Posts Tagged: Kobo

No Longer Playing Games: The Significance of Analytics in Book Publishing

Until recently, book publishers and authors played a tiresome game of pin the tail on the donkey when it came to surmising how a book would perform on the market. Thanks to the growth of books in digital platforms, publishers and authors do not have to play that guessing game anymore. Instead, they now have access to measurable analytics obtained from e-reading devices that provide many insights into readers’ consumption of e-books. The knowledge gleaned from this data in turn enables publishers and authors to make better-informed decisions on what to publish. Of course, the matter is not all as simple as using this data solely for market research. Traditionally, publishers have ultimately controlled the shaping of content by selecting and publishing what they supposed readers would want to read—playing the role of the gatekeeper[1]. Analytics, however, are rapidly changing the process in which content is shaped, because readers can now give both direct and indirect feedback on the success of a book. The effect that analytics has had overall, then, is that it has eliminated the static process of publishing books, and developed a new publishing model that is agile[2]. From a social perspective, however, there are concerns that “just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list” (Johnson) and that “a data-driven approach could hinder the kinds of creative risks that produce great literature” (Alter). In other words, the social currency[3] of books as cultural capital could become compromised due to analytics. However, should traditional publishers follow in the footsteps of data-driven book publishers, such as Kobo, Coliloquy and Sourcebooks, and embrace the use of the agile publishing model, not only will they thrive in the future but, in theory, they could use the analytics garnered from digital publishing platforms to successfully preserve the social currency of books.

To delve further into this idea, one must first look at the kinds of analytics that are available and how data-driven publishers are utilizing them. There are two sets of analytics available to publishers: indirect and direct. Indirect analytics are objective pieces of information collected through e-reading devices recording the habits of readers. These analytics are acquired the moment someone purchases an e-book and opens it up on their e-reader. Once this occurs, publishers can see in real time “how many times a book is opened, how many pages are read at one time, how long a book takes to finish, how far readers get into books before quitting (if they dislike it), what consumers read before and what they read next” (Richardson). By coupling analytics on reading habits with additional information about a reader’s age, gender, and the genres they are reading, publishers are now aware that books with a female protagonist are 40% more likely to become a bestseller; that the top genre men read is historical fiction, while the top genre women read is romance; that women are 50% more likely to finish a book than men; and that the average session length of readers under the age of 40 is twelve minutes, versus the twenty minutes of those over the age of 40.[4] Direct analytics are subjective pieces of information that readers provide actively. This information is obtained when readers highlight certain passages, make comments about the content, or rate the book. With these two types of analytics available, publishers are able to fully ascertain how readers are engaging with their books and can no longer say they do not know their customer base.

When publishers employ analytics like these in their publishing programs, this is what is known as agile publishing, and there are three digital publishers that currently stand out with this initiative and that traditional publishers should take note of: Kobo, Coliloquy, and Sourcebooks.[5] Kobo launched its self-publishing and self-service platform in 2012 called Kobo Writing Life (KWL) and the service’s strength lies more on the side of indirect analytics. KWL provides “a dashboard offering a variety of data that allow an author to track the sales performance of a book across multiple markets and track the impact of promotions and sales” (Reid). The main beneficial feature of KWL is its “live metrics that give you a sense of where your books are selling and how many, all in real time” (Kozlowski). The other notable feature of KWL is that it allows authors to set the price of their e-books[6]; so, given the live data they receive, this frees authors to play with prices and learn the optimal price-points for their books. The advantage to receiving live analytics is that it gives flexibility in how to go about tweaking the sales strategy of a book once it has been published.

Coliloquy is a digital publisher that has its strength on the side of direct analytics. The company strives to actively integrate reader feedback in their publishing methods, and as they say “push the boundaries of how we think about narrative and storytelling.” What separates Coliloquy apart from other digital publishers is that they make all of their books into “active applications, rather than static files,” allowing their authors to create episodic, serial stories and use “engagement mechanics like choice and voting, branching story lines, re-reading loops, and personalized content.” Enabling readers to directly comment on a book and influence its development increases their engagement with both the author and the book itself. The nice thing about Coliloquy is that its use is not restricted to new titles alone. Traditional publishers could easily take advantage of Coliloquy’s analytics to revitalize backlist materials and receive feedback, since all that would need to be done is to create an active application. Thus, Coliloquy’s use of analytics in their books goes to show that analytics do not necessarily hinder the creative risks that produce great literature. If anything, they are opening the door for publishers, authors and readers to collaborate, and making the book an intersection for social engagement, unlike anything we have seen before.

As seen with Kobo and Coliloquy, the use of analytics can help enhance publishers and authors enhance digital book content in different ways. But how can analytics serve to help enhance print books? Sourcebooks is a good example of a publisher balancing between “both classically physical and dynamically digital” book formats. Of the three digital platforms outlined here, Sourcebooks is the one that traditional publishers and people worried about the decline of print books can look to to alleviate their fears. The company’s focus is on authorship in a culture of collaboration, and so Sourcebook also focuses on agile publishing. Rather than publish a print edition first and then release a digital edition, Sourcebook reversed the order and “began experimenting with a new model of serial, online publishing” (Alter). With the traditional publishing model, publishers do not have a grounded way of knowing how a book will do once it is released. What Sourcebooks has done is to release “early online editions for half a dozen titles, ranging from romance to young adult to nonfiction books, and has solicited questions and suggestions from readers (Alter). This is a clever way to incorporate customer feedback, and a much more practical way to publish print books. In this manner, publishers can improve a book and feel more confident about how the book will fare in the market. Publishers may also feel a little more comfortable with this method as well, because an author will have originated the content and the creative risk is still at the heart of the work. Receiving feedback from readers earlier on then is really not much different from how an editor queries an author during the manuscript phase. And much like how the expert knowledge of editors helps to strengthen the quality of a manuscript, so too would the use of direct analytics from readers help add to the social currency of the book.

Technology can be an intimidating thing for publishers who have grown accustomed to traditional publishing methods. However, there are some brave souls who have already started paving the way to making the publishing process dynamic. As these three data-driven publishers show, there are many reasons why publishers ought to implement analytics into their publishing programs with the main reason being that it opens up opportunities for creative collaborations. Analytics are simply tools that help publishers and authors “work to create better, more satisfying content” (Richardson).



[1] See the concept of the pre-artifact system in Craig Mod’s article “Designing Books in the Digital Age.”

[2] Sourcebooks has an excellent explanation of what agile publishing is: “The agile publishing model (APM) relies not only on the author for providing the content and overall direction of the book, but also on the community of readers to provide proactive reviews and feedback on the materials provided. Working together, the author and community will shape and change the content as the book moves from its initial stages as an interactive, digital platform to the final published product.”

[3] As defined by James Levy in his article “DNA of a Successful Book.”

[4] Statistics from Hiptype’s infographic on the DNA of a Successful Book: http://www.hiptype.com/infographic

[5] There are several more leading companies in this venture, such as Lean Publishing, Barnes and Noble’s Pubit, and Amazon’s KDP, but this paper intends to give a sampling of the different ways to benefit from data-driven book publishing platforms.

[6] Authors can even set the price to free.

 

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “Your E-Book is Reading You.” 19 April 2012. [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304870304577490950051438304.html].

Coliloquy. “About.” [http://www.coliloquy.com/about/].

Hiptype. “The DNA of a Successful Book: Infographic.” [http://www.hiptype.com/infographic].

Johnson, Steven. “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write.” 20 April 2009. [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123980920727621353.html].

Kozlowski, Michael. “Kobo Writing Life to Be Launched Soon.” 8 July 2012. [http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/kobo-writing-life-to-be-launched-soon/].

Levy, James. “The DNA of a Successful Book.” 25 July 2012. [http://blog.hiptype.com/the-dna-of-a-successful-book-1].

Mod, Craig. “Designing Books in the Digital Age.” Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. Eds. McGuire and O’Leary. [http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/book-design-in-the-digital-age-craig-mod].

Reid, Calvin. “Kobo to Launch Kobo Writing Life Self-Publishing Portal.” 5 June 2012. [http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/52275-kobo-to-launch-kobo-writing-life-self-publishing-portal.html].

Richardson, Andy. “Ebook Analytics: Knowing Your Audience.” 24 August 2012. [http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/Editorial/Commentary/Ebook-Analytics-Knowing-Your-Audience-84556.htm].

Sourcebooks. “Why Sourcebooks.” [http://www.sourcebooks.com/company/why-sourcebooks.html].


Inside the ‘Walled Gardens’ of Electronic Reading

Inside the ‘Walled Gardens’ of Electronic Reading

The methods by which we learn to read not only embody the conventions of our particular society regarding literacy . . . they also determine and limit the ways in which our ability to read is put to use.

Alberto Manguel

It’s impossible to overstate the importance to humanity of reading. Books have toppled tyrannical regimes, enriched countless lives, and spread pleasure and edification across the globe. But they are not inherently liberating or democratic; they do not exist in a vaccuum. Their value in a society depends on its economic, social, and political conditions. These can breathe the life of millennia of accumulated wisdom into the people, uplifting and enlightening them – or confine them to a stunted existence as mere objects. As the proliferation of e-books, e-readers, and e-reading applications for tablet computers seems poised to end the 500 year dominance of printed books, it’s worth considering what effects (aside from the obvious commercial implications) might result from a society reliant on e-books.

Shifting the bulk of our reading to online or digital media fundamentally alters the simple and powerful act of reading. Allowing e-reader manufacturers and e-book retailers to mediate our reading experience makes us increasingly susceptible to censorship and surveillance, and the data-gathering capabilities of these devices adds another dimension to reading that benefits only their manufacturers. These effects are abetted and amplified by the internet’s monopolistic tendencies. Regulatory measures – such as enshrining a “right to read” or clawing back some of the internet’s privatization – would ensure the promise of reading is fulfilled.

Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. … I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.

Hillary Clinton

In spite of the heady Utopian rhetoric of the early days of the internet, the hyper-modern creation of e-readers that purchase e-books from internet-based retailers has emphasized the ancient problem of censorship. Of course formal censorship existed in brick-and-mortar bookselling days, but the digital nature of e-books and the vast platform of retailers such as Amazon and Apple creates the potential for much more pervasive de facto censorship.

For example, Apple has changed the title of Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography, to V*****, and refused to sell two mainstream German magazines containing nudity; most recently they’ve been criticized for refusing to sell Hippie 1 and Hippie 2, Danish e-books and iPad apps containing photographs of naked hippies, even after the publisher resubmitted the titles in censored form.[1] This is part of an emerging trend in large internet-based enterprises, whereby things like search results and auto-complete suggestions are censored using algorithms – this occurs generally unbeknownst to the wider public, but nevertheless subtly imposes and shapes social norms and attitudes.[2]

Uffe Elbaek, the Danish culture minister, said that a danger of the global e-commerce marketplace is that companies such as Apple “will decide how freedom of speech will be arbitrated and who is allowed artistic freedoms. It’s important that we have these discussions at regional and national levels.”[3] The publisher of the books, Jens Lauridsen, raised another critical issue, that of self-censorship: Apple’s guidelines for appropriate content will lead to artists censoring their own work in order to gain access to their stores.[4] With companies like Apple and Amazon granting access to hundreds of millions of customers, many artists will decide they can’t afford not to self-censor – thereby depriving the world of potentially beautiful and valuable work. The decision of one retailer to not stock a title – based on subjective moral claims, ambiguous policies, or private religious views – can negatively affect millions of people.

Reads you like a book

Kobo ARC tagline

When you buy a physical book, the transaction usually ends the moment you walk out the door. You have your book, they have your money, everyone’s happy – you’re free to read, lend, or deface your book however you see fit. When buying an e-book, however, the initial transaction is only the beginning of a long and intimate relationship. The salient difference is not the screen, e-ink, or even a digital text’s infinite reproducibility, but the construction of devices like the Kindle, Kobo, or iPad (and their equivalent apps for tablet computers) as “tethered appliances:” they are easy to use, difficult to substantively modify, and useless unless connected to the vendor.[5]

This is problematic for a few reasons. The first is that the e-book retailer has the ability to alter or delete an e-book after it’s sold. In 2009 Amazon did exactly that, deleting from Kindle devices every instance of Orwell’s 1984, because the publisher offering it for sale through Amazon did not own the rights (1984 does not enter the public domain in the United States until 2044).[6] Two affected Kindle owners threatened a class-action lawsuit, and Amazon eventually apologized and vowed never to delete books again unless ordered to do so by a court.[7] But as Anton Chekhov and Cory Doctorow well know, if a gun appears in act one it must be fired in the third: just last October, Amazon deleted the entire library of a Kindle owner in Norway and refused to offer an explanation (at least until the story gained media exposure).[8]

Further reasons to be concerned about the tethering of e-readers stem from their “upstream capabilities:” Kindles automatically upload (to Amazon.com’s servers) data including notes, bookmarks, annotations, highlights, and progress within titles.[9] Marketing material for the Kobo ARC promises that the device “truly gets to know you – the real you and not just your purchase history,” in order to ease that “time-consuming and confusing” process of finding new books to read.[10] In a 2012 survey of 9 popular e-readers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that most of them tracked search data, shared it with law enforcement or “trusted third parties” (in the case of Kobo), provided only limited customer access to and control of personal information (although Kobo provides full access), and shared information outside of the company without a user’s consent.[11]

This upstream data flow amounts to surveillance of what used to be a private, individual activity. E-readers can track not just the books you read but how you read them and what you thought about them. Information that used to exist solely in a person’s mind or the marginalia of a book can now be easily shared within the company, with other companies, and with law enforcement agencies. This is not just a concern in non-democratic nations; according to Ronald Deibert,

Most liberal democratic governments have also pushed for new surveillance powers, downloading responsibilities for collection of data to private sector actors while relaxing judicial oversight of sharing with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.[12]

For example, in the United States, a company’s data is subject to the Patriot Act no matter where in the world it is stored,[13] and because this information exists on a server it is considered “stored communication” and is accessible with a subpoena rather than a warrant.[14]

Readers were born free and ought to remain free.

Vladimir Nabokov

Of course, companies don’t collect this data with the intent of sharing it with the police. In the case of a company like Amazon, which should be seen not as a retailer but as a technology company, the wider strategy is to collect as much data as possible and convert it to a revenue-producing asset.[15] The private activity of reading generates data, which in the aggregate can reveal patterns of behaviour far more profound than just purchasing habits, and is then used in the broader corporate context to more effectively sell things to you and others. This creates a second kind of reading that exists in parallel to the traditional sense, one whose value is wholly economic and benefits only Amazon. By engaging in leisurely or intellectual pursuits, Kindle readers are working in the sense of creating value for others, but have no sense of having worked, and of course receive no pay. Just by buying an e-book and sitting down to read it on their Kindle, they become human resources in Amazon’s computing system.[16]

By objectifying the act of reading, e-readers constrict a fundamental space of individual autonomy, for the financial gain of private enterprises. Readers might be willing to accept some behind-the-scenes data-gathering in exchange for the convenience of e-reading, but the act of reading as expanded and redefined by a Kindle tethered to Amazon.com nevertheless represents “a challenge to a core set of liberal democratic principles.”[17]

If you’re not the customer you’re the product.

popularized by Douglas Rushkoff

As undesireable as a society consisting only of tethered readers may be, this is not meant to vilify companies like Apple or Amazon. “Locking-in” customers via tethered devices and then exploiting the available data is an extraordinarily effective business strategy,[18] and in the absence of compelling reasons not to—legislation, or irate customers—it’s in their best interests to aggressively collect as much personal information as possible in order to further “corral us into walled gardens.”[19]

Unfortunately, the public’s interests don’t always align with the interests of private companies. The global connectivity of the internet, initially seen as an egalitarian, democratic public good, has proven to be even more susceptible than “real-life” markets to the monopolizing tendency of capitalism. The collaborative potential of the internet has enabled public goods such as Wikipedia and open-source software, but it has also enabled the rise of many monopolistic companies with massive economic power.[20] In heavily networked economies, success begets success: as a company gains market share, the “network effect” means its attractiveness to other customers increases disproportionately, and it quickly runs away from the pack.[21] To illustrate, in the US in 2001 the top 10 websites received 31% of all pageviews; by 2010 their share had increased to 71%.[22] This process has repeated many times, and now instead of competitive industries we have oligopolistic markets commanded by behemoths like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, who have the power to derail economies and shape the technological landscape,[23] including the nature of the future of reading.

With each deleted Kindle library, each censored book in the iTunes store, and each expansion of an e-readers ability to surveil its owner, it becomes more readily apparent that there are costs to the benefits of the internet and its associated devices, costs that we are paying without fully appreciating. To counteract this process and protect the unadulterated beauty and power of reading, it is worth considering policy interventions. Enshrining a “right to read” as a necessary corollary to the freedom of expression would ensure that an individual is able to read freely, without fear of surveillance or the abuse of data gathered in relation to their reading, and would therefore have something of substance to express.[24] California has taken steps in this direction – they’ve passed a “reader privacy act” that grants more robust legal protection to the records of e-book consumers.[25]

More broadly speaking, if the internet were seen as a public utility, in keeping with the very early days of its (publicly funded) development,[26] some of the privately-enriching, publicly-impoverishing tendencies of market economies that it amplifies, as personified by tethered, data-gathering e-readers and moralizing e-book retailers, might be kept in check. Private companies should not be the only interests shaping the nature of the internet, especially as it comes to dominate more and more aspects of our lives. If we are to retain our freedom to, for example, read freely to our own ends only, then “the system’s overriding logic—and the starting point for all policy discussions—must be as an institution operated on public interest values.”[27] This is highly unlikely (barring the complete collapse and rebuilding of the global economy), but at the very least we should appreciate that a reading experience controlled and mediated by a private company is, for all its convenience and utility, a fundamentally different experience, one that can lead to abuses of our best ideas of a free and open society.


Cited Sources

[1] Michael Posner, “Nudity, e-books and censorship: How Apple became Big Brother,” Globe and Mail, 21 November 2012. (This and all subsequent links accessed 17 January 2013.)

[2] Evgeny Morozov, “You Can’t Say That on the Internet,” New York Times, 16 November 2012; Ernesto, “Google Adds Pirate Bay Domains to Censorship List,” TorrentFreak.com, 10 September 2012.

[3] Posner, “How Apple Became Big Brother.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

[6] Brad Stone, “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle,” New York Times, 17 July 2009.

[7] Ibid.; Cory Doctorow, “Amazon’s Orwellian deletion of Kindle books,” BoingBoing.net, 20 July 2009.

[8] Doctorow, “Amazon’s Orwellian deletion”; Cory Doctorow, “Kindle user claims Amazon deleted whole library without explanation,” BoingBoing.net, 22 October 2012.

[9] Ted Striphas, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7, no. 3 (2010): 302.

[10]Kobo ARC Overview,” Kobo.com.

[11] Cindy Cohn and Parker Higgins, “Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 29 November 2012. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/11/e-reader-privacy-chart-2012-update ;

[12] Ronald Deibert, “The Growing Dark Side of Cyberspace ( . . . and What To Do About It), Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs 1, no. 3 (2012): 269-70.

[13 Ibid., 262-3.

[14] Striphas, “The Abuses of Literacy,” 307-8.

[15] Ibid., 303-4.

[16] Ibid., 306.

[17] Ibid., 299.

[18] John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism,” Monthly Review 62, no. 10 (2011): 10.

[19] Diebert, “The Dark Side of Cyberspace,” 263.

[20] Foster and McChesney, “Internet’s Unholy Marriage,” 8; 10.

[21] Ibid., 9-10.

[22] Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” Wired, September 2010.

[23] Foster and McChesney, “Internet’s Unholy Marriage,” 10.

[24] Striphas, “The Abuses of Literacy,” 311.

[25] Alexandra Alter, “Your E-Book Is Reading You,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2012.

[26] Foster and McChesney, “Internet’s Unholy Marriage,” 4.

[27] Ibid., 3.


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