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.