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Now Arriving on the New York Subway: Free E-Books, Timed for Your Commute | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Subway Reads allows riders choose what to read based on how long they will be on the subway. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

New York- Rainier Velardo watched the basketball-player-tall man in the blue shirt who sat down next to him — the man had gotten on at the last subway stop, West Fourth Street in Manhattan, and this was an F train going to Brooklyn. Mr. Velardo watched the man tap the screen of an iPad. He heard the man chuckle and say: “You’d think I would know this. I wrote it.” And then, with even more of a chuckle, “Didn’t see that twist coming.”

Mr. Velardo, 66, perked up at what the man said next: “Actually, it’s a big enough font. I can read it without my glasses.”

The man in the light blue shirt was Harlan Coben, the prolific, best-selling author whose fans really do not see the plot twists coming. He writes mysteries and thrillers — page-turners, some people might call them. But that term seems to have been forgotten in the universe of cellphones and tablets. “Page-swipers” conveys the notion of motion — the reader’s finger gliding on a glowing screen — but as a locution, it will never catch on.

And here on the F train, he was in the digital universe, trying out something called Subway Reads, a web platform that can be reached from a subway platform.

On Sunday, Subway Reads started delivering novellas, short stories or excerpts from full-length books to passengers’ cellphones or tablets. The idea is for riders to download a short story or a chapter and read it on the train. Subway Reads will even let riders choose what to read based on how long they will be on the subway — a 10-page selection for a 10-minute ride, a 20-page selection for a 20-minute excursion, a 30-page selection for a 30-minute trip. Delays not included.

“I would like to do it,” said Mr. Velardo, a retired Sanitation Department employee who was on his way to a bottle distribution center in Brooklyn.

He can, for eight weeks. Subway Reads will last longer than a summer romance, but not much longer. It was intended to promote something that will not disappear, something that transit officials see as a milestone in the digital age: Wi-Fi service in 175 underground stations.

Transit officials approached Penguin Random House, the publishing colossus with more than 250 imprints, because it had run a similar e-book promotion in the London Underground last year, celebrating Penguin’s 80th anniversary. Transit officials said they were open to other platforms from publishers, and platforms for more than books — anything to draw passengers to the Wi-Fi service.

But there is a difference between the e-books on Penguin Random House’s own website and the 175 selections on Subway Reads. The ones on Subway Reads will be free.

“When e-books first came out, everyone thought they’d replace the book,” Mr. Coben said. “As a writer, I don’t care if you read me on stone tablets, as long as you read me. If you give me 10 minutes and don’t like it, fine; I’m not for you.”

But he made a prediction: “Try it. I’m going to get you after 10 pages.” (He apparently got Bill Clinton, at least once. After the former president had heart surgery in 2004, a photographer caught him carrying a copy of Mr. Coben’s novel “No Second Chance.”)

Subway Reads may turn out to be another way to reach the younger, mobile-savvy readers that publishers worry about, and the idea of timing selections to the length of a trip may appeal to people who know exactly how long their commutes take. And no, Subway Reads will not force slow readers to skip over the good stuff. If someone does not finish a 10-minute selection in 10 minutes, it will not disappear.

Subway Reads is offering five novellas or short stories, what Penguin Random House calls e-shorts. Three are by contemporary writers: “High Heat” by Lee Child, “3 Truths and a Lie” by Lisa Gardner, and “At the Reunion Buffet” by Alexander McCall Smith. Two are classics: “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe. There are also dozens of excerpts from books, fiction and nonfiction.

The e-shorts come with pull quotes in the text, for easy sharing. Readers can tap a Twitter symbol above the quote, and it will go out on their Twitter feed. A Penguin Random House marketing official showed Mr. Coben one of the quotes while they were waiting for the F train at West Fourth Street.

I’m underground, he thought. I’m underground.

And then he started to scream.

“This is a really creepy quote,” Mr. Coben said.

The two lines appear at the end of Chapter 2 of Mr. Coben’s book “Missing You.”

“A different kind of underground,” Mr. Coben said as the train pulled into the station.

That underground does not have Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi service arrived in the subway system in 2011, when six underground stations in Manhattan were wired, which sounds like a contradiction, but is not. The subway-station equivalent of the wireless router in your apartment is a device in the ceiling of a station that is wired in to one of five data centers, two in Manhattan and one each in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. If you were impressed that your router came with three antennas, consider this: The network in the subways is getting 8,600.

The plan was to put connectivity in the system’s 278 underground stations by 2018, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered the project to be accelerated. The stations that have not been wired — 98, as of last week — are all in Brooklyn, and officials expect them to be tied to the wireless network by the end of the year.

Transit Wireless, a company that has a 27-year deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is paying the cost of building the wireless network, estimated at more than $250 million by transit officials. The same network also lets people in subway stations talk on their cellphones, and it carries calls from more than 1,200 Help Point intercoms that have been installed in the stations.

Subway Reads will let people in the book business learn about subway readers. Mr. Child, who, like Mr. Coben, has two selections on Subway Reads, said he would be watching.

“You can tell by their finger movements,” he said by phone from England, where he was traveling, although he lives in Manhattan and is a regular on the B and C lines. “If they’re playing a game on their phone, they’re stamping at it all the time. If it’s a book, you can tell the regular turning of the page.”

Ramzy Masri, 28, standing next to Mr. Coben as he rode uptown after the Subway Reads demonstration on the F train, was not swiping a phone or a tablet. He was working his way down Page 218 of “Heroes of the Frontier” by Dave Eggers — in hardcover. He said that Subway Reads was not for him.

“I prefer the tactile experience of reading a book,” said Mr. Masri, a graphic designer who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “I spend enough time on the screen at work or on my phone. It’s nice to flip through the pages.”

The New York Times Service