Is your E-Reader reading you?

The proliferation of smart devices means that there is more digital ‘you’ than there has ever been, as Kate Wakerley writes, even e-readers probably know more about you than you think.

“Big Brother is watching you,” wrote George Orwell in 1984. I wonder if Orwell would have been disturbed by the developments so many years after the release of his novel, that Big Brother would know precisely how long readers take to finish his work of fiction, which excerpts have been highlighted, and what they will read next.

Because that is exactly what is happening following the popularity of e-readers around the world. Your e-book is now reading you right back.

Your e-reader knows just how long it took you to read A Game of Thrones. It knows that you prefer reading non-fiction in the morning, and fantasy at night. It knows you skipped through the first part of Crime and Punishment. It knows which quotes you have highlighted in The Hunger Games trilogy.

“Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them,” is the most highlighted quote of all time on the Amazon Kindle.

This is all thanks to your e-reader’s capacity for data collection. Your portable library is capable of noting your reading times, your purchasing activity, the speed at which you read a book, the pages you bookmark, and what you will read next. While my recent Neil Gaiman binge and the amount of time I spend reading late at night wouldn’t make headlines, this data is becoming significant for publishers as this information becomes available to them.

As the increased use of e-readers and the sale of e-books rise, publishers are taking an interest in the information collected from e-readers. In the days of paper books, publishers found it difficult to identify who their readers were, and until now they have only known how many copies of a book are sold. They didn’t know if you read the opening pages of a book before casting it aside or read it intensely underlining passages as you read.

E-books are creating the opportunity for publishers to study how a book is read, giving new insights into their customer-base. They can see the story behind the sales-figures and learn how people are engaging with their books. Publishers are now able to see who is reading their books, when and how they read, and what people are saying about their books.

Gone are the days were reading was a private and solitary activity. It’s no longer just one person engaging with the words on the page. The popularity of digital books has led to a shift in the way we read and has transformed the simple act of reading into something that can be measured and shared.

At the same time, apps such as GoodReads have introduced a social aspect to reading. This means that not only can you rate and write reviews for the books you read, you can build a catalogue of your reading activity that you can show off to your friends just how well read you are.

Although this is a fairly new aspect to book publishing, it is important to consider the implications for authors. While access to the data provides publishers with the ability to market a book effectively which may lead to greater sales numbers, it could also lead to a push to only publishing books in response to what the average reader wants.

Already some publishers are starting to market test some books digitally before the release of a print edition. For example, Sourcebooks, which publishes 250 books a year, has started experimenting with a new style of digital publishing.

Sourcebooks has released online editions of various titles across a range of categories from young adult to non-fiction titles. The publisher has sought questions and suggestions from online readers, which eventually, will be incorporated into the print editions.

There is a very real possibility that the books being released over the next few years could be written according to an algorithm of the habits of a Kindle reader. It would be a shame if authors were to exchange originality for dragons and dystopia in order to create reader interest.

Words by Kate Wakerley







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