The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader (Part 2)

(To read part 1 of The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader go to

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses the growing trend for e-book devices to capture all kinds of private data from unsuspecting readers. According to the article, “Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.” That data may be beneficial for retailers, publishers, e-reader makers, and even some writers, providing information to use for determining what kinds of books, at what lengths, with what video, audio and graphics added, might be bestsellers in the future.

Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild and writer of Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and a half dozen or so other books, is one writer who likes the idea of knowing more about what his readers want. He says, “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I’d love to get that information.”

Personally, I wouldn’t mind giving it to him. But I don’t want my e-book gadget to grab it secretly, without my knowledge, when I think I’m reading his book for pleasure, when I’m unknowingly participating in data collection about all I do, think, and feel while reading that book.

Analysts say they are learning important things about the reader from those data. I’m sure they are. But I’m not so certain that what they think they’re learning isn’t wrong, or that from it, they’re not developing incorrect conclusions.

What, for example, did they really learn from my having read the electronic version of Stanley Fish’s nonfiction book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One? And from my highlighting a number of sections and making a number of notes throughout the book?

Maybe they came to the conclusion that I care about sentences and writing. That’s true; I do.

But maybe they now think I’m a high school student having trouble with writing and am looking for help; so they’re recommending that the publisher put out a number of writing books aimed at that demographic. They’d miss the mark by a wide margin here.

While reading that book, I highlighted a section noting that in an Oscar Wilde novel a character explains why he doesn’t like memoirs. Wilde says, “They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering….” Maybe from my highlight, they’ve determined that I’m over the hill and am quickly forgetting everything, and that I want to write my memoir before my memory is totally gone. They’d be wrong on a couple of accounts here, but I can’t remember which ones.

Recently I bought a used paperback book from Amazon for only about $3.95. (It was no longer in print. Why else would I be buying a second-hand book?). Had this book been available in an electronic version, and I’d bought it for $3.95, would the analysts have determined that I’m cheap and want to buy only cheap books, and then suggested the publishers cut their prices significantly?

What would they decide from my marginal notes in printed books if I made such comments on an e-book? Sometimes I just draw a single line beside a whole or partial paragraph; if it’s really important, I might draw two lines. Sometimes I just write a letter or two with no further explanation: “B,” “S,” or even “SS,” rarely “BS.” Sometimes I write long sentences; in others I just put something like, “App to B.”

Clearly, the analysts would be calling in the codebreakers to help figure out the key to what I’ve written. Surely, they would be thinking that getting this key to my notes would help them sell more books.

I doubt that it would.

A publisher’s goal is to sell—sell!—books. An author’s primary goal, as I see it, is to write a great book—whether a novel, a nonfiction company history or anything else—that tells the story he or she wants to tell in the way he or she wants to tell it. Later comes trying to sell it and make money. The reader wants to have an enjoyable experience and maybe learn something just for the fun of it, or perhaps to use that new knowledge for something beneficial.

But the reader does not read to have an intruder take private data, and then come to conclusions that could very well be wrong and misleading or, in any case, are made from information they should not have taken in the first place.

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