Having never even considered using an e-reader for various good and bad reasons, I was not sure what kind of tracking they do. I assumed they were just like every other “free” service—deeply intrusive.
An article in the NYT today reports that there are some businesses who are—wait for it—trying to make money tracking reader behavior. Noting that the big distributors already collect a ton of data about you as you read, but now some smaller fry are experimenting with trying to sell the data to publishers and authors.
Let me get this straight. I pay for the device (which I don’t need at all for print books), I pay to connect to services where I purchase content (which I can only used in very limited ways). And the company collects and sells data about my personal behavior for whatever purpose it wants, more than once if it can. Sigh. Capitalism is great, at least for the owners.
The thing that really got me in this article was the notion that data on “how people read” is useful to writers. One author is quoted to say, “What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?” (Quinn Loftus in NYT).
In fact, the data is about which pages were “read”, in what order, and so on. If the data is aggregated (as it is said to be), then you actually get something like “4 in 10 readers finished the book”, “50% of readers skipped pages 110-130”, or similar data. What this has to do with “reading”, I’m not sure. It’s not even necessarily valuable marketing information—it helps only if you can predict future behavior from this pretty coarse data.
Having this information is supposed to somehow make books better. Seriously, both the companies and some customers actually claim that. As far as I can tell, this must mean, it will help writers and publishers produce more of what (large numbers of) customers “want”.
Obviously, people have different notions of “success” here, and I have no quarrel with writers who want to sell a lot of books, If this helps you pump out pot boilers, and feed your family, go to it. This data goes in your portfolio along with you blog and social media where you interact with your readers. Good luck with that.
But there are other kinds of success. Really great writing is based on ideas, and expresses the ideas “well”. There are many different reasons for writing and reading, and therefore, many kinds of “success”.
A publisher once told me that a good book will be also be a big selling book. (He was arguing that there isn’t a conflict of interest between publishers and writers, he wanted his authors to write the best book they could, which would sell). As he was implying, the reverse isn’t true, we all know of best sellers that were pretty poor books.
The point is, tracking data can’t possibly help you have better ideas, or come up with new creations. I’m not sure it can help you express your ideas well, at least it can’t help much. In the best case, it will give you rough ideas how some audiences will react to what you create, and how you express your ideas. This intelligence might guide marketing.
However, if this data is used like most marketing data, it will aim for niche marketing—adapting the “product” to comfortably fit various target groups. This will certainly not make books “better”, just more alike. More and more of less and less. You know. Like television.
Frankly, we already have too much “niche” writing these days. We all have our favorites that we can’t get enough of, but we also get very tired of fads and herd behavior. (I’ve been amused to watch “fifty shades” reverberate through the “romance” shelves, as authors work in scenes they scrupulously avoided just a few years ago.) But, over and over, some the best books are the ones that surprise me, that I wouldn’t have thought I would like, but am very glad I tried.
And, of course, you might think about how happy you would be if the government (or your employer or your ex) subpoena’s your data, so they can check out just which saucy and subversive passages you lingered over, and which pro-social messages you skipped.
I will continue to just say no to commercial e-readers, until my rights are recognized and paid for.