Is your Kindle spying on you?

This is a really interesting article that I read in The Times this week.  To sum up very quickly the premise of the article is;

  • by having a Kindle all the information about your reading habits – what you read, how long it takes on average, where you get bogged down, your highlights or don’t finish is shared with amazon and from there with publishers so it is revolutionising how publishers get feedback about their books.
  • The author thinks that this will only make books even better by bringing a closer relationship between reader and author,  but he would think this as  he is an author, I find it scary that even reading is no longer private, however he does make a good point that at least if you use a tablet and are reading 50 Shades of Grey on the train you won’t have the shame of everyone else knowing what you are doing.

Authors now e-reading over your shoulder

  • From:The Times , July 06, 2012

EVER since the first ancient Mesopotamian curled up in bed with his favourite clay tablet, reading has been, in essence, a solitary, mysterious and wholly private activity. The relationship between the reader and the word on the page is a confidential, personal communion.

When you read a book, no one else can know which bits you skipped or skimmed, which parts you loved and tried to remember or when you finally flung it down and never opened it again. How fast you raced through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, how some bits of Lady Chatterley’s Lover caught your attention more than others and how slowly you waded through Ulysses are secrets known only to you and your bookshelf. No one else knows at what point you gave up reading War and Peace, again.

But now, with the arrival of the e-book, your reading habits are an open book. Devices such as the Kindle, the Kobo, the Nook and the Sony e-reader are now providing publishers and booksellers with a mass of raw data that reveals not just what we are reading, but how.

Your e-reader knows how fast you read and when you get bogged down. It knows which passages you have highlighted, bookmarked and missed out. It records when you finished one book and how quickly you bought and read the sequel. It knows, in a way that even you do not, just how many books in your library remain unread. And it is passing on that knowledge to the people who make books.

Digital information on reading patterns is being aggregated and studied in a way that is unprecedented. Users of the Kindle, for example, sign an agreement giving Amazon permission to store information from the device, but many consumers of e-books remain unaware that their reading is now subject to marketing analysis, uncovering specific reading patterns for the first time. As a headline in The Wall Street Journal put it, “Your e-book is reading you”.

The volume of data is growing at astonishing speed. E-book sales in the UK increased by 366 per cent last year and more than 100 million people in the US read on e-reader or tablet.

Hitherto, the only way to gauge the success of a book was through sales; feedback came formally through reviews, and informally through rude or admiring letters or postings from readers. Now collected e-book figures can measure if a book is readable or heavy-going, the point at which readers tend to stop reading, the popularity of certain characters and plotlines, and which passages within books attract most attention. has a feature called “most highlighted passages” that shows which lines have been picked out with the highlight button on the Kindle. For authors of a solipsistic temperament (ie, all of them) this provides new opportunities for introspection. Running one of my own books through the search, I discovered that one line (“Deception is a sort of seduction. In love and war, adultery and espionage, deceit can only succeed if the deceived party is willing, in some way, to be deceived.”) had been highlighted by 61 readers.

My pride was slightly dented by the discovery that a line from The Hunger Games trilogy – “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them” – has been highlighted 17,784 times. Indeed, 16 of the top 20 most highlighted passages are from the Hunger Games series, which probably proves nothing at all except that readers of those sorts of books enjoy highlighting things.

Civil liberties groups have complained that amassing information about reader behaviour is an invasion of privacy, another way for digital businesses to garner valuable information. Others fear that readers will shy away from controversial subjects such as sexual behaviour if they feel under literary surveillance.

But if the e-reader has made reading habits more public, in some ways it has enhanced reading discretion. Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic “mummy porn” novel by E.L. James, is the bestselling Kindle book of all time, which may have less to do with its negligible literary merits than the fact that you can read it on the bus without your neighbour sniggering at you.

Most writers will have mixed feelings about the arrival of quantifiable evidence of consumer tastes in an industry that has traditionally relied on subjective judgment, imagination and the strange alchemy that turns one book into a bestseller and another into a turkey. Other forms of entertainment – television, film, computer games and mobile apps – already rely heavily on consumer feedback to shape and adapt their products.

Writing reduced to a market-led formula almost always flops, but there are signs that the surge in digital feedback is already having an impact on how books are produced. Some publishers release a digital version to “road-test” a book and then adapt the print version in the light of the online response.

One US publisher, Coliloquy, has gone farther, producing something called “active fiction”: this deploys an algorithm through which readers choose from various narratives and characters, which are then fed back to the author who can incorporate the choices into a genuinely customised book, written by a writer but shaped by the tastes and preferences of its readers.

This sounds grimly artificial, but the relationship between writer and reader has always been interactive and all authors chase a market, melding the demands of art with those of their readers. Nineteenth-century authors also tested their writing through one medium, newspaper serialisation, before publishing in book form. Dickens himself wrote alternative endings to Great Expectations, exploring his readers’ expectations.

Most authors are eager to learn what readers like, without in any way compromising what they write. They read their Amazon reviews avidly (while pretending not to, and sometimes writing their own praise). Writers flock to literary festivals, arguably the most significant cultural development of the past decade, in order to maintain and nurture a conversation with the people who read them.

The advent of a machine that logs your tastes while expanding your mind is another way to improve books and sell more of them to people who might actually finish them.

Discovering that most readers fall asleep in chapter 3 might be a new and painful experience for an author – and also a valuable wake-up call.



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2 responses to “Is your Kindle spying on you?

  1. Suzanne Manners

    When I was a ‘serious’ art student at Goldsmiths I regularly covered books with brown paper so that no one could see that instead of’The Outsider’ I was actually reading the ‘dirty’ bits in ‘Hollywood Wives’. Of course I kept a copy of the Camus book in my trench coat pocket which was just large enough to contain it whilst showing enough of the title to gain me some arty street cred. The thought of my reading habits being known by anyone other than myself, my son and the book seller (what an old fashioned concept) fills me with dread, but then I don’t have a Kindle. I read for hours at a time and unlike a machine you don’t have to recharge a book. Anyway we are already stalked and watched and categorised every day of our lives so I say leave us in peace to enjoy our dirty little reading secrets and if an author is so keen to know what you think of his/her work then start a website (I bet Hemingway would have enjoyed having his own webpage).

  2. I know what you mean, I am a bit of a book snob so have to hide some of my dodgy books from general view. Although actually they aren´t that bad. I have just read (well skimmed) 50 Shades of Grey, but purely for research for my blog of course!

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