This is the consumer-facing half of an Observer investigation of the e-book summary business on Amazon. Check out the merchant-facing side here, covering the companies that write the summaries.
The market for book summaries has long been a way for students to stumble their way through Hamlet and As I Lay Dying and produce coherent term papers on the other side. With everything from Sparknotes and CliffNotes to No Fear Shakespeare, the apparent value of a well-constructed summary is evident. However, in a post-Kindle world, a new crop of digital-only publishers are summarizing a much broader range of texts—works you’re unlikely to reference for a term paper of any kind.
This new era of summaries covers everything from the year’s business bestsellers and notable contemporary literature, to the summer’s lazy beach reads. The question is, who are these members of the general population interested enough to invest in bite-size summaries rather than the full-fledged texts?
The Observer found four reader constituencies:
1) The Picky Ones:
These are the readers who purchase and make their way through book summaries as a precursor to potentially investing in the real book. “This summary saved me time and money of reading the whole book,” a reader commented on the GoodReads page for Instaread’s summary version of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “I got through it in 10 minutes…I found the concept of the original work to be interesting, but not worthy of a full-book purchase.”
When further pressed by The Observer to explain her preference for a summary rather than the full piece, “Jo”, another commenter on the same summary of Kondo’s text, wrote, “to satisfy my curiosity when I’m unwilling to buy the full book or invest the time in reading it. No summary has yet prompted me to buy the full book.”
Other readers, however, were moved to buy after sampling the book with a summary: “As soon as I read this 30-Minute summary, I wanted to buy the book. The summary gave me just enough information to intrigue me into wanting more.”
These readers use the fragmented overviews to insure that they will be satisfied throughout every step of their reading experience.
2) The Decidedly Un-Picky Ones
These are the buyers on Amazon who intended to purchase the real e-book but bought a summary instead. There is a battery of comments from frustrated Kindle users on various summary novels claiming they were displeased with Amazon’s refusal to refund them their purchases.
“The summary is quite excellent…so much so that I now have no desire to read the story itself. Somehow I feel cheated.”
“When I realized that this was not the ‘book’, but some kind of ‘Cliff Notes’ summary, I requested that Amazon refund my payment and remove the book from my Kindle. This has not yet occurred. Decidedly not delighted,” one reader commented on the page for a BookRags summary of The Power Broker.
Another reader, having admitted that she had neglected to read the full title page prior to making her purchase of the Two Old Women, an Alaska Legend summary, wrote, “The summary is quite excellent…so much so that I now have no desire to read the story itself. Somehow I feel cheated…Perhaps it will serve as a warning to others when ordering a book from their Kindle. Read beyond the book’s title and brief description”.
In addition to reader complaints, writers too are concerned about the mis-purchasing of summaries. Popular author of The Martian, Andy Meir, explained that he didn’t particularly mind the fact that a number of summaries were being sold in tandem with the full work. “What I do mind,” he told The Observer in an email, “is when they’re deceptively titled, and people buy the summary thinking it’s the actual book. If something’s called ‘The Martian by Andy Weir (summary),’ that’s really questionable. But ‘A Summary of The Martian’ is totally reasonable. As long as the customer knows what they’re buying.”
Some customers do not know what they’re buying, despite the fact that the covers shown for these books tend to have generic, word-blocked cover art that should hint at something not-quite-Random-House.
3) The Cheaters
Believe it or not, some of your fellow book club members may not actually be reading the full books you are oh-so-intimately discussing. “If you don’t want to read the long version, this is pretty much all you need. I mean I’m not going to say that you only need this, but for me this book gave all the important plots I needed,” one reader clarified on a BookSense summary of All The Light We Cannot See, on GoodReads.
Another, responding to a summary of Malcom Gladwell’s David & Goliath, wrote, “A perfect read if you don’t have time to pour over all of the the original’s 330+ pages! All of the context, without all the fluff.” While arguably the “fluff” is a great portion of of the value in a work of literature—the linguistic particularities of a well-constructed text — the cheaters are simply not interested.
Among the endless slew of comments on each of the summary books, (fiction works, in particular), there are a number of public comments admitting to selecting the summaries as a lazy short-cut for academic paper-writing, for the purpose of spicing up book club discussions or “to know what all the hype is about” when a bestseller takes off.
4) The Genuinely Confused Ones
Perhaps the texts in question are simply too complex, and the modern reader is just too busy.
These are the ones who truly did read (or are reading) the novels at hand but require a bit of supplementary, navigational assistance. “In a story that involves so many layers, timeframes, and sub-plots all woven together, it is REALLY easy to lose track if you’re not being careful” admitted one reader, on the discussion page for the BookSense summary of The Girl on the Train, “This reading helper allowed me to stay on top of what’s happening and how it all fits into the bigger picture.”
It seems that being careful has grown to be too much to ask of readers—perhaps the genuinely confused are not so genuinely confused as they are a tad bit lazy when it comes to picking apart and piecing together complicated texts. And perhaps the texts in question are simply too complex, and the modern reader is just too busy. Either way, the summaries act as an effective companion.
In the end, it seems to be these four categories of reader who dominate all of the e-reader forums when it comes to summary books. And in the case of these e-book summaries, all of the interpreting has already been done; the audience is simply asked to memorize the given information in preparation for a potentially crucial cultural discussion at a cocktail party attended largely by Warby Parker-wearing intellectuals who seem to have controversial, well-developed opinions on just about every novel within the literary canon.
On the other hand, perhaps all of their pithy commentary was conveniently pre-packaged in a 30-minute summary and analysis, purchased on Amazon for a steep discount from the original cover price.