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.

And yes, you did agree to allow all of this, back when you accepted the terms of use for your Kindle or Nook or whatever you use. Hadn’t noticed, had 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.

    • Christopher
    • July 4th, 2012

    I did read your post before clicking through, but by the end you convinced me that it was worth my time to read the whole article. Certainly fascinating stuff.

    I’m not ready to pass judgement on this as a practice — though the privacy concerns raised in the article are something that I think needs sorting sooner rather than later — but in general I’m in favor of data. More data means more knowledge (ostensibly). The difficulty lies (as you are pointing out, I think) in how that data is being leveraged by the people who have access to; in what sort of theories those who study the data formulate; whether this leads to profit driven distortions or ground-breaking truths.

    Personally, I expect that for the next decade, at the very least, the practical effects of this data will be ham-handed and misguided attempts to capitalize on “crowd sourcing” to revitalize the industry. This is the wild west of E-publishing, and hardly anyone *really* knows what they’re doing. The Kindle (the first E-reader I remember hearing about) was only released in 2007, and the Nook not until 2 years later. Even in the fast paced world (or especially in it) of modern electronic devices, five years for a wholly novel device is not nearly enough time to know what the long term effects will be of that device (or the better and more versatile devices it inspires) will be. I doubt that people in the ’70s could have predicted how the then-new personal computer would shape our lives 40 years later.

    Similarly, I expect in 40 years, digital publishing, and this sort of aggregate reader data will have fundamentally transformed not only what gets published, but how we read. Maybe it’s the sappy, optimistic humanist in me, but I like to imagine this change will be for the better. I believe that we will not forget or lose the methods or reading and writing we know (not for many generations, at least) but only add to the ways in which we consume the written word — deepen the experience. In the short term this will almost certainly mean schlocky, easy-money “solutions” from people more concerned with spread-sheets and metrics than art. But in the long term I think that the more we know as a society about how societies work, the more interesting and fun artistic experiences become.

    P.S. I’m not sure I entirely followed the line of thought from “Audience-driven metrics” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a point of reference. I admit to being something of a Whedon fanboy, so that may have something to do with my confusion. What is your point about TV and movies?

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