By: David Streitfeld
SAN FRANCISCO – Before the Internet, books were written – and published – blindly, hopefully. Sometimes they sold, usually they did not, but no one had a clue what readers did when they opened them up. Did they skip or skim? Slow down or speed up when the end was in sight? Linger over the sex scenes?
A wave of startups is using technology to answer these questions – and help writers give readers more of what they want. The companies get reading data from subscribers who buy access to an array of titles for a flat monthly fee, doing for books what Netflix did for movies and Spotify for music.
“Self-published writers are going to eat this up,” said Mark Coker, the chief executive of Smashwords, a large independent publisher. “Many seem to value their books more than their kids. They want anything that might help them reach more readers.”
Last week, Smashwords made a deal to put 225,000 books on Scribd, a digital library here that unveiled a reading subscription service in October. Many of Smashwords’ books are already on Oyster, a New York-based subscription startup that also began in the fall.
The move to exploit reading data is one aspect of how consumer analytics is making its way into every corner of the culture. Amazon and Barnes & Noble collect vast amounts of information from their e-readers but keep it proprietary. Now the startups – which also includes Entitle, a North Carolina-based company – are hoping to profit by telling all.
“We’re going to be pretty open about sharing this data so people can use it to publish better books,” said Trip Adler, Scribd’s chief executive.
Quinn Loftis, a writer of young adult paranormal romances who lives in western Arkansas, interacts extensively with her fans on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Flickr and her own website. These efforts at community, most of which did not exist a decade ago, have given the 33-year-old a six-figure annual income. But having actual data about how her books are being read would take her market research to the ultimate level.
“What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?” Loftis asked.
Scribd is just beginning to analyze the data from its subscribers. Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.
At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” touted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: Fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end.
Oyster data shows that readers are 25 percent more likely to finish books that are broken up into shorter chapters. That is an inevitable consequence of people reading in short sessions during the day on an iPhone.
“Would we provide this data to an author? Absolutely,” said Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer for HarperCollins Publishers. “But it is up to him how to write the book. The creative process is a mysterious process.”
The services say they will make the data anonymous so that individual readers will not be identified. The privacy policies, however, are pretty broad. “You are consenting to the collection, transfer, manipulation, storage, disclosure and other uses of your information,” Oyster tells new customers.
Before writers will broadly be able to use any data, the services must first become viable by making deals with publishers to supply the books. Publishers, however, are suspicious of yet another disruption to their business. HarperCollins has signed up with Oyster and Scribd, but Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster have thus far stayed away.