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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

Apps can cram an entire book into a 15-minute read – but are readers and authors being short-changed?

Critics will no doubt see these apps as the latest symptom of our diseased attention spans – the product of information over-saturation in an age where people spend hours on Facebook but do not have time to sit down and read a book.
Blinkist app on an iPad. The app creates a short form summarization of novels. Christopher Pike / The National
Blinkist app on an iPad. The app creates a short form summarization of novels. Christopher Pike / The National

Ever picked up an interesting-looking book, and wished you could just transfer the story or knowledge it contains directly into your brain, without the graft of actually spending hour after hour reading the thing?

You are not alone, it seems, given the recent arrival of a number of apps that claim to condense the major points of existing titles into bite-sized summaries – to be consumed by busy readers in 15-minute bursts, on the go, on a smartphone or tablet.

They include the pioneering Blinkist, which originated in Berlin and claims to have about 800,000 readers of its virtual library of 1,500 condensed titles.

Competition recently arrived in the form of UK-based Joosr, which has been attracting attention as it steadily builds its selection of books, which currently stands at more than 100 titles.

But if you are hoping to finally get around to reading War and Peace with the help of these apps, you should be aware that both platforms have so far stuck to non-fiction. There is a strong emphasis on ideas-based reads, on subjects including business, fitness and science, plus self-help books.

With a fairly steep annual premium – US$49.99 (Dh183.60) for Blinkist and $54 for Joosr – the target audience appears to be busy, urban young professionals eager for concentrated content that can be consumed during the morning and evening commutes. “Smarter, Faster, Better” boasts Blinkist’s tagline.

Critics will no doubt see these apps as the latest symptom of our diseased attention spans – the product of information over-­saturation in an age where people spend hours on Facebook but do not have time to sit down and read a book.

Darren Boyd-Annells, founder of Joosr, would agree – quoting statistics that suggest six out of 10 people are too busy to read as much as they would like – and kindly offers to help them find a balance.

The condensed-reading idea is not a new one. GetAbstract, a Swiss/US venture that pioneered what is now known as the ­“knowledge-compression” industry, by creating summaries of business books aimed at a corporate market, launched in 1999. The model proved a success, with some big employers, including Audi, General Motors and UBS, offering employees a free ­subscription.

The novelty of Blinkist and Joosr is that they appeal directly to time-starved consumers’ guilt at not being able to read enough.

But what about the writer? Under the terms of “fair use” copyright rules, a book summary that is a stand-alone work and does not extensively quote the original source can appropriate a writer’s ideas without permission or ­payment.

Yvette Judge, the assistant director of Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, says she found Blinkist to be a useful refresher for books she has already read, but shared “ethical concerns” about the model.

“Authors need to be paid – that’s their job, that’s how they make their living,” she argues.

“It’s also putting a distance between the reader and writer. There’s someone else intermediating, someone else interpreting their thoughts – that would ­concern me.”

The authors we spoke to said they would be happy for their work to appear on Blinkist or Joosr, coming to the sometimes reluctant conclusion that any lost revenue is probably outweighed by spreading awareness and appreciation of their work.

“These apps should be welcomed by authors,” said science writer David Millar, a former long-term UAE resident and author of Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities in the Emirates.

“My gut feeling is they won’t be losing sales. Readers who find the summary interesting are more likely to buy the book – and if people aren’t intrigued by the taster, at least they are more likely to mention it in conversation to others who might be.”

Dubai-based non-fiction writer Tommy Weir, author of four books on leadership, argued that condensed publishers could improve quality and clarity by consulting the writers whose work they repackage.

“When it comes to getting content out, I’m [in favour of] going to as many platforms as possible,” said the American expat.

“But I would like the professional courtesy of someone saying: ‘We’re going to do this with your work – would you like to help us get it right?’”

Weir recalls once failing an English literature exam after reading only the CliffsNotes of a book he was required to read. Tellingly, he cannot even recall the title of the novel he faked and flunked.

“As a reader, I wouldn’t touch them,” he says. “I don’t want to read a synthesised version of what an author wants to say – I want to read what the author intended. If I want someone else’s view, I’ll read The New York Times book review.”

Readers might draw a distinction between condensing works of fiction and non-fiction. It is one thing to summarise the major points of a text that is written to inform, but quite another to reinterpret the distinctive prose of literary masters.

However, as Weir’s story reminds us, a precedent for summarising fiction has been around for a long time.

Reader’s Digest has been abridging popular fiction into condensed volumes since 1950. Resources such as CliffsNotes and York Notes have helped generations of lazy students fake their way through literature exams, in the US and UK respectively – both publishers have ­created apps.

In the same way that short but detailed summaries of TV episodes now have a widespread audience among people who want to remain part of cultural conversation, but can’t find the time to keep up with the growing number of “must-see” shows, authorised abridged versions of hit novels seem little more than a click away.

Alexander McNabb – a publishing and media consultant in Dubai and the author of five thrillers – sees the proliferation of book summaries as the latest evolutionary by-product of an online marketplace that relies on a constant churn of fresh information for commercial purposes.

“Now we’re all under such pressure to create new content, that people are creating meta-­content,” he says.

“We’re making content out of content – ever more refined pyramids of content – until one day we end up with a one-word synopsis of a book. That’s the top of the pyramid.”

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: July 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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