April 30, 2013

Who should get the data from your book purchase?


According to Cory Doctorow, publishers shouldn’t just be fighting with Amazon over DRM and ebook pricing, but also over data. Specifically, the myriad of information that online booksellers collect about readers.

As we well know, online bookstores and ereaders know a great deal about their customers. From what books readers buy or browse, to what passages they highlight, Amazon, Google, Apple, and the rest, all use this data to more effectively target their users. But should publishers get a piece?

Writing in a column for The Bookseller, Doctorow points out a number of obvious but under-addressed issues caused by the information sharing gap between online stores and the publishers who supply them with books and ebooks.

“When Amazon or Google want to test out a commercial proposition—moving a certain button a few pixels over to see how it performs relative to the old spot, say—they get to make the change, run it against a few thousand users, and examine the data on the spot. When a publisher wants to try out new cover art or different catalogue copy, it makes the change, waits six months or a year, and makes a guess about whether that was a good idea or a bad idea.”

While it’s true that publishers don’t usually market test their covers and blurbs on readers in the manner of tech companies, as it currently stands, they couldn’t if they wanted to. The online bookstores keep them deliberately at arms length.

It’s not really in the current publishing culture to want to do so, anyhow. For good or bad, the majority of publishers still rely on sales teams to advise them on the desires and propensities of their audience, and beside the ocasional commercial title, I imagine that most publishers do not “test” content on readers. Nevertheless, the selling of a book is an imperfect art, and could almost certainly benefit from publishers knowing more about their target audience. Writes Doctorow,

“If the publishers want to go to the mats with Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, and [Barnes & Noble], this is the issue they should be fighting over and for: realtime equitable retail intelligence and a reader’s bill of rights to ensure the long-term health of books’ special penumbra of virtue—this latter is an intangible asset far more important than the “intellectual property” rights, and the DRM deployed in the name of the latter lays waste to the former.”

Still, I’d hate to see book publishers forfeit their relationship with readers in the pursuit of data, which is why Doctorow’s call for “a reader’s bill of rights” is so important. Before readers are mined ad infinitum, we have to have some protections in place so that there is a real choice between maintaining reading as a private act, or sharing it with a bunch of ravenous marketers.

Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.