Tracking How You Read

Two recent articles –  a Wall Street Journal article Your E-Book is Reading You and a New York Times Article Moneyball for Publishers – discuss the ways in which publishers and book retailers are using digital data to understand how readers react and engage with e-books. New data analysis techniques can look at how quickly readers finish a book, how far readers get in a particular book before giving up on it, and can even assess differences between readers (based on gender, age and other factors) in terms of their reading behavior. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Especially given many publishers would admit they don’t really know a lot about their readers or their reading behavior when it comes to specific books.

Jellybooks, a so-called ‘reader analytics company’, offers publishers the ability to track reading behavior by giving a group of readers free e-books and digitally recording their reading behavior. In this way they are hoping to demonstrate to publishers how often the books are opened, how quickly they are read and (if a reader fails to complete the book) at what point a reader’s interest began to wane. According to Jellybook’s data fewer than half the books tested are finished by the majority of readers (ugh!) and that most readers give up on a book in the early chapters (which is hardly unexpected). Again, intriguing…

So what could publishers potentially do with these data? Well, given the plan is to track reading behavior prior to a book’s publication, these data could be used by publishers to formulate their marketing plans (spending less, I assume on the books that ‘failed’ in the test group, and spending more on those the test group completed quickly). Publishers could also use the data to identify the type of readers that respond well to a book and produce a more targeted marketing plan. I assume another option, in the future, could also be the possible ‘casting adrift’ of authors and books that failed to catch fire with test readers.

Both the WSJ and NYT article point out the potential pitfalls for these kind of ‘deep’ digital reader analytics programs. The test group might not represent, for example, the kind of readers a particular book would appeal to, or the group might not be a large enough (or diverse enough) to adequately represent the general book buying audience. There are also privacy concerns if this kind of analytics became widespread – although almost e-book publishers like Amazon, Apple and Google can already can track though their apps how many times readers open the app and spend their time reading. No doubt they already analyze their own data to glean a great deal of information about reader behavior.

Authors may also be cautious – while it would be pretty cool to see how readers respond to your books – what if they didn’t react as favorably as the publisher would like?? Is an author more likely to get dropped if the test audience doesn’t respond the way an author or publisher was hoping? Does a lukewarm reception in the test group mean that an author is likely to receive minimal marketing success (could failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy depending on the reaction if the test group?) I wonder too if reliance on digital data analytics could have a freezing effect on acquisitions of more quirky, eccentric or less mainstream books.

So TKZers, what do you think of the move towards deeper ‘reader analytics’. As a reader and as a writer, what benefits or risks do you see?

By the way, I am traveling to Nicaragua so, depending on access to the internet, I may or may not be able to join in, what I hope is a stimulating discussion on this topic!

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7 thoughts on “Tracking How You Read

  1. I think test groups, like Nielson ratings for TV, don’t give an accurate idea of appeal and success. It’s just too small a sample size. I know one of my favourite TV shows rated very poorly, then became available for streaming for their latest season on Yahoo! Suddenly, they could get the exact number of viewers and discovered it was a hit! I think if publishers and authors had access to Amazon’s more accurate data for their books, it would be extremely helpful. I would love to see KDP add this feature to their reports.

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  2. Well the first thing that struck me right off the bat in reading the description above is that the analytics would be starting from a potentially false assumption to begin with. If an e-book reader “puts down” a book, it may not be loss of interest. Despite the cartoons that circulate social media about readers calling off work or not sleeping so they can finish a book, there is the opposite version–reality, where work and many other commitments get in the way of finishing a book.

    While I’ve got some started novels on my Kindle that I haven’t gotten back to because they haven’t been powerful enough to draw me in (and frankly, I feel obligated to read them because they are people I know to some degree), I’ve got a few others written by authors I really like for whom real life has intruded and I probably won’t get back to those books for a good while.

    There is no fool-proof system for assessing reader habits or interest, but cold data just don’t tell the full story.

    I wonder if more people would respond to an e-book if something popped up asking them if they planned to finish the book and if not why, with a few choices. That would at least try to collect more accurate data.

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  3. I too have put down an e-book because real life intruded as opposed to anything to do with the book but I do think reader data can be a useful tool – all depends how much it actually reflects real life or just a sample that might be biased.

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  4. Ugh, can you imagine? You get an agent, they find you a publisher, then the publisher sends you a letter: “We regret to inform you that your book failed our test audience and is being ruthlessly pruned from the list. Sorry, chump.”

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  5. The thing that bothers me most about ereading, and at this point nearly all my reading is done on a device, is that Amazon and B&N track your reading habits at all. The code that allows them to do this is part of their apps. The reader is not informed of this in advance, and there is no method to opt out. I find this creepy and invasive. If I had the choice, I would opt out.

    What bothers me about the analytics company you reference is that it potentially turns writing into a focus group driven craft. This has long since happened to movies. IMO this is not necessarily a good thing. If a crit partner/group or editor whose opinion you value suggests changes because things aren’t working, you may or not make those changes (depending on if you agree, if they work, blah blah blah). But what if a publisher tells you that they won’t publish your book (let’s say a series, and this is a contractual entry) because some random group of people who would probably never read your book anyway doesn’t like Scene A or how Character X treats Character Y or the ending, and these changes won’t improve the book. They may make it test better among this random group, but they won’t make the writing better, they won’t make the story better, and they may even make the story worse. I see more pitfalls than benefits.

    Enjoy Nicaragua. Don’t forget to knock back some Flor de Cana!

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    • There is, in fact, a way (albeit a cumbersome one) to keep Amazon from tracking your Kindle reading, and that is by manually downloading your Kindle ebooks to an app or device that is not connected to the internet. Without access to the “Whispernet”(creepy name that suggests spying), your reading remains private.

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