PARIS - Kevin Kelly is a stimulating iconoclast. How many books are bought but not read? Probably many more than we think. Hence the idea of paying readers who read a book from the beginning to the end. Kevin Kelly thought about patenting his idea, but, since ideas don’t necessarily make a project, he decided to publish it and open-source it. Why? Because as an author, editor and reader, he would love this idea to exist some day soon.

Imagine, he explains, if each reader who buys a $5 book, gets paid $6 if he finishes he book. E-book software can tell us when someone finishes – or not – a book. We already know that at least a third of readers do not read past the 50th page of a book. We could use e-book software (that already track our reading habits – without paying us) to analyze how we read and verify if a buyer has really read a book. If reading habits (reading speed, patterns and progress) show the purchaser is actually reading the book, then the device can initiate a predetermined payment to the purchaser. Kelly’s idea is to propose an amount slightly higher than what the reader paid for his or her book, so that reading a book makes him or her money.

This would encourage book sales while spreading the idea that buying a book costs nothing, because we are reimbursed if we finish it. Since the proportion of people who finish books is much lower than those who buy books, editors will see an increase in sales while making relatively few payouts. Kelly says this is a win-win situation: “If the purchaser buys the book, but does not read it in full, he/she paid the acceptable price, and still owns the book.” The editor only loses a small amount on the sale, which is compensated by the rise in general sales. The payout ratio can be adjusted according to e-book price and genre. “This mechanism requires no new hardware than what exists today,” says Kelly. At best, better material (as a eye tracking technology) would permit to better evaluate if the person has really read the whole book. But it is not indispensable.

Rewarding failure and punishing success

Of course this will not make people read more books. If one day this model is used, people will no doubt find a way to develop bot programs that can simulate reading behavior. But we can imagine ways to fool the robots, such as “captchas,” quizzes, systems to verify that the reader is human. Maybe we need to limit payouts to the price of the book so as there would be less hackers, suggests a commentator.

In a comment, Nick Carr laughs at Kelly writing “What you suggest here would actually pay people to maintain the literary and cultural status quo!?” David Chandler, another commentator is more cautious: “A mechanism that inherently rewards failure, and punishes success, for both the writer and the publisher. That can't be a good thing in the long run, and maybe not even in the short run. […] This would provide every impetus for writers to strive to write books that are just interesting enough, but not too interesting, and publishers to seek out writers of middling talent and avoid the really good ones.”

At the same time, if the system were generalized, wouldn’t we go back to the present status quo? Is free or low-cost culture – like the idea of a Spotify for books – enough to stimulate culture?

Innovation in book marketing is often rare. OnlyIndie, which was launched in June 2012, is a refreshing concept. As the French literary website Actualitté wrote “On the site, all books are $0 until the book has been downloaded 15 times. Then its price goes up by a penny each time the book is downloaded until it reaches a limit of $7.98. If the book is not downloaded at all during 24 hours, its price starts to decrease – and after 100 days without a single download, its price is back to $0. The authors get 50% when their book costs between $0.01 and $1.99 and 75% if the price is between $2 and $7.98. They can set their own price limit as long as the price remains below the maximum limit.” Unfortunately, OnlyIndie has since closed down. It is not that easy to make it in the world of global e-sellers.

What is sure is that we will certainly not have to wait for a long time for a publisher or an e-seller to try Kelly’s idea. It might not do better than OnlyIndie, unless it is adopted by one of the e-book giants. The only ones who know whether this idea could work are Amazon, Google and Apple, because they already know what we read and do not read in our books.