Your e-reader is watching

It tracks when you read and when you don’t. Will it soon determine what you read?

Sarah Lee/eyevine/Redux; Photo illustration by sarah mackinnon; GETTY IMAGES

For Catherine Henderson, curling up with a good book has always been an escape from reality. What the retired teacher doesn’t know, however, is that while she is lost in her Kindle, someone is reading over her shoulder.

Before ebook readers became popular in 2010—when e-reader sales quadrupled within months—publishers had only one way of measuring a book’s success: sales. Back then, it was almost impossible to do detailed market research that didn’t involve direct feedback, either through letters to the publishers or reader surveys. But the information didn’t tell the whole story about what readers wanted to read, and they said nothing about how they read. Did they read the whole book, or lose interest after a few pages? Did they skip certain chapters? Did they highlight and revisit favourite passages? Now the makers of the Kobo, Kindle and Nook are collecting hard data about exactly how their customers read.

When Henderson bought her Kindle a year and a half ago, she admits she may not have looked through the terms of use agreement, which does mention that the e-readers include software to track user habits. “Honestly, I’m a little bit lax with my personal information,” she says. “I guess I expect a certain amount of Big Brotherness.”

What many readers don’t realize, says Ryan Reith, a mobility research manager with IDC, a market-intelligence firm, is that when people activate an e-reader, they create a data profile, not unlike what happens when you activate a smartphone. “Your reading activity then becomes part of a digital profile,” says Reith, and that data is used to direct readers to purchase books that match their interests. Reith doesn’t know which tracking programs e-reader makers use, but he guesses it is a form of analytics software.

Kobo allows readers to turn off the tracker in their e-readers, but few people are aware that’s an option. At a tech conference in New York City this year, Kobo executive vice-president Michael Tamblyn told the audience what kind of information Kobo has gleaned from the software: 80 per cent of its readers are women; most reading is done during the evening commute and between 11 p.m. and midnight; and, upon finishing 50 Shades of Grey, most readers immediately buy the next book in the trilogy. But while e-reader makers have come forward about the extent of the data they are tracking in their devices, what they haven’t disclosed is how they intend to use it. Reith says they may be keeping the data to themselves for legal reasons, but he does not rule out the possibility that certain ebook makers are considering making the jump into publishing.

“At this point, I wouldn’t put anything past Amazon. They’re branching into all kinds of new businesses,” he says. He adds that it may be less likely for companies that rely on their relationships with existing publishers, like Barnes & Noble, maker of the Nook e-reader. Executives from Kobo, Amazon and Barnes & Noble were unavailable for comment.

Noah Genner, CEO of Booknet Canada, a Toronto-based industry-run not-for-profit company that monitors how technology affects publishing, says the ability to collect data about how people read has the potential to revolutionize the industry by helping publishers tailor books to their audiences. “We already know publishers use sales to determine what they’re going to publish next,” he says. “So I’m sure they’ll use every piece of data they can get their hands on.”

Publishers, however, are not currently reaping the benefits of e-reader tracking. Brent Lewis, the digital VP at Harlequin, says the Toronto-based company, which publishes more than 100 books a month, would love to have e-reader data to better target its market. “Traditional publishers don’t have access to reader data,” he says. “Hopefully that will change.” Lewis is unsure why the manufacturers keep the information to themselves, but he imagines it has to do with maintaining a competitive advantage over other e-reader companies.

Romance novels, as well as genres such as crime and fantasy, have experienced the largest growth in the electronic market, and roughly 20 per cent of Harlequin’s sales now come from e-readers. E-readers are popular with Harlequin readers simply because romance enthusiasts are voracious readers; they enjoy having the freedom to buy new books at any time, from anywhere. Smaller romance publishers like Samhain and Ellora’s Cave publish ebooks almost exclusively. One of the added benefits of reading romance novels on e-readers, Genner says, is the privacy. “If you’re on the subway, there is no cover that anyone can see,” he says. With ripped bodices and inflated pectoral muscles still comprising standard cover art for most romance novels, many women are shy about taking their paperbacks on the bus.

Monitoring those readers, Lewis says, could serve as “a tool in the editing process.” He says that if data showed, for example, that a number of readers stopped reading in the middle of the book, he’d want to analyze that with the author and find a way to improve readers’ engagement.

Sarah MacLachlan, CEO of Anansi Press in Toronto, looks at purchasing patterns on the company’s website, but thinks the number of reader habits tracked by e-readers is “exceedingly creepy.” Rather than tailor books to a specific audience, she says Anansi has been able to maintain a market simply by publishing strong books. “I think some of our writers are interested in discovering who their market is,” MacLachlan says, “but I think it makes a lot of writers feel squeamish to think that they could know everything about everybody [who reads their books].”

Some writers already know their audience better, even without data tracking. Kelley Armstrong, author of the bestselling paranormal fantasy series Women of the Otherworld, says she knows who her readers are because they communicate with her regularly over email, on message boards and at book signings. In genres like fantasy, where complex storylines can build slowly throughout dozens of novels, a loyal fan base is indispensable, and Armstrong admits she does consider her reader’s reactions when she writes. “My first book ended on a terrible cliffhanger,” she says. “I was apologizing to fans for a year.” Armstrong says she is interested in data tracking to learn more about her readers, but she wouldn’t use it to appeal to her demographic more directly. “When you target one demographic too hard, you risk alienating others,” she says. “At the end of the day, I write the stories I want to write.”

For writers of general fiction, however, knowing the audience is not as easy. According to Genner, the general-fiction audience is broad, disconnected and largely unstudied. Lauren B. Davis, author of the Giller-nominated Our Daily Bread, says she has no idea who is reading her books, but that’s the way she likes it. “Having your mind on the market stifles people from taking chances,” she says. “When I’m writing, I don’t like to feel like I have the reader over my shoulder.” But Davis can see why publishers, desperate to stay afloat, would use data tracking. “If, 10 or 15 years from now, publishers started using data to change how people write, I would not be surprised,” she says. “[But] I would quit.” She believes good literature and a healthy business are not mutually exclusive. “I couldn’t see Faulkner getting published if his publisher was only thinking about targeting a market,” she says. “But it’s those books, which sell for 40 or 50 years, that become the publisher’s bread and butter.”

Genner agrees that no amount of market research can predict a classic, and one of the great problems with the data is it can only tell you where the market has been, not where it’s going. “Data tracking is helpful, it gives you a lot of information about fads,” he says. “But a fad lasts three to five years. You also want to publish those books that last for 50 years, 100 years, and those successes are harder to predict.”

The biggest hurdle publishers face is balancing the art of writing with the science of business. While some publishing houses may dislike the idea of using data-tracking information to bolster sales, Genner says publishers can hardly ignore such a valuable tool. “I don’t know if [data tracking] is a huge boon to the industry,” he says, “but that’s where it’s going.”

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