Carel-Fabritius-The-Goldfinch-1654The Daily Telegraph reports that 56% of readers failed to make it all the way through their download of The Goldfinch. I am teetering on the edge of joining them. The problem is nothing to do with the e-book format: it has to do with the problem that the book starts off strongly, very strongly, and then seems to drift off into the sands of Las Vegas, and then the garbage bins of NYC.

Well, maybe it’s going too far to say it has nothing to do with the e-book format: I suspect that it’s easier to give up on an e-book than it is on a hard copy book. The unfinished p-book sits there and reproaches you, while the e-book just fades into the ether allowing another to take its place. In spite of this I have succeeded in abandoning quite a few p-books in my time, and have remained obdurate in the face of their presence on the shelf. However all this talk about not finishing e-books is simply an artifact of the fact that with e-books we can actually know these things. With a print book there’s no magic that can signal from page 235 of The Goldfinch “Nobody has read me beyond this point”, while Kobo (in the Telegraph‘s example) or Amazon etc. know all this sort of thing, including how quickly we read, how much we looked up, how often we put the book down, and so on. Maybe if we’d been able to tell how many readers abandoned a book unfinished before the advent of e-books, authors could have been getting (even more) depressed for centuries already.

Here’s The Guardian’s story which analyses the data a bit more. They report that romance constitutes the most-completed genre. Is it unduly patronizing to suggest that, as perhaps the least demanding genre, this outcome is not too amazing? People who read romances, I believe, read them for the story; and the story doesn’t end till the end is reached. Was I reading The Goldfinch for the story? Obviously yes to some extent, but I do insist that there should be more to it. Ms Tartt is surely trying to do more than tell a story. She is interested in the character of Theo Decker, and gives us lots of information about the antiques trade, New York society, especially in its druggy aspect, Russian gangsters etc.. My beef with her is that all that stuff isn’t overwhelmingly fascinating, and is thrown into the shade by the brilliant start. But I think I would have had just as much trouble finishing the book as a p-book (maybe more, as it is a large one) than I did on the Kindle app on my iPad. [Since starting this post I am proud to report that I did in fact complete the book a couple of days ago, so I won’t be joining that embarrassing statistic.]

Will publishers be able to draw conclusions from this sort of information, thus enabling them to make better books in future? Yes, in theory, though the skill set required is yet to evolve. Maybe the trend toward self publishing of fiction will beat the publishing industry to that point, in which case we can perhaps assume that the savvy indie author will end up being the one able to draw conclusions from this sort of information. My earlier post on “Crowdsourcing” shows some early initiatives in this direction.

(The photo of Fabritius’ painting comes from Alberti’s Window, which includes a review of the book, and interesting information about the painting.)