Libraries have long considered reading habits, as revealed by circulation or usage records, to be private and confidential information. We have believed that freedom of inquiry requires confidentiality and privacy.
In the digital age however, most people don’t actually seem too concerned with their privacy, and it’s commonplace for our actions to be tracked by the software we use and the companies behind it. This extends to digital reading habits too.
What role should libraries have in educating users, or in protecting their privacy when using library-subscribed ebook services? Regardless of libraries’ role — and some of these services clearly have the potential to eclipse libraries entirely, replaced with commercial flat-fee digital ‘lending services — how concerned should we be about the social effects of pervasive tracking of online reading habits?
From the New York Times, an article that takes it as a given that what titles you read is tracked, but talks about new technology to track exactly what passages you read in what order at what times, too:
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 start-ups 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, for a flat monthly fee, buy access to an array of titles, which they can read on a variety of devices. The idea is to do for books what Netflix did for movies and Spotify for music.
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 start-up 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 already collect vast amounts of information from their e-readers but keep it proprietary. Now the start-ups — which also includeEntitle, 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.
“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 readers will not be identified. The privacy policies however are 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 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.
While the headline of the article is about new methods of tracking, it’s actually about several new businesses aiming to be “netflix for books” — flat-rate services that let you read all ebooks in their collection. You know, like a library, but not free. These companies are having similar difficulties to libraries in working out deals with publishers, but if they succeed, what will it mean for libraries?
Before writers will broadly be able to use any data, the services must 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