In Soviet Russia, eBook Reads You

Last week an article in the Wall Street Journal about eBooks tracking the habits and actions of reader got passed around the usual social media outlets. There didn’t seem like there was much of a reaction; I think the article merely reconfirmed a belief that the eReader companies have been amassing data on their users. The article stands out since it mentions some specifics observations that have been found with the data; people read non-fiction in starts and stops, series like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades are read back-to-back-to-back, and the average reading time it takes people to finish books in the Game of Thrones series. These are insights that the publishing industry has not been able to reliably track (if at all, as the article suggests) and represents a new tool that can analyze a reader base for additional extrapolated information.

However, in this rush to collect data on readers in order to better market or write books for them, there are a couple of things that don’t sit right with me. It leaves me wondering how comparable is the eReader reading experience to the print reading experience. Is picking up a book the same as picking up a Kindle? There doesn’t appear to be any baseline to act as a basis of comparison. The presumption here is that the reading experience is the same between the two mediums when it has yet to be shown. In trying to design a ‘better’ reading experience, they are doing on the data of one medium which may or may not translate to the other.

As eReader use is still in the minority in the United States, what kind of demographics are being measured? It’s grabbing data from the digitally invested even as the book markets still has a strong paper element to it. While it can’t be ignored that a rough usage rate of 1 in 5 people has pushed the eBook market to equal and/or surpass aspects of the print book market, it remains to be seen as to how this aligns with the overall reader population. Are these people a good sample?

In approaching the content side, the article talks about publishers and authors could create books that avoid some of the ‘stopped reading’ pitfalls. This seems like an attempt to thwart Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50. (Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you’re really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you’re not, then put it down and look for another.) I’m wondering why this is a good idea in an activity that is highly subjective and personal. The data might tell you when people stop reading a book, but it doesn’t scratch the surface as to why. Most people might stop reading a book at page 75, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The defect in the story or the failure to grab the reader attention could have happened on any page prior to it; that’s just when they gave up on it. It’s a data point that lacks the necessary context to make it truly valuable.

I’m a bit concerned as to what the feedback will do to the writing process. If an author is told that a particular passage really resonated with readers, how will that change their ideas and approach to their stories and style? Will it take it in new directions? Will it encourage authors to write towards these safe and favorable areas rather than push the boundaries of their craft? Or could it move the reader and author into greater sync in terms of what people want and what the author can provide?

Finally, my last and greatest concern regards privacy. It runs the gamut from who is being followed and what is being collected to whether it will have a chilling effect on subject/title selection. In New Jersey, library record privacy is regulated by statute.

18A:73-43.1. "Library," "library record" defined
    For the purposes of this act:
   a.   "Library" means a library maintained by any State or local governmental agency, school, college, or industrial, commercial or other special group, association or agency, whether public or private.
   b.   "Library record" means any document or record, however maintained, the primary purpose of which is to provide for control of the circulation or other public use of library materials.

18A:73-43.2. Confidentiality; exceptions
    Library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except in the following circumstances:
   a.   The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library;
   b.   Disclosure is requested by the user; or
   c.   Disclosure is required pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.
   L. 1985, c. 172, s. 2, eff. May 31, 1985.

(Retrieved July 1, 2012. Emphasis mine.)

I’ve wondered if the Overdrive-Amazon connection is in breech of this law. From my understanding, Overdrive has enough access to make certain that a library member is authorized to borrow a book; they get the library card number, our system tells them whether or not it is valid, and then the transaction goes forward. In downloading the book to a Kindle, Amazon takes on the role of the library by maintaining and enforcing the borrowing period. They also have personally identifying data that goes along with the Amazon account. In handing off the transaction from Overdrive to Amazon, how much information is exchanged? Is it just a nod or is there more?

Now, it might be argued that it constitutes a legal disclosure as it relates to the proper operation of the library. If that’s the case, then it becomes a question as to whether this is a good idea or not (or even possibly an ethical one). In any event, it is handing over readers for data mining without getting a share of that information snapshot or proper warnings to the library member as to they could be exposed to. (Yes, I know some libraries have warning screens when shifting from the library website to Amazon. Good on them and I can’t find a good link to it.)  In the rush to get eBooks on our virtuals shelves, we bought licenses which do not convey the benefits of ownership and handed over our library members to third parties who do not wholly share our library values and principles.

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “In Soviet Russia, eBook Reads You

  1. Andy, as often, I agree with you down the line. Beyond Overdrive, I have been more concerned about Amazon. I try to tell my patrons that Amazon will use their information to sell to them and perhaps sell to others to sell to them, but they’re willing to give up that valuable information in exchange for access to the latest Twilight, seemingly. Just as Google attempts to drive the perfect searching experience, book publishers are trying to drive the perfect reading experience. I don’t think a stop-reading datum will result in short stories, but I could easily see stats being compiled and used on virtually every other aspect of reading. At the risk of cliche, I see a MiniTrue deciding what will be popular and therefore virtually interchangeable. And you’re right, also about the ereading experience. First, it’s an experience of what’s available, which skews the numbers. Who it’s available to, which skews the numbers. Finally, the situation, which produces a further skew. Vacation? Hospital waiting room? Everyday reading? Hard to know. How does that change how we read and what we read? For example, I don’t read long novels on my smartphone. I tend not to read nonfiction on an ereader. I usually have an ereader with me when I don’t have much time to dedicate — often only 15 or 20 minutes. Does this mean that short, snappy fiction is my preferred read? No! Or at least not even most of the time. This truly does not bode well for the future of writing and reading.

  2. I’m not fussed about the privacy issue, because I don’t believe they’re interested in you as an individual, only as a data point. While we all like to think we’re unique, fact is we all tend to act in similar ways. So accumulating data on a large number of readers can tell the publisher interesting things about their books, and whether they’re marketable. But that’s the real concern: will publisher drop titles because they’re unpopular? One promise of ebooks is that books can be published even if the market is small. But when publishers treat ebooks the same as print (and claim that production cost is about the same), the niche market argument will fall down.

    • Steve, Amazon is already marketing on an individual level to people using library loans. Patrons have told me, with some irritation, that they get regular emails urging them to buy books they’ve borrowed through the library. I don’t think it’s a big leap to that program being expanded to other products (“People who bought X also bought Y”) or sold to other entities.

  3. Reading your concerns about how this data might change the writing or reading process, I was struck with a profound sense of “meh.” Your comments seem predicated on the fact that these kinds of changes would be de facto negative in nature (if that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t be *concerned* about them). But I’m not really sure why this is something to worry about since the interaction between writer, publisher and reader has pretty much been in a state of flux since writing was invented. That aspects of it change is not a horrible thing; the balance of good-to-bad is constantly shifting but not really becoming unbalanced. So the 50-page rule gets replaced by some other metric (and it will). So what? People will always find ways to measure, no matter the format. It’s not like we are crumbling into chaos here, which is kind of the under-tone I pick up from your “concerns.”

    As far as the feedback to the writing process, well yes, that will change. Again, I’m really “meh” about that. Writers whose only concern is writing a block buster will spend a lot of time crafting their work to reader expectations…which, if you are unfamiliar with genre writing, let me tell is something they already do just with less data to do it with. Writers who are more literary and artistic won’t much care about how long a reader spends on a page, much as they haven’t cared for the last 100+ years. You can change the tools, the format, and the distribution but you can’t change the nature of the the writer’s impulse or their motivations. *shrug*

    I think the real concern here is the privacy issue, which I don’t feel particularly confidant to comment on, although I do agree with Steve Thomas to a certain extent.

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