1984 is Spying On You

In Uncategorized on July 3, 2012 at 8:20 am

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal recently called “Your E-Book Is Reading You“. It concerns the way in which e-readers interact with their users — specifically the information that e-readers gather, or are capable of gathering, from the people who use them.

The upshot is that if you use an e-reader, you are by default a Nielsen Family; your Nook or Kindle is tracking how fast you read, where you stop, what notes you make, and how your reading habits vary from book to book. Perhaps you’re not making an impact alone, since this is an overwhelming amount of data to sift, but you are adding to the general knowledge pool.The article is very astute about debating whether this is a good thing, but a portion of what it all boils down to is that e-readers are institutionalising extribulum. They’re just doing it in a very our-way-or-the-highway kind of way. My readers volunteer; their readers can’t use their hardware without agreeing.

Amazon, in particular, has an advantage in this field—it’s both a retailer and a publisher, which puts the company in a unique position to use the data it gathers on its customers’ reading habits. It’s no secret that Amazon and other digital book retailers track and store consumer information detailing what books are purchased and read. Kindle users 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.

The article refers to the traditional yardstick — sales and reviews — as “metrics that offer a postmortem measure of success but can’t shape or predict a hit”. This is mainly true, though I’ve never forgotten what I learned at the knee of a friend’s publisher parents, which is that much of an otherwise ordinary book’s success is dependent upon how much promotion it gets. Still, it’s fascinating reading:

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.

I am for more reader feedback rather than less, definitely; I like to know this stuff, though I’m not nuts about the stats being provided involuntarily. I’m excited by the news later in the article that Sourcebooks is testing out “serial, online publishing” where readers can give feedback, and Coliloquy allows readers to customize characters and plotlines. That information is then relayed back to authors, “who can adjust story lines in their next books to reflect popular choices.” Sound familiar?

The concern is, of course, that “data driven” storytelling can hinder creative risk-taking, but it’s not really the data that’s driving it now. Most of the big six publishers operate on profit-driven storytelling, hiring only authors they know can produce hits and pressuring those authors to write more and faster because the name will sell the book more than the quality will. Feedback from readers, I believe, usually makes for a better story; this particular feedback may make for smarter publishers, forcing them away from a narrow profit-driven view.

The article quotes Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: “We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it.” Well, no. Don’t pander to the shallow end of our intellectual pool. But if nobody finishes a book, maybe you could examine the idea that it’s not a good book. Or at any rate, not relevant. I haven’t read War and Peace, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s good or relevant, but metrics on readership could paint a picture to a certain extent. The relationship between books and readers is not as simple as “I like this book so I shall read it”; price, advertising, and word-of-mouth buzz all play a role too.

But the more data you have, the more accurate you can be. More knowledge is always better than less, particularly when it pertains to artistic, intellectual pursuits.

At any rate, it’s a great article with a lot to say, and I’m really proud to see that I called it — extribulum is now being put into play by big business, where I hope it will prosper.

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