Friday, June 29, 2012

eBookstores (and some publishers) are tracking how their eBooks are read

The Wall Street Journal reports that retailers (and, in some cases, publishers) know far more about how eBooks are being used than they ever knew about print books. According to the article, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Google can track how far readers are getting into their eBooks, how long they spend reading them, how often they read them and which search terms they use. If the eReader supports annotations, they also know what readers are highlighting and the contents of notes. They also know how many times readers open their tablet apps.

This information is just beginning to be studied, and some retailers are sharing the information (albeit selectively) with publishers. Barnes & Noble is in "the earliest stages of deep analytics," but it's already learned some useful information:
  • Nook users who buy the first eBook in a popular series tend to read the next title in the series as soon as they finish the first one. 
  • Nonfiction eBooks tend to be read a little at a time and are dropped sooner than fiction, while fiction titles are usually read straight through. 
  • Science fiction, romance and crime fans often read more eBooks in those genres, and read them more quickly, than do literary fiction readers. 
  • Readers of literary fiction quit eBooks more often and tend to skip around between titles more frequently than readers of other fiction genres. 
Amazon has long gathered and utilized information on its customers' purchasing habits; for example, it uses that information to recommend similar titles. Digital security expert Bruce Schneier is concerned that the knowledge that tracking is going on may cause a "chilling effect" on purchases of eBooks on sensitive topics, such as sex, health and security.

Groups such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation want Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other resellers to give their customers the ability to opt-out of eBook tracking. California has a "Reader Privacy Act" that requires government agencies to get a court order before requiring digital booksellers to turn over information about which eBooks their customers have browsed, purchased, read or annotated. The ACLU and EFF are now trying to enact similar laws in other states.

Some publishers, especially those who sell directly to customers, are gathering their own data about reader behavior. Sourcebooks is experimenting with early online "work-in-progress" versions of some of its titles, and is incorporating reader feedback into the final version. Scholastic is using online message boards and interactive games connected to its "39 Clues" series to gather input from 1.9 million registered users. Coliloquy, an interactive digital publisher, is gathering information on the characters and plot lines selected by readers and forwarding it to authors for use in writing future titles.

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