Your e-book is probably reading you back
June 29, 2012 | 8:15 pm
Many e-reader users are undoubtedly aware that the Internet-enabled devices they’re using to read e-books are also tracking their reading habits and reporting them back to their manufacturer. But have we ever really stopped to think about what this means? The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the phenomenon looking at the uses to which Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo are putting some of that data.
While Amazon didn’t say what it does with the data it gathers, beyond sharing “most highlighted passages” and so forth, Barnes & Noble is attempting to use it to help itself gain market share by sharing what it learns with publishers so that the publishers can develop more compelling books. There’s some fascinating information here, to be sure:
Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.
And it is kind of fascinating that this new information-gathering capability brings, for the first time, something akin to Nielsen ratings to books, but in far more detail than Nielsen could measure for television watching. While some novelists (such as Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild) are excited by the idea of being able to apply such market research to their writings, others wonder whether it might not lead to the homogenization of literature as people try to crank out books to specific formulas rather than write the book to its own end.
(Of course, it could quite readily be argued that books are being written to formula already—just look at all the erotica everyone’s rushing to market in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey—and at least this will make sure the formula they’re writing to is accurate.)
This does also bring with it privacy concerns, however; just because the e-book stores only look at data in aggregate doesn’t mean they couldn’t retrieve individual information if law enforcement asked for it. The EFF and ACLU have been pressing for e-book reading record privacy legislation, and have succeeded in getting it passed in California so far.
The WSJ also touches on “choose your own adventure” e-book startup Coliloquy (who we covered here and here), which directly uses readers’ choices in one novel to tell them how to write future books in the series. Tawna Fenske, one of Coliloquy’s writers, makes no bones about how useful the feedback is:
"So much of the time, it’s an editor and agent and publisher telling you, ‘This is what readers want,’ but this is hands-on reader data," says Ms. Fenske, 37, who lives in Bend, Ore. "I’ve always wondered, did that person buy it and stop after the first three pages? Now I can see they bought it and read it in the first week."
Not all the e-book stores are going to be so quick to share that information with writers, of course. Certainly Amazon, who always holds any sales or demographic information close to its vest, is unlikely to want to part with it so easily. (Indeed, Coliloquy can’t even reveal sales figures due to its agreement with Amazon, whose technology powers its books.) Still, as a writer myself, if I could get that kind of feedback, it would be practically priceless.
It seems as if there really isn’t much of a choice anymore in whether what we do on any Internet connected device is tracked. It doesn’t seem like much of a surprise that e-books are doing it, too, when you get right down to it.