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Can insight ever be a bad thing?

July 4, 2012

I found this article on the Guardian’s website today about how e-readers can be used to track how people interact with e-books now.

The level of data that these e-readers can report on is startling:

“How often do they pick up and engage with a book? What’s the average time when they start to read? How many pages do they read an hour? How long does it take to read a book? And through bookmarking, people tell us where they stop. If we were to dive into that reader space, we could see they picked up a book, read the first five pages in five hours, then never picked up and engaged with the book again. What does that say, if 90% of readers stop after chapter five? It certainly provides insight for the publisher and the author” (Todd Humphrey at Kobo)

There’s a part of me that goes ‘oooooooh’ and wants to get my grubby mitts on some of that data.  But I’m not sure that there is a real reason behind it.  It would be interesting, but would it really be useful?

Perhaps there are certain categories of writing where this information would be really helpful – for example in texts that are being written to educate / inform.

If you know which bits people are highlighting (and therefore you’d assume finding useful) or which bits take longest to read, or where people give up, then you can improve it.

But then, I’d argue that this sort of text is written with a different purpose in mind – it can be improved and its purpose optimised.

Where I’m a little concerned is if this starts affecting fiction writing.  Re-writing passages because people aren’t highlighting them.  Skipping over descriptive passages because 40% of people stop reading when there’s no conversation (I’ve made that up, please don’t quote me).  Killing off characters earlier in a series because the audience aren’t engaging with them as much.

Maybe a better use for the data would be of more use to the way that books are marketed, rather than how they are created. The average reading time could be used to sell books that [should] fit specific journey times, or the most highlighted quotes pulled out and used in the blurb or for marketing purposes.

My main worry probably centres on the idea of using this information to improve fiction.  In much the same way that I’d argue that research can never really improve creative work in advertising.

Maybe I’m just being a traditionalist (if you’ve been reading this for a while, you’ve probably worked out that I’m not really that big a fan of ebook readers – although the fact that I managed to take four separate first-book-in-a-series on holiday has made me re-evaluate that position just a little).

One thing that struck home was a comment in the article from China Miéville:

“I hope it wouldn’t change how I wrote, but conversely I do wonder if getting specifically worked up about this is simply a kind of neophobia, because if it did change how you wrote, wouldn’t it just be a new variant of what authors have done for centuries, which is writing to a market?”

That’s interesting for two reasons – firstly China Miéville writes sci-fi (well, sometimes, but he’s well worth checking out if that is your sort of thing because he is frankly awesome).  As a sci-fi writer it makes sense that he would think about it from the perspective of future creation.

The second reason is that it made me think something I hadn’t ever really thought before.  Things that are created by people are [generally] all created for a market.  Advertising is just the most obvious of all of those.

And if this technology had been developed for an advertising purpose – if it could track how people interact with ads and see which bits are most compelling and which bits people gloss over, and which make them go away altogether – wouldn’t we want to use it?

We already can in an online sense.  But we still need to make sure that the insight doesn’t get used the wrong way, because optimising something that already exists,  no matter how good and natural the data that you are basing that optimisation on, always assumes that there is no better way.

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