Uh-oh, Now Publishers are watching us read

As if our privacy wasn’t being violated enough by television, the interwebs, and various governments that shall go unnamed here at the moment. It turns out that now, thanks to ebooks, metrics about our reading habits are everywhere.

This could be embarrassing.

Anyway:

ebookspyingby Joseph Bernstein

Millions may have held their suspicions, but last month the Canadian e-reader company Kobo confirmed it: Most people who buy The Goldfinch don’t actually finish it. According to the company’s data, less than half of Canadian and BritishKobo readers in 2014 made it to the end of Donna Tartt’s behemoth novel, one of the best-selling of the year.

How did Kobo know this? Like every e-reader and reading-app maker today, the company, a subsidiary of the Japanese e-commerce titan Rakuten, has access to a comprehensive suite of data about the reading behavior of its users. In a white paper titled “Publishing in the Era of Big Data” and released this fall, the company announced that “with the onset of digital reading … it is now possible to know how a customer engages with the book itself — what books were left unopened, which were read to the very last word and how quickly.” In other words, if you read books digitally, the people who serve you those books more than likely know just what kind of reader you are, and just how little effort you made with Infinite Jest.

The paper was a rare peek into the nascent world of reader engagement analytics, which have been a staple of web publishing but which the big legacy book publishers have been slow to embrace. It was fascinating, not just for the insights it offered into reading behavior (Did you know the industry standard finish rate for mystery books is 62%? Now you do!) but because the enormous corporations — Amazon and Apple — that know the most about how you read are ferociously silent about that knowledge. Both Apple and Amazon declined to comment for this piece.

The findings precipitated a now-predictable response from the loftier perches of the publishing world. In a leery New York Review of Books blog post, titled “They’re Watching What You Read,” the novelist Francine Prose wrote, “…writers (and their editors) could soon be facing meetings in which the marketing department informs them that 82 percent of readers lost interest in their memoir on page 272. And if they want to be published in the future, whatever happens on that page should never be repeated.”

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