Your E-Book is Reading You

In many ways my habits and preferences are decidedly behind the times. For example, I still haven’t bothered to buy an e-reader nor a tablet. I still take newspapers (the ones printed on paper) to read at the diner over coffee and, perhaps most amusingly, still buy vinyl albums. Despite the somewhat Orwellian overtones of the ability to collect data on readers through their e-readers, described below, I will probably succumb at some point to buying an e-reader, if only because there are some undeniable benefits (such as weight saving). Nevertheless, I predict that I will continue to favour paper-based books for the things that I really important to me.

I feel so old school…

The Friday June 29th edition of The Wall Street Journal carried a fascinating, and perhaps unsettling, account of the ways publishers and e-book providers – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google – are measuring not only what you read, but how you are reading. The article described how Barnes & Noble, which has about 30% of the e-book market with its Nook device, is collecting and analyzing data on how quickly readers read various types of books, how frequently they stop, the average number of pages read and whether or not they even finish the book. Jim Hilt, the company’s VP of e-books, says the “company is still in the earliest stages of deep analytics” and is sifting through “more and more data than we can use.”

Wrote the Wall Street Journal Alexandra Alter:

Mr. Hilt says that when the data showed that Nook readers routinely quit long works of nonfiction, the company began looking for ways to engage readers in nonfiction and long-form journalism. They decided to launch “Nook Snaps,” short works on topics ranging from weight loss and religion to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Pinpointing the moment when readers get bored could also help publishers create splashier digital editions by adding a video, a web link or other multimedia features, Mr. Hilt says. “The bigger trend we’re trying to unearth is where are those drop-offs in certain kinds of books, and what can we do with publishers to prevent that?” Mr. Hilt says.

Some authors welcome the prospect. Novelist Scott Turow says he’s long been frustrated by the industry’s failure to study its customer base. “I once had an argument with one of my publishers when I said, ‘I’ve been publishing with you for a long time and you still don’t know who buys my books.’ If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I’d love to get that information.”

On the other hand, Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux says “We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it.”

Amazon has an advantage in this field because it’s both a retailer and a publisher. Kindle readers sign an agreement granting the company permission to store information from the device – including the last page you’ve read, plus your bookmarks, highlights, notes and annotations – in its data servers. Amazon can identify which passages of digital books are popular with readers, and shares some of this data publicly on its website through features such as its “most highlighted passages” list. Topping the list is the line from the “Hunger Games” trilogy. It is followed by the opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice.”

According to Forrester Research, there are 40 million e-readers and 65 million tablets in use in the U.S. In the first quarter of 2012, e-books generated $282 million in sales compared to $230 million for print.

Few publishers have taken the experiment  as far as Coliloquy, a digital publishing company that was created earlier this year by Wayann Lue, a computer scientist and former Google engineer, and Lisa Rutherford, a venture capitalist and former president of Twofish,a gaming-analytics firm. Coliloquy’s digital books which are available on Kindle, Nook and Android e-readers, have a “choose-your-own-adventure”-style format, allowing readers to customize characters and plot lines. The company’s engineers aggregate and pool the data gleaned from reader’s selections and send it to the authors, who can adjust story lines in their next books to reflect popular choices.

Leo, baby, you’ll have to cut out a few bits to just tighten it up a little