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Big e-reader is watching you
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  • July 5, 2012
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Your e-reader knows how long it took you to finish The Hunger Games and where you stopped reading Wolf Hall. Publishers are thrilled with the new data – but what does it mean for the rest of us?

What’s the big deal if your e-reader is spying on you?

Big Brother, wrote George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is watching you. Would Orwell have been amused or disturbed by the development that Big Brother now knows exactly how long it takes readers to finish his novel, which parts they might have highlighted, and what they went on to pick up next?

Because your ebook, as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal put it, is now reading you right back. Your e-reader knows how long it took you to finish A Game of Thrones, where you stopped reading Wolf Hall, how many pages of Fifty Shades of Grey you read an hour. It knows what you’ve highlighted or bookmarked: a passage from The Hunger Games trilogy, “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them”, is the most highlighted of all time on Amazon’s Kindle, marked down by 17,784 users. As the ebook market continues to mushroom, reaching £92m in the UK last year, this data is becoming significant enough for publishers – who until now have only known how many copies of a book they sell, not how that book is actually read – to take an interest.

“With digital content we have the ability all of a sudden to glean new insights into our customers,” says Todd Humphrey, Kobo’s executive vice president of business development. “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.”

Kobo has found that books such as The Hunger Games trilogy and Fifty Shades of Grey are typically read at high speed, with the reader quickly moving on to the next book in the series. “There are other books where people pick them up and engage a little bit, read for 15 to 20 minutes,” says Humphrey, and this “dip in and out” style of reading is more likely to be of non-fiction.

Humphrey says Kobo is just starting conversations with publishers about sharing its data. “Publishers are asking, ‘What are people engaging with, and how are they engaging?’” he says. “We are just starting to engage in these conversations. It’s one area in which we have an ability to assist our partners, ie telling them that at chapter five in book X, Y or Z, people tend to fall off.”

Small American press Coliloquy, which calls itself a digital publisher of

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