eBooks Reporting on You

23 Jul

#360 perhaps you do not need to write all over library books by romana kleeLast week’s On the Medina reported a new angle on ebook technology.  Now, when you’re reading an ebook, it’s taking notes on you.  “Ebooks that Read You” explained about technologies built into ereaders which record our reading habits.

Combining the data of individual readers, publishers now know how long it takes people to read specific books, which parts they get stuck on, and passages they highlight.  Before, these things were all done in relative privacy.  No one knew that I read To Kill a Mockingbird until the pages fell out.  Or that I, admittedly, skipped the Moby Dick chapters about dolphin behavior.  My marginalia was for me and me alone – or for the unfortunate soul who asked to borrow one of my books.

Ivy reads in bed by Richard MasonerBut, now, none of that’s private any more.  It’s not just what I read, but how I read.  The fact that I tend to skip lengthy introductions and blow past quotations at the beginning of chapters.  (They just seem like they’re trying too hard.  Especially when they’re in fiction.)

Part of my wants to claim that there’s some sort of sanctity being violated here.  Like, there must be some equivalent of spousal privilege for me and my books.  But, another part of me is excited that my reading habits might have an impact, albeit miniscule, on the publishing industry.

Turning a page on the iPad - the beginning to the end of the mouse as the primary ostension mechanism by Mike BairdWhen I was growing up, I was always jealous of the Nielsen families.  I felt that their opinions mattered and helped to shape pop culture.  If I had been a Nielson kid, you can bet that I would have had my butt on the couch at 8:00 every Tuesday night, making sure that they knew that I watched Buffy, least my tuning out meant that Nielsen reported that 100,000 less people had watched that episode.  At thirteen, I thought I had good taste, and that America could benefit from my having a say in the television schedule.  I guess I haven’t matured all that much, because I now find myself feeling the same way about books.  I kind of like the idea of being a small time literary taste maker.

The Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Alter initially broke the story, reporting how publishers are starting to use ebook data to optimize books for the ideal reading experience – and, therefore, the most sales.  She reported on some of the trends that data analysis is uncovering.

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. 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.

None of those trends seem that astounding too me.  They all hold with my personal reading habits and I’m kind of amazed this is new knowledge to the industry.  I guess this may be the first time that these ideas could actually be quantified – but it can’t be the first time that they were considered, can it?  Non-fiction and literary fiction can be hard work.  While they’re rewarding, they can sometimes be a slog.  (See the previous comment about Moby Dick.)  But, trash fiction is brain candy – it gives you little shots of endorphins at just the right moments to make sure that you keep turning the page.  No wonder people fly through it.

I’ll fully admit to being the type of reader described above.  I’ll read anything and everything, but if your book is hard work, there better be a good payoff – and I best be able to see glimmers of it somewhere before the 200 page mark.  This makes me sound like a lazy reader, and maybe I am.  But, I want to continue to struggle through difficult texts, not fill my literary diet with candy alone.  I worry that the data gathered by ebooks will tell publishers what every parent already knows: people like candy more than broccoli.  Continuing the metaphor, I worry that the candy section will grow and grow, expanding across aisles until there are only a few moldering old vegetables left in the corner of the store.

The pop culture junkie in me is in love with the idea of optimized books, but the bibliophile cringes.  How about you?

Questions of the day: If you had to pick a food to represent your favorite book, what would it be?  Is Moby-Dick fish oil  you’ve heard that it’s healthy, but still don’t want to swallow it?  Is James Patterson pizza  coming in a variety of flavors, but always fast, cheap and easy?  Is Harry Potter oatmeal cookies  homey and comforting – and hey, there’s oats, so you can pretend it’s healthy?  How about Twilight? Maybe Pop Rocks – fast, pink, and of no nutritional value whatsoever.


Formerly MaggieCakes, Maggie (not Margaret) covers technology’s impact on culture, specifically on how we interact or connect with each other. Have a question or an idea you’d like me to write about? Leave a comment, or send me an e-mail: moc.teragramtoneiggam@eiggam

2 Responses to “eBooks Reporting on You”

  1. Jon Plsek July 23, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    I heard this from On The Media as well and part of me just knew you’d have something to say about it! Hopefully we don’t get all the way to the point that they have so honed in on what works that publishers mass produce that and only that.

    My design and art books aren’t food—they are espresso! Kickstart for the creative soul!

    • Maggie O'Toole July 24, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

      Oh, am I that predictable?! But, yeah, this really was right up my alley. I guess one thing that may save us from a world full of genre books is that self-publishing (via Amazon’s marketplace) is now to accessible. Maybe Bloomsbury will turn out drivel, but literary fiction writers will be able to cut out the optimizing middle man and come directly to customers.

      Also, espresso? I hadn’t considered drinks. I wonder, what’s the literary equivalent of orange soda? Thinking it might be Captain Underpants.

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