Your E-Book Is Reading You

This piece is a selective summary from the Wall Street Journal with questions for libraries, and our use of data analytics, inserted.

download (7)According to Alexandra Alter, writing in the Journal,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. And the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first Hunger Games book is to download the next one.

So what are the implications for library leaders? How does this increasing amount of data affect our collection management decisions? Our borrowing periods? Do we care? We have been loath to use circulation data even though we can pinpoint reading interests down to the city block level. Is there any benefit of partnering with publishers for this information and to study its possible use?

In the past, publishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader sits down with a book. Does the reader quit after three pages, or finish it in a single sitting? Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins? Now, e-books are providing a glimpse into the story behind the sales figures, revealing not only how many people buy particular books, but how intensely they read them.

I well understand the professional concerns about privacy (more later) but does this data have potential implications for our programming?

We have always collected “name-your-own-ending”, or “choose-your-own-adventure” titles but never been able to assess the decisions made by readers, should we even choose to do so.

Publishing has lagged far behind the rest of the “entertainment” (WSJ’s term) industry when it comes to measuring consumers' tastes and habits. TV producers relentlessly test new shows through focus groups; movie studios run films through a battery of tests and retool them based on viewers' reactions. But in publishing, reader satisfaction has largely been gauged by sales data and reviews—metrics that offer a postmortem measure of success but can't shape or predict a hit. That's beginning to change.

Barnes & Noble has recently started studying customers' digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example:

  • how far readers get in particular books
  • how quickly they read
  • how readers of particular genres engage with books

Kobo recently found, for example, that most readers who started George Martin's fantasy novel A Dance With Dragons finished the book, and spent an average of 20 hours reading it, a relatively fast read for a 1,040-page novel.

So, for libraries, do we ignore these data sources? Partner with publishers? How would we use them? One could reasonably imagine, e.g., setting borrowing term periods by title or genre based on reading use data.

Some of the findings confirm what retailers already know by glancing at the best-seller lists. For example, Nook users who buy the first book in a popular series like Fifty Shades of Grey or Divergent, a young-adult series by Veronica Roth, tend to tear through all the books in the series, almost as if they were reading a single novel.

How quickly do libraries pick up on this data for purchasing decisions? What are the implications? Would we ever enter this privacy area, even at the aggregate level?

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.

Some authors welcome the insights. Novelist Scott Turow says he's long been frustrated by the industry's failure to study its customer base. “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. “If you can find out that a book is too long and you've got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I'd love to get the information.”

Others worry. Says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, “We're not going to shorten War and Peace because someone didn't finish it.”

It's no secret that Amazon and other digital book retailers track and store consumer information detailing what books are purchased and read. Kindle users sign an agreement granting the company permission to store information from the device—including the last page you've read, plus your bookmarks, highlights, notes and annotations—in its data servers.

Some privacy watchdogs argue that e-book users should be protected from having their digital reading habits recorded. “There's a societal ideal that what you read is nobody else's business,” says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for consumer rights and privacy. “Right now, there's no way for you to tell Amazon, I want to buy your books, but I don't want you to track what I'm reading.”

Bruce Schneier, a cyber-security expert and author, worries that readers may steer clear of digital books on sensitive subjects such as health, sexuality and security—including his own works—out of fear that their reading is being tracked.

These are not new issues for libraries. However, as our notions of privacy change (and they are certainly changing—one need only look at our response to the demand for wifi, e.g.), do we take the data that is there and use it for better customer service or denounce it as unforgivable invasions of the privacy that our users have wittingly or unwittingly signed away…

About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.

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