Publishers have long treated readers as almost incidental to the process of publishing, selling, and profiting from books. Bookstores, distributors, and now big-box retailers like Costco and Walmart had their attention, but not readers. But this may be changing, ironically because of the data that can be harvested from ebooks. Publishers may hate the platform, but they’re starting to love the information that ebook reading can generate.
The Wall Street Journal had an article this week on how Kindle, Nook, and Kobo applications can generate information about how readers approach and consume different books. Anyone with a Kindle knows that there is a feature that allows you to see what other people think is important in a book because in order to avoid this information you have to turn the highlighting feature off. The flip side of my being able to highlight and annotate is that Amazon collects and stores that information, and their Terms of Service allow them to use that information in a variety of ways.
Barnes & Noble and Kobo are close on Amazon’s heels. Surprisingly, Barnes & Noble seems to be as far along or even more advanced than Amazon in its data collection:
Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.
Those insights are already shaping the types of books that Barnes & Noble sells on its Nook. Mr. Hilt says that when the data showed that Nook readers routinely quit long works of nonfiction, the company began looking for ways to engage readers in nonfiction and long-form journalism. They decided to launch “Nook Snaps,” short works on topics ranging from weight loss and religion to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I’m all for ereaders and ebooks keeping the publishing industry profitable and vibrant, but doing so by harvesting my information and tailoring books to readers does not fill me with joy. And I’m not alone; when Jane linked to this story in her morning links post at Dear Author, commenters were not particularly happy about it:
Jess: I’m glad Barnes and Noble cares enough about their customers to pay close attention to what they read and pass the info along to the publishers, but it would be even more awesome if they got their information in a non-creepy way.
Anne V: I don’t particularly want authors to write to me and whatever I expressed fondness for at a given moment. This is a very bad plan – no more surprises? Authors take notes from data-mined readers?
Wahoo Suze: They can’t be bothered to spend time and effort working with authors to properly edit and polish the final book, but they have no problems coming up with, I dunno, the optimal number of sentences per paragraph to appeal to some statistically average reader.
I’m pretty sure that this kind of data mining is not limited to books you buy directly from the retailer but also, in Amazon’s case, to anything you’ve put on their server via email. So I think that the only way to avoid having them track your reading is to make a file that they don’t link to, i.e. sideload a non-DRM book rather than emailing it to yourself on a Kindle, or sideload a non-DRM version of a book you’ve purchased from them. Sideloading simply means moving a file from your computer to your ereading device rather than downloading it directly from the storefront.
Now some of you may not care about giving the companies this kind of information. It may not seem like a big deal when it comes to privacy issues, and it is within the TOS that we all sign when we buy ereaders and ebooks. I can understand that. I can also understand that 1-click buying is addictive, pleasurable, and convenient.
But if you do care about this issue from a privacy perspective, that convenience and pleasure are coming at a price. You don’t control how your reading experience is used. If that bothers you, sideloading may well be worth the effort.
I’ve heard readers complain that sideloading is a trial. For me it’s second nature, because I usually have a computer and a cable near to hand, and because the last time I read on only one ereading platform was back in the days of Palm OS. I started reading ebooks on a Palm Pilot. When I bought my first e-ink reader, I was confronted with incompatible formats across my PDA (and later my smartphone) and my ereader. Luckily, smarter people than I soon figured out how to (a) convert one format to another; and (b) remove DRM. I use Calibre to convert all my books to more than one format, and with the DRM tools currently available, the most difficult part of the process is finding, downloading, and installing the files. Once the files have been added to the Calibre program, the program does the work automatically when you add the book.
Contrary to popular opinion, the illegality of removing DRM from a file is not settled law. It depends on which country you live in, and in the United States there are both competing case law rulings and regulatory exceptions to the DMCA prohibitions. Even in Canada, which just passed extremely restrictive legislation, it’s unclear whether the law can withstand challenges to its interpretations of federal-provincial powers and civil rights provisions.
Jane has a series of posts at Dear Author on how to use Calibre, and she and Brian have recently offered excellent tutorials on how to automate adding books to your Calibre library for both Windows and Mac OS. So the only extra step is downloading books from the retailer. If that still seems like more work than you want to do, that’s fine. But if you don’t want B&N deciding that because you read The Hunger Games trilogy in one weekend, you are now dying to read a hundred knock-offs, you might consider it.