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The Holy Grail of Publishing - Metrics!
July 2, 2012 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Your e-book is reading you. How publishers are using e-books to gain valuable information about consumers.
posted by antonymous (69 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
"I once had an argument with one of my publishers when I said, 'I've been publishing with you for a long time and you still don't know who buys my books,' and he said, 'Well, nobody in publishing knows that,' " says Mr. Turow, president of the Authors Guild.

I bet the people selling them the books know. Or knew. Says a guy who sold many, many romance novels and copies of "Dianetics" at a B. Dalton in the mid-1980s.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:46 AM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


IN CAPITALIST WEST, BOOK READS YOU!
posted by entropicamericana at 11:50 AM on July 2, 2012 [30 favorites]


So much for the "I buy more books than I can read" crowd. This will tank their stats!
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:53 AM on July 2, 2012


Everything you need to know about the proliferation of $2.99 "virginal heroine spends her days as a librarian but by night teleports into the necrosphere where she's an ass-kicking member of the Deadly Fem-ja Triad and hunts lycanthropes with her zombie lover" titles is right here in this graf:
"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."
posted by mph at 11:55 AM on July 2, 2012


I'm a gadget hound, and I love being able to carry around a library on a clipboard. On the other hand, the idea of having every point, tap, click, highlight and page turn dutifully recorded, tabulated and dissected makes me want to give my iPad to my nephew and re-purchase every e-book I own in paper format.
posted by Mooski at 12:06 PM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


My reading habits must be very confusing to them.
posted by rtha at 12:16 PM on July 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


New gyro sensors in the Kindle Fire, for example, will be able to measure the length and intensity of user experiences while reading this summer's bestselling series 50 Shades of Grey, as readers scroll up and down, up and down before finally stashing the device under the bed, or in a seldom used linen closet.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:16 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


On the other hand, the idea of having every point, tap, click, highlight and page turn dutifully recorded, tabulated and dissected makes me want to give my iPad to my nephew and re-purchase every e-book I own in paper format.

It makes me want to skip around within novels, leave the book "open" to one page for 2-3 minutes, jump 50 pages on, then repeat. Just, you know, to mess up their stats.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:16 PM on July 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


Goddammit. Now I'm going to be even more self-conscious, knowing that Amazon COUNTS the number of times I've looked up the definition of "mantissa".
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:19 PM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


My reading habits must be very confusing to them.

"Readers who share your interests are also reading...uh...well....nevermind. Here are 3 free issues of Us magazine, you outlying freak."
posted by jquinby at 12:20 PM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Just, you know, to mess up their stats.

Actually, that's not a bad idea - not because it would mess up their stats, though- it would probably get your data eliminated as outliers/noise.
posted by Mooski at 12:21 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.

Hah! I knew those pretentious twats were faking it!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:24 PM on July 2, 2012 [22 favorites]


oh let's just be fucking honest already, no matter what you read it's going to recommend you try Song of Ice and Fire, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and A Shore Thing. It'll be just like how Netflix insists I should watch Workaholics NO MATTER WHAT ELSE I FUCKING WATCH.
posted by shmegegge at 12:24 PM on July 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


Have you tried clicking on 'not interested,' shmegegge?
posted by merelyglib at 12:27 PM on July 2, 2012


Just, you know, to mess up their stats.

M.T. Anderson's Feed is available on the Kindle (which is funny in and of itself, I think). It's about somebody who does this sort of thing, and... well... probably everyone should read it.

Although I imagine the "metric" they'll get from it is "Huh, people who read Feed seem to stop using their Kindles. HOW ODD."
posted by davidjmcgee at 12:29 PM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's very funny, because I've just been reading Feed. The Mira Grant one. About zombies.
posted by rtha at 12:35 PM on July 2, 2012


Gah, I was just thinking about buying an e-reader. DO NOT WANT.

It's not so much that I'm a special snowflake reading wise, but I am certainly creeped out by the idea of Amazon noting how many times I go back to read, say, a given scene. They already know I bought something, they don't need to know any more.
posted by emjaybee at 12:37 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Curious that this should come up; I was just gazing into an e-book of Nietzsche quotations, and this funny feeling came over me...

(This also gives new meaning to describing a book as "abysmal")
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:38 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


It makes me want to skip around within novels, leave the book "open" to one page for 2-3 minutes, jump 50 pages on, then repeat.

I do this all the time clicking footnote hypertext by accident when reading non-fiction on my Kindle. Knowing that I'm mucking up the metrics might make it a bit less annoying.
posted by Blue Meanie at 12:41 PM on July 2, 2012


It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour. Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them."
Why? Are there some grounds for this? Other than folk somehow thinking it deep and meaningful?
posted by Jehan at 12:43 PM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Personally I'd love to see a dashboard detailing my reading habits over the past few years - so track away as far as I'm concerned.
posted by zeoslap at 12:43 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, guys. How do we circumvent this? Not just mess with their matrics, but shut it the fuck down.

(House already collapsing with books. Thought iPad was Answer.)
posted by likeso at 12:44 PM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I buy books from Kobo and Amazon. I read them on a Sony reader (which I really loved until today when it decided to reorder my books "added by" to pretend they were all added today. WTF. Time to fiddle with collections again).

I don't know whether Sony tracks me, but I think not because wifi is usually off.

Just seven hours to read Mockingjay? It's not really a long book.
posted by jeather at 12:45 PM on July 2, 2012


Does this apply if you crack and strip drm from all of your books?

Add this to the data that publishers withhold from authors ... and as mere users we won't have any rights to it if we don't fight for it ...

Then again, I leave it in Airplane mode all of the time when I'm not actively downloading content. Does it save it up and send it in bursts?

I guess I could highlight letters (is that possible?) to send a message to the publisher that way ...

F U E R E A D E R C O M P A N Y

I remember hi-lighting the hook in a book by accident - and the ereader wanted me to see what of the 3084 other people who hi-lighted it also read ... sure they didn't do it by accident?
posted by tilde at 12:45 PM on July 2, 2012


I can see how this could be very useful to authors who want to know more about the reading habits of their audience, but I suspect the data will be used primarily by publishers. I think it would be interesting to know, generally speaking, if people give up reading a book after a period of time or if they tend to highlight and comment on the text. The possibilities are exciting, but we are at a pivotal time to decide what data gets recorded because today's habits will form a standard of sorts. It damn well should be data that improves the craft of writing but without some push back from writers the data will likely only be confined to the commercial whims of publishers.
posted by dgran at 12:49 PM on July 2, 2012


Suddenly my kitten's fascination with walking on my kobo seems like a great way to stick it to the man. Who'd a thunk it?
posted by peppermind at 12:51 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


The advantage of a tablet over an e-reader is at least you can use multiple reader programs from multiple vendors (as I do) -- and judging by the collection of books I have in each one, assuming they're all doing this they must each have a radically different picture of me.

The advantage of a relatively open platform such as Android means that someone could create an app that simulated random user behavior on these apps -- something that would be nearly impossible to provide for an iOS device.

One thing I didn't see in that article is the word "anonymizing" or anything beginning with "anon". So apparently they are not separating this information from your identity.

But yes, this is the sort of thing that would drive me to piracy.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:54 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


It damn well should be data that improves the craft of writing but without some push back from writers the data will likely only be confined to the commercial whims of publishers.

I can only imagine this data being used to rationalize and therefore aesthetically impoverish the craft of writing, which I can't imagine would be an unambiguous improvement, but perhaps there are angles I haven't considered.
posted by clockzero at 1:01 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought it was only bad for Google to collect data on its users.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:05 PM on July 2, 2012


This is why I always leave my Kindle's wireless off. (Well, one reason. The even-better battery life is also nice.) I can still buy books from Amazon, I just load them via USB. Of course if you're addicted to automatic periodical/Instapaper delivery, the privacy/convenience tradeoff might not be worth it to you. Your call.

If you jailbreak you can almost certainly just shut off the data collection, though I haven't looked into it. There's also third-party reading software available for the Kindle, including a complete replacement OS called Duokan. (Can't vouch for its quality; I stick to the official software with a couple minor jailbreak tweaks.)
posted by skymt at 1:11 PM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Netflix doesn't bother me because it's obvious they're collating my interests and they're doing to provide a service that is unambiguously useful to me.

Facebook and Google don't bother me so much because while it's unclear what they're using all that data for, they're relatively up-front about the fact that they're collecting it, and I can simply refuse to use their service.

This thing with the ereaders is much more insidious because, while it's obvious these readers could theoretically gather this data and upload it to the mothership, it wasn't at all obvious that they were bothering to, as it's much further from the primary function of the reader than even the data collection done by Facebook and Google. And let's face it, Facebook and Google are free services, and the directed ads fund the service.

With ebooks you bought the reader and you bought the book. Blowing your privacy in a way that benefits you not at all seems rather cheeky under that circumstance.
posted by localroger at 1:13 PM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I thought it was only bad for Google to collect data on its users.

It's a bad thing for pretty much everyone to do. Like most things, data is toxic in large quantities.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 1:13 PM on July 2, 2012


As a small press publishing through Amazon and B&N and so on, I'd love to know what people who read my books also read. That'd be amazing! What I didn't see in this article is how you get the data to begin with.

As a reader though, the existence of this data makes me nervous.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:15 PM on July 2, 2012


You know, what they could do is this:

Send me a message:

"We'd like to collect data on people who read books like BookYouRead 1, BookYouRead 2, and BookYouRead 3 to improve our editing and publishing process. Would you be interested in reading this Free Book download and letting us track your pageviews and then fill out a survey afterwards? As a thank you, we'll give you a free book download of your choice, up to X dollar value. Your data will be anonymized and your name and personal information will not be published anywhere in connection with this study."

I might do that. And that might actually yield targeted and useful data. And would not creep me out.
posted by emjaybee at 1:18 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


Jehan: Why? Are there some grounds for this? Other than folk somehow thinking it deep and meaningful?

There's also probably some of the same social influence that occurs with favoriting on MeFi; if the Kindle app tells readers that 100 people highlighted a given sentence, they are more likely to think it Deep and Meaningful and highlight it themselves.
posted by beryllium at 1:19 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, how long before somebody gets the idea of using the reading patterns of the vast aggregation of e-readers to weigh a neural net that subsequently ranks submissions to the publishing company? Or better yet, extracts a markov chain style model that it can use to rearrange or change text in order to make it more likely to be read? Perhaps even an addictive, compulsive five-hundred page book of page-turning obsession that you almost literally can't put down?

Heroin heroines, anyone?
posted by Orb2069 at 1:21 PM on July 2, 2012


No. I am very upset to read this.
Now I hate my kindle, and I loved it so much.

I cannot stand all the data mining of my life by business.
posted by Flood at 1:25 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, how long before somebody gets the idea of using the reading patterns...

I am prepared to bet (guarantee) that Amazon is already working on this & trying to sell publishers a "subscription" to the relevant results.

Auto-tune for literature. It'll happen. It's already happening.
posted by aramaic at 1:28 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


"We'd like to collect data on people who read books like BookYouRead 1, BookYouRead 2, and BookYouRead 3 to improve our editing and publishing process. Would you be interested in reading this Free Book download and letting us track your pageviews and then fill out a survey afterwards? As a thank you, we'll give you a free book download of your choice, up to X dollar value. Your data will be anonymized and your name and personal information will not be published anywhere in connection with this study."

They would not have to give me a free e-book. They'd just have to give me the opportunity to mark typos for correction in the next edition/update.

Imagine if you let people highlight typos just in the first 3 months after release of an e-book. When 3,000 people marked a missing quote mark, you'd be golden.

(Guess what! I just finished reading a typo-laden bestseller on my kindle!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:30 PM on July 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


One of the features I turned off as soon as I got my iPad [in iBook I think] was the one that shows you which sections of a book are highlighted the most by other people. It's rather annoying while reading a book to be distracted at certain points by underlined sections. It's like reading a used college book that has been marked up.
posted by Rashomon at 1:44 PM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: "They'd just have to give me the opportunity to mark typos for correction in the next edition/update."

I believe that feature exists in the most recent generation of Kindles (ie Kindle OS versions 4.x and 5.x). Unfortunately Amazon has a habit of completely abandoning development of older hardware when they bring in "new" "shiny!" hardware, so the feature hasn't been implemented on the older Kindles like the Kindle Keyboard (as they renamed it when they brought out the new ones).
posted by pharm at 1:56 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was just ranting talking about this in the other thread! Try to track my dead tree reading habits, Apple!

*shakes fist at future*
posted by Justinian at 2:19 PM on July 2, 2012


Is there much on the market yet for e-readers that just do their job? Open source?
posted by -harlequin- at 2:39 PM on July 2, 2012


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.

This fits with what I mentioned in the Julian Barnes book thread what a publisher's rep told me last week: the biggest hit physical book sales are taking from ebooks right now is in romance fiction.
posted by mediareport at 2:44 PM on July 2, 2012


Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them."

Why? Are there some grounds for this? Other than folk somehow thinking it deep and meaningful?


I'm thinking it's motivational if you know you need to get your shit together, and everyone can raise their game. But this is just speculation.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:45 PM on July 2, 2012


This thing with the ereaders is much more insidious because, while it's obvious these readers could theoretically gather this data and upload it to the mothership, it wasn't at all obvious that they were bothering to...

It should be a clear opt-in instead of a default most customers aren't aware of.
posted by mediareport at 2:48 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


If anyone has more information on this particular article or know of any other particularly insightful online discussions of it, I would very much appreciate it (not that I don't appreciate you all, of course). Specifically, I'd like to find out the answers to some of the questions posed in this thread, such as "if I turn off wifi does this data somehow still get transmitted" (i.e. if you plug your device into a computer to make a backup, can maybe THAT get sent to amazon/whoever? My guess is that if you're using some kind of wireless signal to get e-books, you're probably also sending data back to your provider on existing e-books.

And to state the obvious a bit, as far knowing the amount of time spent on a page (as well as other advanced metrics, or even basic stuff like highlighting), that's indicative of some sort of table being created in a database, and that database could be synced with a cloud provider - now that I think about it, Amazon and Apple both already do this to keep data synced if you have multiple devices/apps (a Kindle as well as the Kindle app on your iPhone, for example).

I do find it fascinating that this seems like a big deal to me, whereas when Netflix uses similar data to recommend movies to me, that's just part of the deal. Netflix also doesn't have the granularity of scope when it comes to viewership - an e-book can glean quite a bit about your reading habits (how fast you read, how often, highlighting, etc.) but with movies it's just "did you watch it, did you like it, and did you pause to make popcorn?"

To me, part of the negative reaction is that this article specifically states that they will share this data with publishers, who will in turn use it to better-gauge an author's potential success, or give this data to editors who will snip an author's work to make it more palatable to a certain audience. Another comment above has hit it right on the head - I don't doubt for a second that e-book manufacturers are already figuring out the best way to monetize this information by selling your data to publishers.

(and thanks for the interesting discussion on my first FPP!)
posted by antonymous at 3:12 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I bet this isn't happening with the Project Gutenberg books I read on my Nook.
posted by General Tonic at 3:22 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do find it fascinating that this seems like a big deal to me, whereas when Netflix uses similar data to recommend movies to me, that's just part of the deal.

A significant difference to me that one is renting a media service and the other is (supposedly) buying something. If I have to buy ebooks I want to own them as if I bought them, not have someone unnecessarily pawing through what I do with my property. When I subscribe to a service, I accept that the nature of providing that service involves information about my usage of it.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:27 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I bet this isn't happening with the Project Gutenberg books I read on my Nook.

I bet it's happening to me - I just downloaded a public domain (Project Gutenberg) book from Amazon for $0.00.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:29 PM on July 2, 2012


Antonymous- it bothers me in part because I know that they're not using my reading habits to suggest things to me. This is obvious because the things that they recommend are so appallingly unsuitable. I read the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and got several recommendations for biochem texts and god only knows why I keep getting recommendations for what appear to be trashy romance novels in German.

If this data gathering made my eReader better in some way that would benefit me, then I might be okay with it. Instead, I feel like I don't own the books I pay for, and I'm being treated like a product rather than a consumer.
posted by peppermind at 3:37 PM on July 2, 2012


This will tank their stats!
I love messing with data.
posted by lathrop at 3:56 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


> the things that they recommend are so appallingly unsuitable. I read the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and
> got several recommendations for biochem texts and god only knows why I keep getting recommendations
> for what appear to be trashy romance novels in German.

I would like to meet this bot.
posted by jfuller at 4:14 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just bought an off-brand orphan reader (from the nonexistent company "Itomic") for $30. It came with 150 Project Gutennberg books. Considering that the manufacturer's website doesn't resolve, I'm reasonably confident that it won't be tracking me as I read those or any other .PDF or ePub I put on it.

I'm seriously thinking of getting a spare.
posted by localroger at 4:36 PM on July 2, 2012


Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them."

Why? Are there some grounds for this? Other than folk somehow thinking it deep and meaningful?


I'm pretty sure this pile-on highlighting thing happens because the Kindle displays lines other people have highlighted (there's a faint underline). If there's a way to turn that off completely, I haven't discovered it. All you can do is tell the Kindle to turn off how many have highlighted the line, not that it's a popular line.

It seems kind of human-naturey to me to be unable to resist clicking and finding out just how many people have highlighted a line as you read, and then feeling compelled to either agree (and highlight) or not. Or perhaps that's just what I'm telling myself, because man, I am just unable to not click to see how many people have highlighted something.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 5:47 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see what the big fuss is. Don't you guys remember what a hassle it was to write to the publisher of every book you read, obsessively detailing each reading session (time, place, pages read, thoughts on content, meal consumed before/after, weather) and offering helpful editing tips for future reference? Such a relief that now e-readers will do this for me. Think of all that extra time I can spend on cataloging my egg carton stores.
posted by No-sword at 5:48 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure this pile-on highlighting thing happens because the Kindle displays lines other people have highlighted (there's a faint underline). If there's a way to turn that off completely, I haven't discovered it. All you can do is tell the Kindle to turn off how many have highlighted the line, not that it's a popular line.

Wait, for real? So reading any book on a Kindle is, unavoidably, sort of like reading a used book that's been written in by... everyone who ever read it before? I like reading (individual!) previous owners' annotations as much as the next guy, but that compulsory underline thing sounds horrible.
posted by No-sword at 5:51 PM on July 2, 2012


You know what? Apparently you can totally turn it off.

So I'm revising my theory to start "Most people are idiots like me and don't realize that you can turn off popular highlights".
posted by thehmsbeagle at 6:06 PM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, that's just great. What am I supposed to do with all these pitchforks and torches now?
posted by No-sword at 6:44 PM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, that's just great. What am I supposed to do with all these pitchforks and torches now?

It's the internet. Just wait 20 minutes.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:19 PM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


The Kindle is pretty simple to jailbreak, and once you do that you have full access to the Linux OS its running internally. It should be possible for people to figure out how and when the profiling data is being sent back to Amazon, and intercept it or prevent it from being sent out.

This is why its important to be able to have complete access to any device you own; if you can't control every aspect of its operation, then you don't truly own it and are beholden to whoever sold it to you.
posted by destrius at 11:58 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's a mantissa?
posted by Umami Dearest at 4:48 AM on July 3, 2012


A female mantis.



Sorry, couldn't resist.
posted by lith at 5:41 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Instead, I feel like I don't own the books I pay for...

You don't. Re-read the terms and conditions on the site: you're buying a nontransferable license to read the book, and you store a copy locally. They say that the license is permanent, but they also day that you mustn't circumvent the DRM so you're limited to the lifetime of your kindle and/or Amazon's belief that keeping it's software updated and servers switches on is profitable, whichever is longer. They reserve the right to edit or, famously, delete books after you've paid for them. And of course, you can't re-sell or share your license.

That they collect and sell this kind of data isn't remotely surprising. Partly because it's an obvious extension of Amazon's desire to make kindle into iTunes for books, and partly because if you have more than one kindle app/device on the same account, it offers to synchronize your most recent reading progress across devices.

I don't want to sound overly negative about kindle - it's a well-built system, I genuinely like the hardware, and I use it myself for out-of-copyright books and books that I'm sure I won't want to re-read in years to come, e.g. Hunger Games - but it's important to remember that "buying" a book on kindle (or any other DRM'd format) is not at all the same as buying a physical book.
posted by metaBugs at 5:59 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's a mantissa?

A female oracle e.g. Pythia.
posted by ersatz at 9:23 AM on July 3, 2012


Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them."

Why? Are there some grounds for this? Other than folk somehow thinking it deep and meaningful?


Schoolmarms? My picky mind zeroed in on the "they" that could technically modify "things" or "people".

(Yes, yes, I know. Context. But it's still a small speed bump, and writers should try to avoid such things.)

I pity the poor authors who will now be told that not only must they follow What's Trending Now,but exactly how they are to do so.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:49 AM on July 3, 2012


Also now in today's Guardian.
posted by Hobo at 7:18 AM on July 4, 2012


without these precious metrics
some people would be out of a job
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:38 PM on July 4, 2012


I realise that this isn't the vibe of the thread, but really, so what?

In what sense whatsoever does my kindle tracking my reading and providing that information harm me, or harm anyone, or harm authors? What privacy have I lost? At all?
posted by wilful at 8:05 PM on July 5, 2012


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