to books.

If not already apparent, it’s important to differentiate between the evolution of narrative-driven books and information-driven books. We have already seen information-driven materials flourish and make more sense in online environments. It is now highly unusual to refer to a book when researching basic facts or making travel plans, for instance. Most information is superior when presented in hyperlinked, interactive forms that can be continually updated, as well as customized and modified by the reader for her specific purpose.

When we seek to be entertained, however, how much do we want to customize and modify to our satisfaction? Fan fiction indicates that some percentage of readers enjoy this, but that has so far remained a fringe activity when considering the universe of readers out there.

Reading in the Future


I don’t think we can begin to understand what reading in the future will look like. It may come to us through glasses we wear or through texts projected on our walls from libraries around the world. The printed word will always be with us. I don’t believe that books as we know them today will disappear. There is something about paper, our link with nature, that will keep all those treasured books in our midst.

True discovery vs/ lingering in a comfort zone


Being given the possibility to find a book one wants to read is a pleasure, and an opportunity, that we do not enjoy in many parts of the world. This possibility comes with the availability of information. And information is often scarce outside North America and Western Europe. As we ponder today how some of us in the world have moved from lazily browsing through a bookstore’s shelves, to commercial websites identifying our tastes, in other parts of the world — take Lebanon, a historical capital of publishing in the region — our modes of discovery of books is most the time either pragmatic (the title I was told to read for a purpose), or straightforward (people around me told me a bout this specific title, and this is the one I ask my local bookstore to order when he does not have it). What we miss, and readers and the West take for granted, is the possibility to discover. While the challenge faced in the West is managing too much information, the challenge we face in the East is producing quality information.

The web has the possibility to offer many non traditional ways to connect and disocver, our identification as consumers, and the identifcation of our tastes exposes us to more books we might like, but deprives us from true discovery. It keeps us so well contained within the limits of pre-identified tastes, that we are no longer aware of them, and are less open to new things. From this perspective, the future of finding books has to take into consideration the need for true discovery, free, but well guided. It should follow the model of the physical independent bookstore, rather than the physical hyper-bookstore.

The Author Produced Book


With he advent of self-publishing and the technology and platforms that have emerged to make this possible, we have already seen a massive number of new books coming directly from authors. They are publishing in digital format and using POD services to get their works into the marketplace. Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple iBooks have been leaders in facilitating this movement.

But readers are finicky and I have already heard many complaints through online forums about the poor quality of many self-published books.

I believe we have seen an extreme swing from big publishing houses producing books to authors producing their own. In the future, I believe the middle ground will involve an emerging industry of small and independent publishers or technology specialists, who will aid authors in publishing their works.


Searching for what to read…


As many people now are used to “Google” or “Safari” for the searching of key-words, this seems to be the next way for the finding of reading materials.  Many people are already using these same vehicles for the finding of “how to” videos, music as a reference for band classes, encyclopedia-like information on forums like “Wikipedia” for even class notes from a digitally published university lecture.  The key to this is not only the title or author of the materials but now the use of Metadata or metatags which is embedded information within the digital file name that assists in the search for key words.  Adding information about publishers, subject matter, date of lecture or just key terms that cover the salient points of the book or article all help in the search criteria being looked at by the reader.

In future search engines and web portals for reading materials and resources, the portal developer as well as the publisher needs to take careful consideration to this to ensure that their materials are found by the target viewers.

The future of reading


In this age of constant immersion into the digital realm, more and more people are using the digital devices for the exploration and education of them selves.  As more and more content becomes more readily available, this method grows exponentially.  It allows the young to see words during interactive experiences through gaming and start to formulate a visual language by the continual exposure.  The schools adopting digital reading methods for text books provide an easy way to give information to the masses without the need to store volumes of materials.  The pervasive use of visual reading mediums such as laptops, tablets, phones, etc. make the opportunity to carry many different books, magazines, reference materials and the like with them at all times for immediate and easy access.  Publishing materials in the digital realm also allows the opportunity to get materials to the masses much easier than the shipping of heavy volumes.  Third world countries can now access digitially published materials in their own language where this was cost prohibitive in the past.

This seems to be the logical path into the future for the easy mass distribution of reading materials.

Finding books through communities


While I think intelligent predictions of which books people will like will become more sophisticated over time, I think in the future the social element of reading will be a huge factor in which books people choose. People will form niche communities around their particular literary tastes, and use those communities to find new books. This is a good example of the long tail, where with the growth of Web 2.0 technologies, people can now find like-minded individuals across the world for any set of tastes and preferences.

Ubiquitous reading in the future


Technologies are increasingly becoming ubiquitous and tangible. Instead of needing to visit a computing device in a fixed location to access digital content, people now carry around tablets and mobile phones and have access to content at any time and anywhere. While I think there will still be a place for e-readers in the future, I think we will increasingly be seeing information further and further integrated into the physical world. With the growth of augmented reality devices such as Google Glass, people may soon be reading virtual text by using contact lense-like devices to overlay it over the physical world. One might also imagine digital text built in to large-scale physical objects like walls, so people can navigate through a book much in the same way they move through physical installations like museums.

The future of bookstores and the tactile pleasures of books


Strangely my initial thoughts about the “future” of books are almost always rather cynical – I instantly flash on images of myself as a child, breathing in the scent of a new book, lounging on the porch, luxuriating in that unmistakable rustling sound as I turn each page, or even that feeling of immense satisfaction when I underlined and starred a line that was somehow, in that moment, the answer I was seeking. Will this “future” world of books (a rather elusive category, isn’t it?) still allow these kinds of tactile memories that have played such an important role in an understanding of self and a love for the printed word? (emphasis on printed…)

Thinking about how people will find new books in the future necessarily makes me think about the future of bookstores. I adore the local independent bookstore (here in Tempe, that’s Changing Hands) and thinking about the changing landscape of publishing and the rise of digital books generally leads me to a dark place….will those bookstores become smooth Minority Report consumerist spaces in which I am identified as I walk through the door as a walking embodiment of my most recent purchases? An accent-less woman’s voice welcoming me to the store and asking me if I enjoyed the latest Paluhniuk? Will I be guided towards items that an algorithm has already decided I will enjoy rather than freely wandering through the aisles, pausing to run my fingers over a deliciously textured cover and stumbling upon a new author? I know that I don’t want to lose the feeling of strolling through that space, the scent of the books themselves, or the opportunity to chat with that one clerk whose encyclopedic knowledge is deserving of reverence. Maybe I’m too pessimistic.. maybe the future of books (and bookstores) will bring many new readers into the fold who do not find the local scene as romantic and endearing as I do… or maybe we’ll end up with a store bursting with poorly written self-published erotica and teen dystopias that lack the complexity and subtlety of those authors that may not make it into your algorithm..