Who’s watching our e-reading behaviour?

I was intrigued to read in The Guardian app this morning that Kobo has released a report on patterns in e-reading that they have gleaned from more than 21 million Kobo readers (the devices and, therefore, the readers!) across the world! The report says that retailers had been reluctant to share the data they had been gathering for themselves – but Kobo has apparently come clean. And how interesting it is. But first, the main issue implied by my subject line …

I’m not sure what to think about the fact that this data is being gathered. I find data about human behaviour fascinating but, as a librarian/archivist, I ascribe to the principle of reader/user privacy or confidentiality. Librarians don’t tell others what individual people are borrowing or researching, but they do gather data. Librarians running public libraries want, need in fact, to know what their users like. Do their readers prefer crime novels to classics, cookbooks to self-help, and so on? Librarians seek this information via such sources as borrowing statistics, surveys and just by chatting with their users. The public, presumably, thinks this is ok. After all, it is their/our money (our taxes) that is being used to buy the books – and we want that money spent sensibly.

Kobo, though, and all those other e-reader companies are in business. They also want to know what we like to read – because they want to make money. Fair enough. All retailers want to know what their customers want – at least, they should if they want to stay in business. The question is, in our electronic data driven world, what data is collected, how is it collected, and where is it kept? Is it anonymous, is it encoded, how is it used? There’s an interesting discussion about the collection of reader data at Scholarly Kitchen, particularly in relation to a recent discovery that Adobe Digital Editions was not only gathering information about users’ digital libraries and reading patterns, but sending it back to their servers in the clear (unencrypted). You can read more about this (with links to even more articles) at the Digital Reader. Adobe, of course, is not the only company gathering reader data. Amazon, says Scholarly Kitchen, “is notoriously silent about its activities, but it is well known that their use of big data gathering and analytics is profound”.

I’ll leave the discussion here … I have no solutions. In the end, we have two main options – opt out of the electronic world (if that’s at all possible) or trust providers (and do our best to be aware, careful consumers). Oh, and we can support the watchdogs who do their best to protect us and our information, and we can try to use trusted third parties (like, says Scholarly Kitchen, libraries and scholarly publishers).

I will end, instead, where I began – with Kobo’s recent report, and its finding that there is quite a discrepancy between what we buy and what we actually read. Hmm, let me put that more clearly: they found that the books at the top of the bestseller lists are not at the top of the “most completed” lists. Indeed, not one of the top 10 UK bestsellers (such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone girl which ranked 4) appears in the top 10 most completed. (You can see the two UK lists in The Guardian link I provided at the beginning of the post).

What does this say about bestsellers? Clearly promotion (and word of mouth) is extremely powerful – something we surely knew, but this data adds another whole angle to it. An interesting example is Northup’s Twelve years a slave which is ninth on the British bestseller list, due presumably to the  recent film adaptation, but which only 28.2% of British readers finished (or had, by the time the data was gathered). The book that topped the UK’s “most completed” list was

Casey Kelleher’s self-published thriller Rotten to the Core, which doesn’t even feature on the overall bestseller list – although Kelleher has gone on to win a book deal with Amazon’s UK publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer after selling nearly 150,000 copies of her three self-published novels.

Good news for Casey Kelleher.

Besides my intrinsic interest in what people buy versus what they read, my main question is how will Kobo (and other publishers) use this information? They probably don’t care greatly if people don’t read “bestsellers” – after all, they’ve got the money – but, getting their marketing machine behind smaller selling books that people are completing is another whole ball-game. Is this a scary thing or is there a wonderful potential here? For we general-cum-literary readers, it is scary, because the risk is they will start to skew their publishing activity (even more) towards the genres people most complete – which, in the UK, is romance – rather than taking a risk on something new. Sometimes, too much data can be a bad thing.

Thanks be to all those lovely small publishers who hang in there publishing different books. Once more, I “dips me lid” to them.


18 thoughts on “Who’s watching our e-reading behaviour?

  1. I saw that article too and felt the same creep factor. If you are looking for a book to read, and you don’t know quite what you are in the mood for, don’t you take something off the shelf and read the first chapter sometimes? You might think that it’s not the right moment for that book so it goes back on the shelf. For the present time. If the book is on your Kobo and you do the same does that count as unfinished? Do you not go back to re-read or look for a favourite passage especially if you want to review or share something about the book? Oops! Fickle reader again. As much as my eyes (damn that my arms keep getting shorter) enjoy the experience of reading e-books and sometimes availability is the driving factor, I have found the sheer joy of paper books has been re-born in recent months. At least no one is looking over my shoulder!

      • I think that too many readers remain keen on having a real and wide choice of books for the worst nightmares of booklovers to come true. But there are certainly problems and dangers in what is , I suppose, the logical outcome of more and more sophisticated technology and marketing coming together. I kind of refuse to believe that books can be just another line at the supermarket. Randall Jarrell had a book of essays about the commercialisation of literature: A Sad Heart At the Supermarket which must have been published in perhaps 1950s, worries about this are not so new!

        • I suspect you’re right Ian re our worst dreams. Publishing and book selling are commercial activities, but I think the human heart and mind are in the end too ” fickle” (unpredictable) to be easily quantified.

  2. It’s interesting, Sue, that you mention your growing TBR list of ebooks. My Kindle has scores and I read perhaps one a month, while downloading perhaps a dozen new ones in the same period. In this, my ebooks eerily resemble my home bookshelves.

    As for the data collection, I don’t have a big problem with it as long as it IS anonymous (and well protected). That’s the world we live in.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this article; it was most interesting, but let’s hope, as you said, that it doesn’t drive publishers to ignore literary fiction.

    • Oh dear .. Downloading books is too easy isn’t it?

      I’m with you re data collection … It is the world we live in. All we can do really is keep watch and stand up for privacy and anonymity, and be savvy about our win decision making.

  3. It was already widely known in the US that Amazon collects reader data which makes me angry. Then when the whole Adobe thing came out that really made me angry because they are what a good many libraries use to lend ebooks here. Libraries in the US pride themselves on patron privacy and then for this to happen it was like being stabbed in the back. The ALA made a big stink and Adobe is supposedly changing their ways but I don’t trust them. I’ve not bought anything from the Kobo store and have no plans to so I don’t know if they can track my public domain books or not. I hope not!

    As the the list differences, if anyone looked at my bookshelves and at the titles of the books I actually read I’d be in big trouble!

    • Thanks Stefanie. Yes, in Australia too – and most western democracies I expect – library user privacy is policy, in fact, is philosophy. I knew of course about Amazon etc BUT I hadn’t read about the Adobe situation until this article which pointed me back to more articles. I do buy some books from Amazon for my Kindle … Don’t reckon I can avoid being counted in our digital age, but I don’t know about public domain books. It would be interesting to know and it may depend on where your get them from?

  4. This is a really interesting post. I don’t have an e-reader so I’m not clear on all the policies, but I have a friend who always says, ‘if it’s off the Internet, or you put it on the Internet, then it’s collatable.’ A scary thought considering online banking.

    But I’m interested in the purchased vs completed stats – could they see a rise in popularity of the Novella?

    • That’s a good question Melissa. There has been some discussion about novellas and online reading, but not conclusions that I’ve seen. Certainly for me, the bigger the book the more I want to read it in paper! I just disoriented without the physicality.

      Online banking! Yes. We do it, but …

  5. This is fascinating! I like sitting here imagining that this information will help new/unknown amazing writers get book deals/paid well if the information proves that their writing is un-put-downable…?

    But are you just embarrassed about information being collected because it records that you read 50 Shades of Grey every night, hmmmmmm? 😉

    • 50 shades of what, Hannah? Rings a vague bell…

      But yes, one possibility is that it could lead to deals as it seems to have for Casey Kelleher. Nothing is ever all black or white is it?

  6. I echo your thanks to the small publishers, WG.
    I did have a dream that we’d start to see new digital publishers come forward, who really cared about literature, and who used the advantages of much lower production and distribution costs to support authors who could only hope to reach readers via small (previously print) publishers or by self-publishing. Sadly, though, what I’m seeing is that digital (ebook only) publishers are going hell-for-leather for the commercial market, just like everybody else.

    • It’s interesting isn’t it Dorothy? Some interesting epublishing is happening isn’t it … But not much of it in new paradigms, if that makes sense. Is there still a chance the balance will shift, I wonder.

  7. “I did have a dream that we’d start to see new digital publishers come forward, who really cared about literature, and who used the advantages of much lower production and distribution costs to support authors who could only hope to reach readers via small (previously print) publishers or by self-publishing.”

    Have you looked at Open Road Media who have a wonderful selection of ebooks. They do not sell them directly from their site, but they are a respected ebook publisher and have reissued many out of print titles by forgotten authors.

    I’m not really fussed by Amazon for instance knowing (or trying to guess) my reading patterns. I find some of their suggestions highly amusing and way off target.

    • Thanks Anne … I haven’t seen Open Road Media. Will check them out. I think though that Dorothy was tAlking more about new works rather than reissuing older works. I think e-publishing has done wonders for out of print books.

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