Fri, 29 Jun 12 at 13:11 | No Comments Yet
Worse than a Nielson box
Reading feels completely private — just you and your book. And people prefer it that way. Someone peering over your shoulder on the subway is remarkably disconcerting; even a glance at a stranger’s newspaper headline can draw an irritated response.
But e-book companies are watching you far more closely than that.
“Your E-Book Is Reading You,” in today’s WSJ, makes clear that every page click, bookmark, stopping point, annotation and any other behavior is recorded, uploaded and analyzed:
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.
Of course the companies involved are reassuring: data is aggregated, they don’t track anyone individually, and besides, Big Data analytics can improve the reading experience by determining exactly what people like. If most people give up on a book at page 53, for example, the publisher might add a flashy video at that point — or at least do some informed editing. And of course it’s reassuring to have long-held stereotypes confirmed:
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.
Um, right. That Holy Grail of publishing, the Bestseller Algorithm, might be right around the corner!
Maybe that doesn’t bother you. Without close audience tracking and focus groups, for example, we wouldn’t have the glorious boundary-exploring creativity of Hollywood. Why shouldn’t books be programmed to appeal to the broadest, lowest common denominator possible?
But then there are the privacy implications.
Bruce Schneier, a cyber-security expert and author, worries that readers may steer clear of digital books on sensitive subjects such as health, sexuality and security—including his own works—out of fear that their reading is being tracked.
At the very least, e-book purchasers should have the option of keeping their reading private. Right now, you can’t buy a Kindle without signing an agreement that lets Amazon record, upload and analyze everything you do on it. In that light, it is not reassuring that “Amazon declined to comment on how it analyzes and uses the Kindle data it gathers.”
For now, my own reading habits remain old-school: physical books, for the most part, about half from the library and half purchased. I read a good bit on my phone, but mostly news and short lengths. (The Economist, for example, is perfect on a 3.5″ screen.)
And until I know I can keep my reading to myself, I’m not changing.