‘We may lose ability to think critically at all’: the book-summary apps accused of damaging authors’ sales | Books

‘We may lose ability to think critically at all’: the book-summary apps accused of damaging authors’ sales | Books

Hungry for niche knowledge to impress your colleagues? Troubled by the size of a hefty new book? Doubt your abilities to understand complex arguments? Well, today an increasingly competitive industry offers to take away these problems with one product: a book summary app.

Since these digital services first promised to boil down a title, usually a nonfiction work, a decade ago, the marketplace has become crowded. So much so that authors and publishers are concerned about the damage to sales, as well as to the habit of concentrated reading.

Some successful writers, including Amy Liptrot, also fear that apps such as Blinkist, Bookey, getAbstract and the latest, Headway, may be undermining the book trade and misrepresenting content.

Liptrot has approached her union, the Society of Authors, for advice on how to take action. She was alarmed last week to find her acclaimed 2015 memoir, The Outrun, now a film starring Saoirse Ronan, being peddled in potted form on Bookey. “It was unnerving to see a totally fictional quotation purporting to be from my book,” she told the Observer. “These apps are very anti-literary. They’re for people who want to absorb the key ideas without reading the book. I don’t mind a bland, soulless summary, but I do mind a false quotation.”

Diana Gerald, chief executive of the charity BookTrust, is also disturbed by the influence of these apps on young readers. “Book summaries can be a useful starting point. However, it goes without saying that improvements in mental health, in sparking imagination, empathy and language acquisition that reading can have, come from reading the book itself,” she said.

Amy Liptrot: ‘It was unnerving to see a totally fictional quotation purporting to be from my book.’ Photograph: Owen Richards/The Guardian

Writer Susie Alegre also sees lurking danger. “The trend towards apps that summarise books so that you can ‘think better’ is likely to have the opposite effect – if we don’t use our minds to reflect deeply, we may lose our ability to think critically at all,” she said, citing research which showed that our reliance on satellite navigation was already rewiring our brains and “destroying our ability to navigate the physical world”.

“Relying on summaries of big ideas might do the same for our capacity for deep thought,” added Alegre, whose forthcoming book Human Rights, Robot Wrongs: Being Human in the Age of AI is published in early May.

“AI is famously prone to hallucinations: if you read an AI-generated summary of a book, there is no guarantee that it actually reflects the content,” she said, pointing out that writers’ “already meagre income” could be destroyed by the summary-app business.

The publishing industry is also on alert. Andrew Franklin, founder director of Profile Books, understands the worry: “These apps are potentially depriving authors of income and bookshops of custom. It is quite a serious way of infringing copyright, although not technically wrong, as you are allowed to summarise a text. These apps are really just the same as the adverts that pop up offering you an effortless way to lose weight without exercise.”

The new crib sites function a little like the York Notes study guide series for British students, (or Cliffs Notes in the US), but have less analytical content and tend to compete over the niche business areas they cover.

Not all in the book world are concerned. Toby Mundy, executive director of the prestigious Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction, wonders if these apps might prove a gateway for readers to actual books.

He said: “When people want to know about a subject, they might start with Wikipedia or a precis app, but publishing is fundamentally about voices. If you want to know about the Russian Revolution – and I mean really know – then most people will turn to Orlando Figes’s masterpiece, A People’s Tragedy, rather than a dreary textbook, because it combines authoritative scholarship with tremendous literary verve. Precis apps might disrupt certain genres, business books perhaps, but they are intrinsically anti-voice and philistine.”

Industry pundit Scott Pack, a former head book buyer for Waterstones, agrees that threats like this have risen before, with successful print series such as The Bluffer’s Guides and an earlier boom in abridged novels. “I would prefer someone to read a whole book, of course, but better an app than nothing.

“We can have a kneejerk reaction against anything digital if we are not careful,” he said.

Like Franklin and Mundy, Pack also points to the rise of Reader’s Digest in the last century.

“These things come and go,” said Franklin. “But there’s no substitute for reading the whole book, even for students. After all, these days they could get AI to write their entire essay if they want to cheat.”

The Observer approached Bookey about Liptrot’s concerns but received no reply.

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