When books read their readers
Last week, you all patiently read while I waxed verbose about my stories (you know, like a chatty candle); this week, I’ll take a step back and allow current events to take center stage. As much as I hate to draw your attention away to the world beyond our humble blogger, the book business is as vast as it is ever-changing. Here at Timestage Embassy, I believe it is our imperative as book lovers to stay informed and involved in the ongoing discussion. Constant vigilance!
This article popped up recently in the Wall Street Journal. Apparently, developers of ereaders are using the data-tracking functions of these devices to collect an enormous amount of information on consumers’ reading habits. This goes far beyond the mere demographics of who buys what books; we’re talking about the speed at which we read certain books, how long we read before taking a break, passages we particularly like, etc.
Before you leap to conclusions, I’d like to state that I do not own an ereader, as I prefer reading print books. However, I am not an opponent of ebooks or their developing role in the book business. Here’s a basic sample of ereader data that’s being collected and shared:
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 (Alexandra Alter, WSJ).
On one hand, this aggregated data has the potential to massively enhance the ability of publishers to give the readers what they want. Since analysts can pinpoint areas in books where readers tend to lose interest, editors can now target problems in future books that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Ebook data analytics could act as a perpetual consumer feedback system, visibly approving and rebuking in a way that can be effectively responded to. In a time where television and gaming loom large against the book industry, this could be just the edge publishers need.
On the other hand, what a person reads has traditionally been honored as no one else’s beeswax. Some worry that this kind of data collection represents an invasion of privacy already rampant throughout media and the internet. The fact that ebook consumers have no choice over whether they are monitored or not also leaves a poor taste. The uncomfortable notion of having their habits watched could scare consumers away from purchasing books on sex, illness, counterculture, and sensitive issues. Lastly, from an artistic standpoint, too much market knowledge in publisher hands could further strain the liberties of writers. But alas, I’ve rambled too much.
What’s your take on this issue? How comfortable are you with data being collected on your reading habits? How might data aggregation have a different or similar impact on book consumers than it has in other industries? Would anyone like to weigh in on the economic benefits or ethical implications of this issue?