Today I heard a great story on the NPR radio program On the Media. The host talked to Alexandra Alter, a reporter who wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal (which you can read here) about how the major e-book publishers are tracking your e-reading habits and using the data to shape future publications. As you read an e-book, your Kindle, Nook, or iPad is gathering data about where you start reading, where you stop, what sections you skip, what passages you underline, and so on, and transmitting that information back to the publisher. Here’s the opening paragraph from the Wall Street Journal article:
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.” And on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first “Hunger Games” book is to download the next one.
With the data they collect, the publishers determine (rightly or wrongly) what readers want to see and then try to deliver more of the same in subsequent releases. In other words, the publishers are putting their e-books through virtual focus groups.
And it gets better (or worse; your mileage may vary). In the radio interview, Alter added that some publishers have started releasing early digital editions of books, gathering data on how customers read those books on their devices, and then changing the eventual print editions to reflect that feedback. So if enough people quit reading the book before the end, the publishers are likely to punch things up so the hardcover has a better chance of keeping your eyeballs all the way through.
Set aside the privacy concerns for a moment (though I don’t want my Nook to narc me out to Barnes & Noble—do you?). Regardless of whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that publishers are trying new ways to create books that will hold your attention, it’s not hard to see how this development might diminish the perceived role of editors. If an algorithm can decide that chapter 1 is boring and the book takes too long to read, but there’s a very popular passage in the middle of chapter 7, so let’s have more stuff like that, is there still room for humans in this process?
Sure, that question is a bit dramatic, because the answer is yes, at least for right now. But how can we stop publishers that are focused on the bottom line from giving too much weight to data about sales and reading habits?