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ART BY NUMBERS
Amazon rule
BY CLEA SIMON

If we, the literate public, believe that information is empowering, then it stands to reason that we should applaud Amazon.comís new "concordance" and "text-stat" features. These services, launched with no fanfare in early March, offer statistical analyses of books by measuring such elements as word repetition, average number of syllables per word, and words per sentence. These features (which seem to have been applied primarily to current works by contemporary authors ó no Jane Austen, for instance ó and Amazon isnít saying why) also provide the "Fog Index," developed by one Robert Gunning, which is supposed to rate the difficulty of a text (a score between seven and eight is considered ideal) and the "Flesch-Kincaid Index," which purports to assign a grade level to the reading.

While the posting of "statistically improbable phrases" (actually a list of recurring word pairs) may give readers an idea of book content ó "heartless bitch" pops up for one, "adoption lawyer" in another ó the new feature caused a minor brouhaha among authors on Web sites such as Readerville.com. In the April 12 installment of her blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype, author M.J. Rose (whose fourth novel, Sheet Music, has a Fog of 6.9 and a Flesch-Kincaid of 5.1) expressed her mystification and polled her readers.

While several of those polled found the new measurements (which also measure words per ounce and words per dollar) amusing, only one ó a schoolteacher ó described them as having any real utility. (She checks it before recommending books to her students.) Author Caroline Leavitt (whose latest, Girls in Trouble, had a Fog of 6.2, Flesch-Kincaid of 4.5) uses Microsoft Toolsí calculator of the Flesch-Kincaid index in her freelance work editing educational material. "Itís wildly innacurate," she says. "Sometimes Iíd take out an Ďandí and a piece would go from eighth-grade to fourth-grade level." Laments Rose, "I had just gotten over my addiction to checking my Amazon sales rank when this comes along."


Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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