Apple, Amazon and Others Look Over Your Shoulder When You Read Ebooks

07/04/2012

I guess it had to happen. There should be a new rule: If content providers can collect analytic data about anything, then they will. Or, to put it more crudely, If they can watch you, they will. Welcome to the digital panopticon.

An article in the Wall Street Journal explains how Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble collect analytic data when you read ebooks. How far you get in a book, how fast you read it, whether you buy a sequel, and which search terms or highlights you use when reading a book.

Analytics is a technique that is used on the web, and with some software – notably that on mobile devices – to track what users do. You can see how long users stay on a web site, which links they click, where they come from and more. But for books? Do publishers really need to know how fast people read books? Or whether you read them straight through or flip back and forth between books?

Two things worry me here. First, that this data is collected without users being aware of it. It is said that this data is anonymous, but we know that this anonymity is not something we can take for granted. I checked on my iPad and my Kindle and saw no options to turn off this data collection. While I expect Amazon to follow my purchases in order to recommend other books or CDs, I find it annoying that they may be checking on how I read ebooks.

The second issue is more fundamental. Once you have analytic data, you want to do something with it. In order to justify the cost of crunching this data, and paying for people to analyze it, you need to have an objective. You need to be able to translate this data into actionable tasks. And what could the goals be? To go back to writers and tell them to write differently? Granted, for some mass-consumed books and genres, writers might be willing to adjust their styles, or the length of their books if they think they’ll sell more. But I think this is a red herring. Good books sell; bad books don’t. If a book is good, whether it is long or short, people will tell others about it. Gone With the Wind is a huge book, nearly 1,500 pages in the mass-market paperback edition. Should an author be prevented from telling the story they want because some metrics geek thinks it’s too long?

I think this is none of their business. The way I read should be private. I can’t see how this information will help me as a reader, or me as a writer. If this metrics collection is going to continue, readers should at least have an option to opt out.