Is your ebook Big Brother? A #FutureChat recap

Is your ebook Big Brother? A #FutureChat recap

'To better understand their audience'

The other day, during a conversation about "hard DRM" and "digital watermarking," someone said that digital watermarking felt like a kind of surveillance -- as if it were less a way to detect usage of an ebook than a means of "watching" a reader's behaviour. 

I think that's overstating the reality of watermarking, and certainly the intent in most settings.

But reactions have been interesting as Andrew Rhomberg's reader-analytics projects have been discussed here in #FutureChat as well as here at Writer Unboxed and here at Thought Catalog. For one thing, many authors seem not to have been aware of the amped-up focus group testing that Jellybooks has been doing. He wrote about it at Digital Book World:

At Jellybooks, we recently developed a piece of code called candy.js, which is embedded inside an ebook to track how users actually read. Penguin Random House UK was among our earliest partners in a pilot program of the technology, and the insights we gathered were fascinating. The question now becomes what story this data tells us and what impact it might have.

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And at Passive Voice, he ended up with a lot of explaining to do (who doesn't?) as Authors Empowered hammered away with good questions. Here he is with good answers, too, and "users" here are readers who had knowingly agreed to be focus-group members for the Jellybooks testing of reader reactions to some ebooks.

(1) The users were informed about the program and what it was about. It clearly stated “you will receive a free ebook and in exchange we ask you to share your reading data…”

(2) The email with he download link explained it once again

(3) The ebook cover had a “candy stripe” so you clearly see which ebooks in your library had tracking software

(4) It was once again explained...

(5) There was a sync button at the end of each chapter and data was only uploaded when the user pressed at least one of those buttons

(6) When a reader pressed the button they received an acknowledgement for finishing the chapter and sharing their reading data and there were plenty of extra links and disclaimers

How is the data being used? For the first time the publisher got a sense, if the books were actually being read and if not, where people dropped off, [as well as] who was reading the book (gender, age), when (during commute, on the weekend, etc.) and in two days or did it take a month. It helps the publisher immensely to better understand their audience. Not a bad thing that is it?

Well, considering that we spend an awful lot of time yelling at publishers that they have to understand their readers, no, it doesn't seem like a bad thing. 

And during #FutureChat, I was glad that Rhomberg joined us, as did Writer Unboxed's Therese Walsh and many others. It was a good discussion, in which Rhomberg gave us some interesting aggregated ideas of what's being discovered in these focus group trials. He sees between 40 and 60 percent of test subjects read a book completely, for example, although it varies according to the type of content being tested. He has seen completion rates as low as 5 percent, he told us: "There are books almost everybody gives up on. #BusinessBooks." Publishers can hire Jellybooks to run this kind of reader testing two to 20 weeks ahead of launch. 

As I've written at Thought Catalog, some readers at Writer Unboxed worried that data somehow would be given precedence over the "soul" that's the wellspring of creativity. 


The the other way to look at it is that data can tell us which readers resonate to the "soul" of your particular creativity and help find you an audience. And in case you haven't noticed yet, publishing -- and self-publishing -- today is the easy part. Selling is the hard part.

Our lady of the beret, Camille LaGuire may have nailed something here: "Underlying the angst here is the secret fear of every writer (and expert) that they are frauds."

She's right, of course. Is getting over that angst -- not that anyone reading this ever experiences it, of course -- worthwhile? Could a better informed understanding of what readers experience when the publishing industry hands them something be useful? Could this be a way to make all this digital disruption of the industry! the industry! worth a little more, after all?

Data might help the open-minded sell a book. By finding a reader who happily read right to the end of such material. (Rhomberg says such cases are sadly rare.)

And we may have had "discoverability" wrong all along.

What it it never was about readers discovering your deathless prose?

What if it's about us discovering readers?

Andrew, would you like to put that chip in my left or my right shoulder?

See you in our next #FutureChat.



Join us each Friday live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

We're interested in having your "Five-Minute Manifesto" for The Future of the Book Business. In his article, Those magnificent manifestos, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones renews his call for the FutureBook audience to reflect on five years of digital "to challenge the customs we have begun to adopt." The response is so robust that I've extended our deadline for submissions of manifestos to Monday (7th September). See below for details and a list of those published to date. Your statement, preferably no more than 500 words, should be sent to Please send along a headshot and short bio, as well.

And mark your diary for The FutureBook Conference, 4th December, The Mermaid, London. More details are coming Tuesday 8th September.

#FutureBook15 "manifestos":

Main image - iStockphoto: aetb