Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, August 6, 2012

Your E-reader is Watching You


For the first time ever, actual science can be derived from reading habits.

Thanks to e-books, companies like Amazon and B&N now know whether people are actually reading the e-books they buy. Better yet, they even know where in books people are leaving off, which books are most likely to be read all the way through, and the speed people are reading them.

As Mike Shatzkin points out, this is important knowledge that the e-booksellers have and publishers do not. It could be more important to know whether people finish a bestselling book than how many copies it sells. If people stop reading and start reading something else instead, it could be a sign people might not be as enthusiastic for that author's next book. And if people read something very quickly it could be a sign of enthusiasm.

The possibilities don't stop there. Could authors improve if they knew at which spots in their book people are dropping off?

Needless to say, this frontier is not without its controversy. Readers may not like to have their e-reading habits snooped, even if it's done anonymously. Authors may be frustrated to be confronted with yet another backwards-looking tool that can pigeonhole them based on their past books without considering whether the new one is really good. And publishers may be frustrated that Amazon and the other e-booksellers possesses this competitive advantage.

I'm excited to have any new insight available, provided this information is made available to authors. It hardly seems fair if this information is hoarded by the e-booksllers if it's being used to make decisions about whether and how an author is signed or promoted. And, of course, care must be taken to ensure that reader privacy is protected.

What about you? Would you want to know where people are leaving off in your book? Is this new technology exciting or intrusive?

Art: The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimbolo






56 comments:

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan, It's all those (exciting, intrusive) and a bit scary. It's bad enough, when we authors get the courage to check them, to read our reviews at the various bookseller sites. Now we have to face learning that some readers may quit in the middle of our books (or even earlier). Pressure upon pressure.

Tari said...

Sure, I don't care. Privacy is pretty much an illusion any more, anyway. It's naive to think that we're all in our own little secret bubble. I don't actively seek it out, but if I'm part of some surreptitious 'market research' that can improve things, so what? I really don't mind.

Peter Dudley said...

I would love to have that data, especially on free downloads. For example, what percentage of my free downloads have actually been opened, read 25%, read 75%, finished? While I hope the last three would all be equal, I suspect only a very small percentage of those who download it for free actually even open it, let alone read it. I hope I'm wrong on that, though. Have you seen any statistics on what percentage of free ebooks get read?

vic caswell (aspiring-x) said...

creepy.
*shiver*

LilySea said...

meh.
I only get pissed when a snooping technology uses me to generate some sort of free advertising--a la FB and it's timeline telling everyone what I bought or read online, etc.

If you use my interests to advertise to my friends, cut me a check. Otherwise--if it's anonymous data collection--I don't really care.

Matthew MacNish said...

As a writer, I had to admit, I would probably be fascinated to find this info out, unless, or course, a lot of people weren't finishing my books. :(

As a reader and a citizen, this scares me.

Bret Schulte said...

I can see how this will be especially useful to track the free books out there. An author could shoot up the rankings with a free book with a great hook, but that no one can stand to finish.

As an author it would be scary but useful to know if I am losing the audience at a certain point. Especially with ebooks that allow you to revise and re-release the book.

Jaimie said...

I think it would help, for instance, Patrick Rothfuss to know how many people stop The Wise Men's Fear after the Felurian bit, as I did. God above I wanted to love that book. It died.

Peter Dudley said...

I am a little surprised at people's surprise at this. How many of us have credit cards? Our purchases are tracked. They even give us a handy statement at the end of the year categorized by type of expenditure.

How many of us have supermarket club cards? Totally tracked. They know what you bought, when you bought it, how much, how much you paid for it. What about bookstore club cards? They already know what we're purchasing. And our library borrowing is also tracked. I believe I can see my borrowing history when I log into my library's web site.

The only difference I see is that they can now tell a little about how and whether you're using the product... or rather, how and whether you've opened the book and turned the pages, and how long you rested on a given page. They still can't tell if you've actually read it, what you thought about it, etc.

With all our tweets archived at the Library of Congress and Facebook timeline taking us back to our births, this seems like it's not degrading our privacy at all. In fact I'm surprised it's taken this long.

D.G. Hudson said...

This seems like another way to pre-judge a book's worth (why do they stop reading?). Supposition by the 'ereaders stats gatherers' doesn't reveal WHY, only that they did. They assume the problem is with the book.

It's much easier to stop reading an ebook than a physical book. Nothing there (no book on the shelf) to remind me if I don't open that ereader.

People quit reading books for many reasons: it was a gift and not to our taste, it was a bargain or free, but didn't live up to it's hype, etc.

Stats can be useful, or they can be slanted to reveal what the person using them wants to convey.

More culling of the herd. I'd say it's scary for the writer.

Rick Daley said...

I would want to know where people drop off in my books. I would prefer to know in the critique stage, though, so I would have the opportunity to address the issue; I'm not sure what value hindsight has in this regard.

I'm not bothered by e-booksellers collecting metadata on a particular book for analysis, as long as the author can access it. I use Google Analytics to track website stats for my blogs, a similar tool for my books would be interesting, as long as I could refrain from obsessing over it (which is not likely, I'm a sucker for things like that).

Anonymous said...

I own a few ebooks. I've been slowly working my way through the Song of Ice and Fire series. In fact, I've been going so slowly with those books that I wonder if they think that I've left off. I started reading the 2nd book last August, only to pick it up again 3 months ago. Also, I own one of my favorite books in ebook format, that I also own in print format, and so I go back and forth between the two, depending on which is more convenient.

CS Perryess said...

Thanks for seeing the positive in this frighteningly Big Brotherish situation. As a writer, I'd be intrigued to know where readers slow down or stop, but not at the cost of a corporation having that information. I'm not a big conspiracy kind of guy, but when it comes to big companies, I'm moving toward paranoia.

Bryan Russell said...

I'm all for knowledge... it it's shared.

Mirka Breen said...

Creepers. Are those E-thingies also watching you WHILE you read? That’s the next step… No more lavatory reading. Wait… there’s a novel in this!

Dustin Hansen said...

IMO - the only shame here is that it's not provided to the author. This is a big deal, and being able to interpret this data and turn it into sales down the line is going to be huge. If I could get 1 # from Amazon it would be sample to purchase percentage conversion. Having that AND being willing to make adjustments to your sample pages to drive that % higher could be extremely valuable. Not sure Trad pub is willing to do this yet, but eventually they will be.

For a wonderful example on how this type of monetizing works, look at the success of free/paid (Freemium) games on the iOS platform. Players are not paying until they've decided the content provides them value. Game developers know when players lag and address those areas to keep them interested. I know it's a frightening step to take, but it might be a necessary one.

I've made the transition from a traditional video game developer (PS3,360 stuff) to Freemium (iOS,Android) while working for a major publisher and I'll never go back becuase i can offer a dramatically improved and personal user experience.

I'll be the first to acknowledge there are differences between game publishing and book publishing, but I'll also be the first to point out some frightening similarities.

As a content author, knowing when your readers 'tap out' is FAR more valuable than knowing when your critique partners do.

I say - bring it on!

CoreyHaim8myDog said...

I would absolutely want this data. Invaluable. Big Brother today is a BIg Brother also being wacthed by those it watches. I'm fine with that.

Stoich91 said...

Wow! That's redonkulous. Thanks for the heads' up (I wonder what percentage of the ereading population knows about this?!). It's one thing to take information when people KNOW (eg. search engine tracking), it's another when companies are deliberately taking advantage of consumer naivety.

This almost makes me want to go back to reading print books. When we are assured there is nothing save our convenience to the reader involved in switching from print to etext, we were all too blind to believe it. Meh. Way to go B&N and Amazon.com

And what exactly does this gain authors? Of course writers have been dying for centuries to get that forbidden glance into their readers' minds, but will it make them better writers? Methinks not. Writing is part soul, part artistic borrowing (creative licence, stealing, whatever) part heedless idiocy and mostly just plain hard work. If you can't wring something successful out of those sectors without extra information (unfairly gained information, at that!), why are you even writing in the first place?

Ben Campbell said...

Privacy is such a constant conundrum that nothing about any of us is private except for our own internal thoughts.

If the e-book companies like Amazon and B&N would share such gathered information with authors then their benefits would be endless for future writing projects, as well as marketing and advertising their wares.

Anonymous said...

Don't want to know. Don't care. Besides, I think this is more about tracking sales and trends than helping authors figure out where people stop reading their books. And unless there is a book out there were a large number or readers...like 10,000 or more...are all stopping in the same place it doesn't really matter anyway.

Virginia said...

I am a data junkie! This is almost like a dream come true for me...I'd love to get the job as the analyst who determines what the data means...one fun thing about data, to me, is figuring out what is worthwhile and what is trackable but otherwise totally useless.

Mr. D said...

I'll chime in with vic and Mirka. To me it's on the creepy side.

beckylevine said...

Maybe I'm just too clueless to be afraid of this stuff, but I find it fascinating. If I could have it all consolidated (and not coming at me every day as a distraction), I'd love to know not just where people stopped reading, but where--at least in an NF book--where they put bookmarks. I should be getting my first e-reader this weekend, so maybe I'll change my mind when I'm on the readership end, but I don't think so.

Kristen said...

Sounds cool. I've tried asking readers before when they got distracted while reading my stuff, and they usually have no idea, so I have trouble figuring out where my weak scenes are. Granted, I'd like this feedback BEFORE it goes on sale online, but it's still a good way of knowing where to shape up if you have a certain type of scene that people regularly step away from.

That said, I share e-readers with friends and vice versa based on what books we have. I hope they're not expecting all the books on an e-reader to be read by the same person. If they are, they may be in for a surprise!

Sierra McConnell said...

Totally inaccurate information. Sometimes I stop because I'm going back later and then I get busy with a project and can't get to the book. Sometimes I stop because I have read the book before and don't want to read just yet, waiting for a time I know I'll be ready or re: above and just don't get back to it because something else came out.

But I don't expect anything less from BN. The company so ignorant they handle their customer service the way they do. What a fiasco it was to even GET my e-Reader. [rolls eyes]

Fred said...

S'up, Big Bro?

Andrew Leon said...

As a writer, I find that info fascinating and think it would be useful.
As a consumer, I find it invasive. Much like Facebook.

P J O'Leary said...

This sounds both exciting and intrusive, and others have said, a bit scary. Yes, I expect companies to keep all the data they can. Like how TiVo knew that the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction was watched by more people than the entire Super Bowl audience that year. In fact, it is the most re-watched moment in their history.

So I'm not so much concerned over them watching my reading habits. However, I am concerned with them making decisions based on that information without making the data available to the author.

As a writer, I would love to have that sort of data (what people highlight, where they stop, how quickly they read, etc.) It could be extremely valuable to help tell what parts work and what parts don't. What do people love and what do they hate. Especially if they could tell not just overall time to read, but time to read parts. So you could see if most people zip through certain sections and drag through others.

So I see this as potentially a great tool, if authors are given access to this data so they can use it as feedback for improvement (especially for ebooks, where the author could use the information to revise and republish in a matter of weeks instead of years for the dead-tree editions).

Sadly, as with any new development, it could also be seriously misused. Remember the words of Mark Twain: "There are three types of lies; lies, damn lies and statistics." So anytime any group is gathering statistics, it's very easy for them to be misapplied to prove some preconceived idea.

But I guess I'll remain hopeful that this will be a case where data will be shared, rather then horded.

Samantha said...

Great post - very interesting! I don't think it really bothers me that much that they're tracking what I'm reading, where I'm stopping etc. I think it has the potential to be a good thing and when it comes down to it they're not going to get too much about us out of the books we're reading. They're not going to be able to access our emails or social media accounts or anything, so I think it's relatively harmless!

G. B. Miller said...

Absolutely.

As someone who is coming out with his first commercial debut later this year, I would love to know where people are bookmarking my book and/or if they're finishing it.

Anonymous said...

I'm very surprised nobody has pointed out that if companies have access to this data, then governments will also. (Surveillance used to require warrants, but that is becoming less and less true.) It doesn't seem far-fetched to me that people could be targeted because they're reading something perceived as "extremist" or "terroristic." Not to mention the opportunities for censorship. If someone decided to pull back all copies of a "subversive" or "pornographic" book from e-readers everywhere, who would stop them?

I'm also surprised at how casual people seem to be about the ever-increasing monitoring of every aspect of our lives. Maybe it reflects the current, my-life-is-publicly-available-on-Facebook mentality, but it really shocks me how little people value their privacy.

Josh McCracken said...

I never thought about the possibilities of this, but I think it could be a useful tool to improve the book market.

Tammy said...

INTRUSIVE! For me, reading is personal, private, an escape. Would you want someone to be able to view your other private habits? Take sex for example: They would know how fast you go, when you slow down, when and if you finish. Can you imagine the spam we'd receive for our reading habits? I already get way too much for viagra, penis enlargers (I don't even have one-why would I need an enlarger?), and webcams chats. I don't think I could handle the intrusion on my reading as well.

Gjillian said...

I'm thinking that it could be a slippery slope to writing books that are focus grouped and tested first.

Publishing Industry seems to follow Hollywood in all things like pitch sessions with agents and authors, and high concept plots.

Just remember Seinfeld did horrible in focus groups and didn't really catch on with the public right away.

For indie-pubbed, not sure. I'd hate to sit down to a laptop and think...gee, on my last novel 18. 7 percent of readers left off at page 81...

Haven't we created enough stress in our lives without this one?

Lauren Monahan said...

I can't wait until I have the technology available to study the reading habits of my students. That may be the only thing to get me sold on my school converting to ebooks.

Anonymous said...

If they don't allow you to opt out, then I don't like it.

Jim Ryan said...

What's been pointed out by a lot of commentors here, that data without context is worthless, is something that needs to be considered more closely.

The larger entities, your usual Publishers Row address, is probably not going to take the time needed to do follow up when a data point is determined from the data. They will most likely just walk towards their own conclusion, much as they do now, without any care or concern regarding author development.

Smaller entities, more likely the one person shops, may have the time and resources to do the follow-up necessary, taking a representative sample out of the dataset and query for insight. This could be a note to the reader, asking a few questions, inviting a dialog with that reader. Much like most of the small-ops today work, come to think of it.

So the only real difference that this all makes, in the end, is that there may have been a few bucks exchanged before the process, as opposed to this happening before going to press. End result is net even, with maybe some advantage for the smaller operations (where most writers are going to end up in the future anyway) who will be able to capitalize on the real time data a lot more nimbly to greater effect.

Heather Marsten said...

Not surprised, but find that the data is not complete. I read more than one book at a time, different categories, different purposes. There are a few books I've stopped reading from boredom, but other times there are things that pull me away from a book - research, writing my own book, reading hard copies of stories, or the need to read something else temporarily. So the data does not give the whole picture.

Sandra E. Thompson said...

Seems the data collected would be 'cooking the books', to use accounting parlance. I wonder if Shakespeare would have been discouraged to write by marketing analysis. Reading tastes and styles are too subjective and personal to quantify in a pie chart of sales.

Sam Albion said...

that readers drop off, pace-wise, at points, is not always indicative of their overall enthusiasm for a specific writer -- some writers insert reams of data or fact and figures to add weight to social commentary, yet truthfully, only the most eager really cares how many tonnes of coal the proles used in a scabrous northern town. It is natural to... skim over the boring parts of a flabby novel whose MC is discussing the mundanities of a trip to Ikea.

Anonymous said...

My point of view is I find it all a bit intrusive, whether I'm the reader or the writer of the material. It's getting in to Big Brother is watching you zones that feel distinctly uncomfortable. Almost like prying.
Yvette Carol

James said...

"The possibilities don't stop there. Could authors improve if they knew at which spots in their book people are dropping off?"

This is a double edged sword.

If the ability to do this so accurately existed in TV, it would result in a monkey randomly appearing and throwing crap at people's face in the "slow parts."

"People love it!"

For self-pubbing, I see it as a very useful tool. Under the mismanagement of any non-creative "creative" entity (basically people who only care about maximizing profit) it could be just as much of a detriment, if not more so, than not having this technology at all.

patriciamar.com said...

I haven't completely decided, but I do want to say thanks for keeping us all up to date on developments like this!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Heather Marsten. How quickly I read a book has nothing to do with enthusiasm for that novel, but more to do with how many of life's distractions pull me away from it (kids, my own writing, critiquing, my degree, etc.). I have at least five novels that I'm dying to get into right now, and one I've only just started but haven't had the time to get back to in the last fortnight.

So yes, while the data might be useful for some, it in no way represents enthusiasm.

Stroppy Author said...

As authors, couldn't we demand the stats on our own books under data protection registration? Might be worth a try, at least.

Of course, if the info is not shared with the publishers, there is no way the publishers can use it to decide whether or not to take the next book!

Leanne Bridges said...

As a reader, I have no problem with the information that they can gather from my e-Reader. At all.
As a writer, I would be very excited to have this information shared with me. I would love to see where my readers stop; is my pacing effective? Are they breaking where I want them to break? And while I tend to read two books at one time anyway (one fiction, one non) I would find it valuable to learn if great numbers of readers were giving up on my books.
This excites me. It really does and I am sure that this information will be made available to authors, or the technology to gather this information will evolve (eg. Reader Share Aps).
Thanks for blogging, Nathan. Always a great read.

M L Marshall said...

Very useful info.

I bought 50 Shades of Grey a few weeks back, and put it down at the half way mark.

I just couldn't get over the first person narrative and writing style of it; it seemed a bit...amateur (oops!). I know of a few others who have also put it down after the first few days of reading.


Although it is a best seller, I wonder how many others have bought it and failed to finish it. Maybe the sales of the sequels will tell the tale.

loonyliterature.com said...

I think if writers can access the information about their books it can be a very useful tool. If readers are stopping reading at a certain point - I definitely would want to know this to try to not make the same mistake in the future. The main problem with the information is that it does not tell the writer why people are stopping reading, hopefully the writer would be able to work it out.

Anonymous said...

web usability geeks know that it's not enough to know where a person stops surfing a site, you really have to know why as well.

so, well and good, if authors want all the data on the readings of their latest e-book; but data is not information.

J.R. Williams said...

I find it exciting.

Paula B. said...

I suspect most people who buy books for themselves don't read all of them anyway. That's why titles and covers and placement are so important. I'm sure every publisher knows this already and banks on it.

Kristin Laughtin said...

This could be really interesting for authors if it showed a lot of people stopped at a certain point. It might indicate that part of the story was a chore to get through, or angered people, or something else, and that insight could help the author write better novels from then on. Of course, that would require the author to make a lot of assumptions about why people stopped, though, especially if there were no prior reservations about that point in the story. That could be a bit dangerous and maddening.

Jill of All Trades said...

Really is my business and my business alone. Are we never alone anymore. Are "they" always there. BIG BROTHER!

Jacqueline Howett said...

Sorry I stopped at that certain point in the book, but I had to catch a train.


Hope the author doesn't change the scenes here due to my putting the book down while I picked up the baby. I love the book but am so busy with life's distractions right now.


Better finish the book, they're watching, and I really like this author.



I'll read a few more pages. Oh, now I have to cook dinner.


So you see, it's silly!


Oh this author I don't care for, I'll just read page 1 and 2 and drop it, then tell my clan to do the same.



Really some of the stuff that could go on...



And it's creepy having no privacy.



I also wonder if sales in e-readers might actually drop due to this new awareness.


So what are you going to do?

E.B. Black said...

I'm a writer, but the first thing I was concerned about was whether we retained our privacy when we read e-books. As long as we do, then it sounds great.

JamesR404 said...

So would authors be willing to pay Amazon for this data? If so they may be convinced to sell statistics of individual books to their respective authors.

The privacy concern is so so, with this you always have the choice of not using the e reader.

There are much bigger privacy violations out there if one wants to concern him or herself with that.

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