The E-Book You Wrote is a Spy

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Hey, cause for celebration, possibly. I just found out the Kindle version of my book, Will Write for Food, is the 16,620th Most Highlighted Book of All Time on Kindle — just a few points below The Qur’An and Start a Cupcake Business Today.

Is this good news? I have no idea.

But it’s info I didn’t have before, and potentially helpful. Now I can look up what people highlighted and see that they tweeted quotes from my book. (That’s how I found out about this phenomenon. Someone included @diannej in the tweet).

Kindle users sign an agreement granting Amazon permission to store information, including the last page they read, plus bookmarks, highlights, notes and annotations. So there’s more that I could see, if I could figure out how to get to it.

According to The Wall St. Journal, e-book publishers can find out all kinds of things about the way readers consume the electronic version of our books. “The major new players in e-book publishing’97Amazon, Apple and Google’97can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books,” says the article. “Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.”

Regarding non-fiction books, readers consume them in fits and starts, according to Barnes and Noble’s Nook data. That’s not surprising for a book like mine or cookbooks, but it probably doesn’t apply to memoir. Also, Nook readers routinely abandon long nonfiction books. (Uh oh. My book is 100,000 words! Time for a haircut?)

So what do I do with this spying information, now that I have it? For example, the most highlighted sentence in my book is, “Food writing is often all about the senses: touch, smell, sound, appearance, and taste.” Does this mean I should I write more about writing with the senses?

How about you? As an reader, are you okay with these companies collecting information about how you read a book? And as an author, would you change your book based on reader preferences, or consider how the data affects your next book?

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  1. says

    This is both creepy and fascinating. I think I would pause over what people are highlighting. I always ask my writing group to tell me what worked for them before I ask them what didn’t work. It’s just as helpful to me to know what worked as what didn’t. So I guess highlighted text suggest what worked best. I would consider that information. (I have to give the creepy part of this some thought.)
    I’m waiting for a Kindle that makes it possible to highlight with your finger. On my old Kindle highlighting is so cumbersome that I don’t bother. I had to take hand notes on
    Will Write for Food.

    • diannejacob says

      So sorry about that on the older Kindle, Judith. Now you’ll have to decide if Amazon can track what you highlight. I don’t think I would let them, personally, and I still don’t know what to make of what others have highlighted in the text.

  2. says

    Hi Dianne, it sounds like highlighting is a great way to analyse what readers consider important. Having attended your workshop at FBC I think more advice on writing with the senses is a great idea though I am working my way through a print version of your book. I have to say I am a bit of a luddite as I do like printed books more than e books, particularly those I want to refer to again and again. So my own highlighting preferences are unspyable! :)

    • diannejacob says

      Potentially I agree with you. I will have to wait for more Kindle readers to agree that publishers (and I) can see their highlights, so I can get a better idea of what works.

      In the meantime I will think more about sensuous writing. When done well it’s such a pleasure to read. When done badly, not so much.

      I still don’t read books electronically. I suppose I will get there (especially if I ever publish an e-book), but for now I enjoy being a luddite and staying unspyable in my highlights, just as you do.

  3. says

    As a BBC Radio 4 podcast listener (while I walk my dogs) I was aware of this through an excellent episode on e books from the Books and Authors Programme. Will it have an impact on work is edited in the future? Would some of the classic novels of our time ever have been written (Catcher in the Rye, The Tin Drum, Animal Farm) if this information had been available? It’s nothing new to set out to write a best-seller and but this sort of data sounds like it could foster homogenisation of writing or sticking to a formula. Neither good for creativity or originality. For an instructive non-fiction book I can see how this would be more useful. Inspiration for a follow-up book Dianne?

    • diannejacob says

      I suspect those writers wrote those novels (love all of them!) despite many obstacles, and they would not have paid attention.

      In our new marketing-savvy world, though, I find myself immersed in all kinds of info based on understanding who reads my non-fiction blog and why. I strive to balance what I think they want to read with what I want to say.

      An entire book on writing with the senses? Whoa! Had not considered that, Sally.

  4. says

    Dianne, I suppose we can already anticipate that every book will be “adapted” for each reader, thus, if a mystery is too grisly, the scary section will be deleted and perhaps replaced with a romantic interlude?

    I agree that it is worrisome to learn that long digital books are all too frequently abandoned but a print version remains as a reminder to return. I have returned to your book many times, always with great pleasure.

    • diannejacob says

      I certainly hope not, Irena! Although some movie producers make multiple endings and test them with audiences. So the trend is already here.

      Sweet of you to say such nice things about my book. Yours is an endorsement I treasure.

  5. says

    Regarding highlighting: I think it’s important to keep in mind, Dianne, that some of your more discerning readers (myself included) are zebras.

    My highlights are based solely on creating amusing striped patterns on the pages.

    • diannejacob says

      Thank you Susan, and congrats in advance. I am not sure that you have the same capability, unless you publish on Kindle or with a publisher who tracks readers.

  6. says

    I never knew about that function with a kindle and i’m so excited now! I’m always highlighting things for my own personal use but to then send it to twitter- such an interesting idea. And I absolutely have bookmarked pages from your book, which I’ve read twice :)
    It’s such an interesting idea to KNOW what people have intimately responded to- it reminds me of finding a marked up used book with notes in the margin and letting my imagination run wild over who had the book before me and why their notes are there in the first place. The real life answer are probably quite boring, but I love the idea! I’m interested to see where you take this as a writer. It’s one thing to write to what people are responding to, and it’s another to write in order to scratch your own itch.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes I think you are right, Ruthy. Until I get a lot more data, this concept is just as you put it: not as interesting in real life. Right now just a few have responded, because this program is just getting going. I don’t have enough data to make a decision.

      I think it’s possible to write more about what people respond to, as long as it’s a topic I’m just as happy to write about. That has to be balanced with writing about what interests me. In the best of worlds, those two ideas would combine.

  7. says

    I’ve had a Kindle for some years now and adore it, but tend to use it for when I travel or my lighter, more “disposable” reading – such as the mysteries I love, but resent paying so much for in hard copy (books are hideously expensive her in Australia – a paperback can cost up to $30). I clearly wasn’t paying attention when I bought mine, though, as I had no idea they could do all that.
    I’ve also not really got any idea how to use most of the fancy-schmansy functions on my Kindle either, so I doubt they are getting much that is enlightening from me. I can see where this information could be very useful to authors, publishers, marketers and Amazon but I do feel a little ambivalent and more than a little uncomfortable about the whole idea of using data to prescribe writing content.

    • diannejacob says

      The article in the WSJ says you have to sign an agreement with Amazon that they can see how you’re using your Kindle, so if you don’t remember agreeing to anything, perhaps you didn’t. Although those long “terms and conditions” make it impossible to know what you’re really signing!

  8. says

    I may be the only person left who still only reads paper; no ipad, no kindle, no nook. I do find this fascinating yet, as others have pointed out, rather scary. Where are we not being spied on? I like to think that some things in life are still spontaneous rather than thought out and reworked in order to target a market. But I do think it is useful for writers such as yourself, Dianne. Your book is a reference book, a how-to teaching book so seeing what is drawing most attention by your readers does give important information for a second book! It is like giving workshops: gettting feedback about what worked, what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t in order to hone and better the next. But I hope that this doesn’t effect how people write novels. It reminds me of movies based on novels and how the director changes things from the book, hoping it will draw more viewers. That I don’t like. And congratulations on your ranking! (your book is actually in my “don’t pack” pile for the move – it gets carried over in a bag for immediate access!)

    • diannejacob says

      No you are not the only person! I still read two daily newspapers and paper books.

      I suppose this “spying” is best suited for non-fiction but it is also used for novels.I hope the publisher is mining the information for marketing reasons, rather than telling the author how to write books. Considering the success of the Hunger Games, which was quoted in the WSJ article, there’s nothing to say!

      Good luck on your move, Jamie, and thanks for the kind words about my book. Re ranking, I don’t know what it means, so I’m not getting excited.

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