Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Our Ebooks, Ourselves: What’s Happening with Our Ereader Data?

This article was originally published on our parent site for the book publishing industry, Publishing Trends


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In October of last year, news broke on The Digital Reader that Adobe Digital Editions was taking a significant amount of user data and sending it back to their servers. Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) is a program that allows readers to put ebooks onto their reading devices from retailers and libraries alike. The program’s terms and conditions don’t mention anything about the extra data logging, and there was some outrage. Users were concerned that Adobe was getting data from every single page they read.

It’s understandable that ADE users were upset that their data was being taken in a way that they hadn’t agreed to. However, tracking how a reader engages – or doesn’t engage – with an ebook is only going to increase. Retailers like Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and others all track usage data from the ebooks they sell. It’s not just retailers that do this either, Oyster and Scribd also track actions of their subscribers.

So what’s being tracked when we read a book on a Kindle or open up the Oyster app? Retailers and subscription services track how far you’ve read in a book, where in the book you stopped reading it, how quickly you read it, and how you came across that book, among other data.

Say the data for This Book shows that most people who stop reading the book before completion quit in chapter 7. The fear is that the editor of This Book will ask the author to make some changes to chapter 7 to hopefully increase the number of readers who read all of the way to the end. Buzzfeed Reporter Joseph Bernstein mused on this idea: “Excuse me, Mr. Joyce, you’re losing a lot of Kindle Fire readers here in this third section. Maybe tighten it up a smidge?” All jokes aside, there are some who aren’t concerned at all. Bernstein interviewed Claudia Ballard, an agent at WME who said “…people have been picking up books and not finishing them for a long time. At the end of the day a unit sold is a unit sold.” Of course, that’s not strictly true with ebook subscriptions.

Since users of a subscription service pay one monthly fee for unlimited books, royalties to authors are calculated differently. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, has openly told the press how each payout schedule is structured for both Oyster and Scribd. It’s no surprise that both payout systems are tied to engagement. Coker spoke to GoodEreader about Oyster’s payment structure for Smashwords authors saying, “As a Smashwords author or publisher, you’ll earn 60% of your book’s retail list price whenever an Oyster subscriber reads more than 10% of your book, starting from the beginning of the book forward.” Coker also spoke to Fast Company about Scribd’s payout system, “The first 10% of every book from page one forward is available as a free sample. If readers read an additional 20% more, the author and publisher get credit for a full sale of the book, 60% of the list price. Scribd will also pay in cases where the reader reads more than the first 15% of the book, but less than 30%. In that situation, the author gets a ‘browse credit.’ For every 10 browses, they get credit for a full sale.” It should be noted that these payment structures are for Smashwords only. Oyster and Scribd are both fairly quiet about how their payments work, but it’s clear that it’s based, at least in part, on engagement data per book.

Kobo released a white paper titled “Publishing in the Era of Big Data” that explains how publishers might use the data they collect. What it boils down to is that each dataset could provide an opportunity. Perhaps the most compelling use of ebook tracking data could be used to give backlist a boost. Kobo highlights an unnamed book that has high user engagement but low sales, meaning most people read it all of the way through, but not too many people are buying it in the first place. This illustrates, perhaps, a failure of the way the book was marketed, that it was launched in a bad season, or maybe a lack of connection with the intended audience. Whatever the reason it didn’t work then, it stands to reason, given the high engagement numbers that it could work now if repositioned properly. The publisher needs to identify what made those high engagement readers pick it up in the first place. Once they zero in on that, what was a sleeper could eventually turn into a success.

Kobo’s report also suggests that publishers could use existing midlist data to look to future bestselling authors. If an imprint has an author that often outperforms the goals set by the publisher and has high reader engagement, that author has the potential to be huge. Kobo again provides an example of a nameless author who had been midlist, but the author’s sales and engagement rose more with each book. So the most recent deal the author got was multibook and with a sizeable advance. Kobo claims that this publisher used data to solidify their confidence in this decision. (Although, there’s no data on how those books actually did, so we’ll have to assume those numbers aren’t in yet.)

The rest of the white paper poses further points about serializing a book, along with ways that ebook tracking data can be used to measure successes and failures of imprints. What Kobo is arguing, for its own purposes, but with some justification, is that ebook tracking data offers publishers, and authors, the tools to help make books better: “Digital reading can help inform the business itself in a revolutionary way – understand how readers experiences your work can help in decision making, uncover what would have been lost sales, and protect against costly errors in judgment.”

There’s nothing that can guarantee an editor won’t ask an author to change chapter 7 if that’s where most readers quit the book. Regardless, despite any concerns from readers and from writers, it’s clear that data collection of this type will continue as long as it is a source that can help drive revenue for retailers and subscription services. The more data publishers and retailers get, the more it will change the way this industry operates.

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