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E-reading’s shift to “big data”

Should we be concerned that ebook companies are collecting reams of data on customers’ reading habits? Is big e-reader really watching us?

These are some of the questions raised by a Wall Street Journal story about the publishing industry’s turn to “big data” in the digital era. The report, which appeared last week, describes how companies like Kobo, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble now know how fast you read, what passages you highlight or comment on, and when you get bored of a book and decide to put it down. The WSJ describes the shift this way:

For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public.

Not surprisingly, some publishers are using that information to tailor their product to consumer tastes “ for instance, U.S. digital publisher Coliloquy allows readers to “customize characters and plot lines” in a choose-your-own-adventure“style format. More prosaically, metrics on consumer behaviour could allow publishers and authors to workshop their titles in real time.

While readers of serious literary fiction might cringe at the notion of such commercial pandering, Ellie Robins, an editor at Melville House, points out that such information has its uses. From the MobyLives blog:

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.

China Miéville, the U.K.-based author of speculative fiction (and certainly no technophobe), takes an equally nuanced stance, telling The Guardian‘s Alison Flood:

I hope it wouldn’t change how I wrote, but conversely I do wonder if getting specifically worked up about this is simply a kind of neophobia, because if it did change how you wrote, wouldn’t it just be a new variant of what authors have done for centuries, which is writing to a market…. In other words, that writing to algorithm, while I’m certainly no fan, is just writing to what one believes readers want “ no more or less infra dig than writing in response to demands from the marketing department, or in response to one’s analysis on perusing the bestseller list, or trying to second-guess what makes a best seller. A bit more micro-level in its analysis, but not qualitatively “worse” or “better.”

Artistry aside, the graver concern is for reader privacy. With the knowledge that reading habits are being monitored, will some consumers be less inclined to seek out works on sensitive subjects. Todd Humphrey, Kobo’s executive vice president of business development, acknowledges the problem, telling The Guardian:

We are just starting out on this and we want to be cautious on privacy…. We want to understand how people are engaging in the content, but not to cross the line where we are sharing information about their reading habits which they wouldn’t approve of. So we are looking in bulk “ at a particular book or genre “ and feeding that back to publishers.