Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Your e-reader is watching

It tracks when you read and when you don’t. Will it soon determine what you read?

by Mika Rekai on Monday, November 26, 2012 -

Sarah Lee/eyevine/Redux; Photo illustration by sarah mackinnon; GETTY IMAGES

For Catherine Henderson, curling up with a good book has always been an escape from reality. What the retired teacher doesn’t know, however, is that while she is lost in her Kindle, someone is reading over her shoulder.

Before ebook readers became popular in 2010—when e-reader sales quadrupled within months—publishers had only one way of measuring a book’s success: sales. Back then, it was almost impossible to do detailed market research that didn’t involve direct feedback, either through letters to the publishers or reader surveys. But the information didn’t tell the whole story about what readers wanted to read, and they said nothing about how they read. Did they read the whole book, or lose interest after a few pages? Did they skip certain chapters? Did they highlight and revisit favourite passages? Now the makers of the Kobo, Kindle and Nook are collecting hard data about exactly how their customers read.
When Henderson bought her Kindle a year and a half ago, she admits she may not have looked through the terms of use agreement, which does mention that the e-readers include software to track user habits. “Honestly, I’m a little bit lax with my personal information,” she says. “I guess I expect a certain amount of Big Brotherness.”

What many readers don’t realize, says Ryan Reith, a mobility research manager with IDC, a market-intelligence firm, is that when people activate an e-reader, they create a data profile, not unlike what happens when you activate a smartphone. “Your reading activity then becomes part of a digital profile,” says Reith, and that data is used to direct readers to purchase books that match their interests. Reith doesn’t know which tracking programs e-reader makers use, but he guesses it is a form of analytics software.

Kobo allows readers to turn off the tracker in their e-readers, but few people are aware that’s an option. At a tech conference in New York City this year, Kobo executive vice-president Michael Tamblyn told the audience what kind of information Kobo has gleaned from the software: 80 per cent of its readers are women; most reading is done during the evening commute and between 11 p.m. and midnight; and, upon finishing 50 Shades of Grey, most readers immediately buy the next book in the trilogy. But while e-reader makers have come forward about the extent of the data they are tracking in their devices, what they haven’t disclosed is how they intend to use it. Reith says they may be keeping the data to themselves for legal reasons, but he does not rule out the possibility that certain ebook makers are considering making the jump into publishing.

“At this point, I wouldn’t put anything past Amazon. They’re branching into all kinds of new businesses,” he says. He adds that it may be less likely for companies that rely on their relationships with existing publishers, like Barnes & Noble, maker of the Nook e-reader. Executives from Kobo, Amazon and Barnes & Noble were unavailable for comment.

Noah Genner, CEO of Booknet Canada, a Toronto-based industry-run not-for-profit company that monitors how technology affects publishing, says the ability to collect data about how people read has the potential to revolutionize the industry by helping publishers tailor books to their audiences. “We already know publishers use sales to determine what they’re going to publish next,” he says. “So I’m sure they’ll use every piece of data they can get their hands on.”

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