Amazon Knows What Page of “War and Peace” You Gave Up On, No Matter What Your Goodreads Review Says
I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, but often only make it through the front section on any given day. (On busy days I only manage the editorials; I have a strong childhood reflex for reading the funny pages first.)
So I probably would have missed this e-book article entirely if it hadn’t quoted romance author and blogger-par-example Tawna Fenske, who promptly provided the link on her blog for all us fans. And that would have been sad, because there’s lots to talk about in it!
Did you click through and read the article yet? I know no one actually does, but it’s a good one. Give it a try. And for the truly lazy, here’s the core of the story:
“The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.”
There’s a lot more detail, but that’s the basic gist: when you read an e-book, the company whose software you are using gets to collect all your usage data. How long after the purchase it took you to start reading, how long your average reading session was, where you stopped, which passages you bookmarked or highlighted; the works. As the Journal‘s headline says, your e-book is reading you.
There are some interesting tidbits here and there in the story, gathered along with all that other data:
“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”
Predictable enough, really. Unfortunately, the e-book publishers that are interested in this data aren’t just thinking about how to market broad genres now that they don’t have a physical bookstore layout to guide consumers — they’re also looking at how to make individual stories that are sure-fire sellers:
“Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers’ digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.”
I think it’s worth stopping to think about what audience-driven metrics have done for television and film. Let’s face it, we live in a world where Buffy the Vampire Slayer is edgy and ground-breaking. The threshold for “experimental” is embarrassingly low in visual media because it’s not what audiences want (on paper, anyway), so there’s huge institutional barriers to ever making, marketing, and selling something genuinely different.
I don’t want that to become the case in publishing. We do not want a world where books are getting rejected because they didn’t focus group well. Audience-pleasing pulp has its role in the world, but right now fiction publishers — who have many bad traits of their own as gatekeepers, don’t get me wrong — are at least willing to take a loss on the advances for most of the books they put out, on the assumption that a few successes will pay for the rest. It makes it possible to take risks that, very occasionally, give us the great literary works of a generation.
The wealth of new data the internet has given us allows a lot more businesses to be run by the same tiny market fluctuations and minute-to-minute changes that drive our financial sector. It’s worth pausing to ask ourselves if we really think they’ve done such a bang-up job these last few years that we want everyone else going that way too.