E-book readers pull data from you sub-rosa. So?

Lynn Neary (NPR, 1/28/13) recently did a report on the electronic tracking that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and probably others do of our e-reading, not only what we buy, but how we read it.  Maybe the first issue is that of privacy.  Do we, the purchasers/readers of books, want the sellers and the writers of books to know if we stopped reading, where we stopped, did we read passages on particular pages more than once, etc.?  Some readers, of course, will take the standby position that since they are doing nothing wrong, it matters not to them that they are being tracked.  As this particular post is not intended to be political, we can tackle that question another day, though the privacy issue may linger in one’s mind.

From a purely publishing/writing/reading stand-point, according to best-selling author Scott Turow, president of The Authors Guild,

I would love to know if 35 percent of my readers were quitting after the first two chapters, because that frankly strikes me as, sometimes, a problem I could fix. Would I love to hitch the equivalent of a polygraph to my readers and know how they are responding word by word? That would be quite interesting.

(A polygraph hitched to your readers, Scott?  Now that is interesting.)

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan (The Goon Squad) says, in contrast,

…this speaks to the question of how important market research really would be for me as a creative person … [It’s] interesting to know, but should not really be predictive or part of the creative process.”

I for one (or 2 or 3, depending on whether dog and/or cat are on my lap) read in idiosyncratic ways, which I challenge a computer program to make heads or tails out of.  For example, I read several books at a time (upstairs book, downstairs book, and on my Kindle, from which I may read from several books, depending upon mood, need, or interest of the moment).  Sometimes I “quit” reading a particular book for several months.  Sometimes I quit a book “permanently,” meaning it’s lost my interest…until it regains my interest.  Sometimes I dump a book.  But if Scott Turow thinks I stopped reading at page 50, because that’s where it got boring, it may have been boring from page 3 and I just waded through until it got unbearable.

So, I don’t believe “they” can make accurate and useful marketing or editorial decisions from my patterns.  While I know that such decisions are made by computers from aggregated data (i.e., lots of readers), I believe my reading patterns are closer to normal than odd-ball.  In fact, if you want to read reactions to this new sub-rosa electronic feedback tracking game, check out the comments at the end of Lynn Neary’s NPR article.

Which goes to one of my favorite maxims that applies at least to the last 100+ years:
Just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean it should be measured.

So, what do you think, not only about your reading patterns being tracked in the background (sub-rosa), but what editors/publishers and writers might make of the data, for good or ill?

3 thoughts on “E-book readers pull data from you sub-rosa. So?”

  1. I’m troubled by the increasingly invasive nature of our communications technology, often used simply for demographic, psychographic or other marketing purposes. I witnessed the affect quarter hour television ratings data had on broadcast journalism. (Not good as is probably self evident when comparing say 1980 coverage to what passes as TV news today.)

    Perhaps a genre or commercial fiction writer could glean helpful information from this kind of data-perhaps. But isn’t that a role for a good editor? The idea of writers creating a work based on data capture seems a bit like an Asimov or Sterling premise. What about integrity of exploration, passion of reach and search in story telling?

    In a reprise of the old “Is it live or is it memorex?” commercial, Is it creativity or is it digital feed back?

  2. I agree with you 100%, because I’m the same. I read up to 10 books at once, depending on what I’m in the mood for. I may not get back to it for months. But that doesn’t mean I “quit” on the book. It may even be that the book is too engrossing and I need a book to read at the dentist or some place where I don’t want to be lost in a book. (I tend to lose track of my surroundings when I’m reading.) They call this the “Information Age” but I think it’s more like the “Too Much Information Age.”

  3. If they had a built-in mind-reader, then they’d know that while I would eventually like to finish that autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, they’d know I really only started it because I was early for a job interview and I wanted to sound intelligent and sophisticated if they asked me what I was reading while I waited.

    Later that same day, I got stuck on the interstate behind an accident, and I switched over to reading (re-reading, actually) “Catching Fire.”

    As a writer, I think you need to get your feedback from your beta readers or creative writing class. As you said, there may be any number of reasons why a person stops reading a book at any particular moment–or continues to read it, even if they’re not liking it. A beta reader, though, can tell you exactly why. And you can ask them specific questions like, “What do you want to see more of?” and “Did that particular scene work?”

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