July 2, 2012

Your reading behaviour is being monitored


The Wall Street Journal reported last week on the extent to which big corporations are looking over our shoulders when we read:

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.

The article analyzes at some length the various ramifications of that information-harvesting. On one hand, companies now own huge amounts of information about our reading habits, such that lawmakers in California have seen fit to introduce the ‘reader privacy act’, which says that law enforcement groups must get a court order ‘before they can require digital booksellers to turn over information revealing which books their customers have browsed, purchased, read and underlined.’ A good if scary piece of legislation, but it’s still likely that some readers the country over will think twice before buying books on sensitive subjects, in the knowledge that they’re being monitored.

Another consideration is that some publishers — including booksellers like Amazon that also publish titles — have begun to use the information they collect to shape the content of their books. The most extreme example of this is Coliloquy, whose books:

 have a “choose-your-own-adventure”-style format, allowing readers to customize characters and plot lines. The company’s engineers aggregate and pool the data gleaned from readers’ selections and send it to the authors, who can adjust story lines in their next books to reflect popular choices.

Coliloquy currently publishes genre fiction (romance, erotica, YA) and nonfiction, and they’re about to branch out into crime, legal thrillers and — weirdly — experimental fiction.

There’s no way of saying this without sounding like a dreadful snob, but where romance and erotica are concerned, crowdsourcing editorial doesn’t seem to me to be such a terrible thing. There’s no great artistry at stake; at their best these books tap into their readers’ secret desires, and while it might be problematic to gauge desire by statistics, this impulse in itself is intuitive.

It’s an altogether different question when it comes to other types of writing, though. Jonathan Galassi has it best:

The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn’t have anything to do with. We’re not going to shorten War and Peace because someone didn’t finish it.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.