What You Should Know About eBooks and Privacy.

I happen to think ebook privacy is a big deal, and anyone that has read an ebook should be at least aware of a few things.

To that end, The Wall Street Journal (“Your E-Book Is Reading You”) gives us a few additional things to feel mildly paranoid about.

Now to be fair — from the perspective of gaining more insight about how we (collectively) read, this is interesting stuff. Books in digital form means that publishers and ereading device creators are going to have a ton of information, that simply did not exist even a few years ago:

“In the past, publishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader sits down with a book. Does the reader quit after three pages, or finish it in a single sitting? Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins? Now, e-books are providing a glimpse into the story behind the sales figures, revealing not only how many people buy particular books, but how intensely they read them.

Publishing has lagged far behind the rest of the entertainment industry when it comes to measuring consumers’ tastes and habits. TV producers relentlessly test new shows through focus groups; movie studios run films through a battery of tests and retool them based on viewers’ reactions. But in publishing, reader satisfaction has largely been gauged by sales data and reviews — metrics that offer a postmortem measure of success but can’t shape or predict a hit. That’s beginning to change as publishers and booksellers start to embrace big data, and more tech companies turn their sights on publishing.”

So there’s that part. And frankly publishers would be crazy not to put that data to good use to gain insights (although FSG didn’t sound particularly keen on new-fangled ideas like analyzing data: “”We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it”). Well, from this at least, the book industry has something to learn from the TV and movie industry. But there’s a line somewhere.

All of this does mean that the act of reading is being transformed from an intensely private activity, to traced by our Kindes and iPads and whatnot.

“For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public.”

How important is our ebook privacy to us? “So what?” some people are probably going to say. Fine. This isn’t to say that we specifically need to be worried about what Amazon is keeping tabs on what you or I read. But it’s still our information, even if what I’m reading or your reading ultimately becomes part of an aggregate picture of Readers in X and Y Demographic are reading A and B titles.

And what exactly do we have to be private about? Off the top of my head, here are a few things — What books we read. How long we spend on a book. What time of day we read. What we bookmark, what we highlight. What kinds of books we search for. What kind of books we buy. What kind of books we search for and don’t buy. How long it takes us to finish a particular book. Do we finish a particular book. Where do we stop when we don’t finish a book.

The privacy issues are a real thing. From the standpoint of someone somewhat obsessed with how people read, I do find myself interested by what kinds of things are being done with all of that information. Barnes and Noble it seems has been particularly involved —

“Some of the findings confirm what retailers already know by glancing at the best-seller lists. For example, Nook users who buy the first book in a popular series like “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Divergent,” a young-adult series by Veronica Roth, tend to tear through all the books in the series, almost as if they were reading a single novel.

… Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.”

If the privacy issues do weird anybody out, there are still some rather basic choices. Reading ebooks doesn’t mean that we have to read them online, of course. As The Guardian (“Big e-reader is watching you”) notes from Kobo —

“if a reader doesn’t want to share details of how they read with Kobo, they are able to go offline and refrain from note-taking. “We get data when people are using the server and have been reading a certain book. If someone wants to read a book, we will know if they purchased it. If they don’t bookmark, and they’re not online when they’re reading, and they’re not taking notes, we’re not going to glean much information except for the purchase itself,” Humphrey says. “We do have people tell us that what they love about Kobo is that they can sit on the subway and no one knows what they’re reading — it does provide some element of privacy. But at the same time we will know they purchased the book. You don’t have to post passages, either — we are providing people with the ability to share. If someone just wants to be a customer who buys a book, they can.”

NPR (“Is Your E-Book Reading Up On You?”) touched on this topic a couple of years ago. The most interesting part to me were some thoughts from Stephen King on might books in the Data Age might or might not mean for the creative process:

“I wouldn’t have a problem with looking, but I would probably ignore what I saw,” says author Stephen King. “There’s a thing about certain pitchers who all of a sudden can’t find the strike zone and are walking a lot of hitters and giving up a lot of hits, and you’ll hear the announcer say, ‘He’s steering the ball.’ And writers can do that, too.”

But King expects the data will continue to be collected, as book-lovers switch to networked devices.

“Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me,” King says. “But it is the way that things are.”

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Ebook privacy is important, and it really is something worth paying attention to. I was honestly surprised that I couldn’t find as much written about the topic as I did. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been pretty active; I’d expect more stuff like this in the nearer future —

“EFF has pressed for legislation to prevent digital book retailers from handing over information about individuals’ reading habits as evidence to law enforcement agencies without a court’s approval. Earlier this year, California instituted the “reader privacy act,” which makes it more difficult for law-enforcement groups to gain access to consumers’ digital reading records. Under the new law, agencies must get a court order before they can require digital booksellers to turn over information revealing which books their customers have browsed, purchased, read and underlined. The American Civil Liberties Union and EFF, which partnered with Google and other organizations to push for the legislation, are now seeking to enact similar laws in other states.”

The EFF also created an excellent guide on ebook privacy: E-Book Buyer’s Guide to E-Book Privacy. It’s almost two years old now but provides as good a comparison of ebook privacy policies as I’ve seen in one place. A handy reference for those that are interested in this sort of thing (i.e., people like me). It’s worth a look.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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