Professor Wu's Rulebook

Trends in publishing: books, data, and Big Brother analytics

Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Giving up five chapters into a book? You’re not alone. Newly published data by Jellybooks shows that 90% of people reading e-books gave up after only five chapters.

Jellybooks, a reader analytics company based in London, mined troves of data collected from e-books to discover more about the reading habits of “e-readers”.

The company is hoping to sell its analytics work to publishers, helping them produce books their readers read from cover to cover (and not abandon 50 pages in).

While readers of traditional print books can read how they want, when they want, as much as they want and where they want without being tracked by a profiteering corporation, readers of e-books are not so fortunate, as Jellybooks can track your reading behaviour in the same way Netflix knows what you binge-watch and Spotify knows what you listen to (and what you don’t).

But it’s not all bad news for fans of e-books. Jellybooks offers readers a group of free e-books, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to review these books, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information the device has recorded.

It is this information that shows analysts what books people are reading, when they are reading, and how long they spend reading. It tells them how far readers make it through a book and how quickly they read, among other details.

The process resembles how e-book retailers, like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, are able to track reader trends by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps. Therein lies the less good news for fans of e-books; as Amazon et al are getting all their valuable data and information automatically, with no need to offer readers a free e-book in exchange for their data.

The service offered by Jellybooks could prove invaluable to major publishing houses whose focus lies in traditional print publishing. Yet initial published research may prove hard reading for publishers.

The majority of readers, it turns out, finish fewer than half the books they are given to read. Women are the most persevering of readers; typically lasting between 50 – 100 pages before they give up on a text, while men are much quicker to judge; quitting after just 30 or so pages.

What does this mean for the book industry?

As this New York Times article noted, publishers can use the findings of Jellybook’s data to shape their marketing plans; withdrawing funding from books that readers don’t like, and putting it into books that readers love.

Yet for writers, there may be concern that publisher’s editorial decisions will increasingly be informed by metrics and data, which may somewhat miss the point of what literature is actually for. What is more, the readers who participate in data studies like those conducted by Jellybooks may be unrepresentative of the real, “average reader”. And writers may also fear the relatively small sample sizes of Jellybook’s studies – of groups between 200 and 600 readers – may distort the picture and misrepresent the reactions of a more general, larger audience.

Readers may not feel comfortable with the Big Brother image of some unknown figure essentially reading over their shoulders. While those that sign up for Jellybooks actively consent to having their data tracked in exchange for free e-books, the worry surely comes from the knowledge that e-book retailers like tax-dodging Amazon are doing this – and have been doing this – relatively under the radar, and without getting any direct consent from the readers they are monitoring.

The NYT article points out that “regular e-book readers might not realise that digital retailers are recording and storing their data.” Yet is this necessarily surprising? In our increasingly heavy digital world, analytics and data are transforming the way companies operate. We might not like the thought, as human beings, of being reduced to a set of numbers and percentages, yet we don’t seem inclined to do very much about it.

Of course, while fans of TV series and music may have to accept that their every action is being watched as they stream shows and songs, book fans don’t have to worry: as there is a very real and simple alternative to the e-book.

The humble print book has been with us for generations. And it still does a pretty good job. As the author Jonathan Franzen said: “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.”

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.”

“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”


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