Spying on how we read

I’ve been reading all my books lately using Kindle for iPhone.  It is a great way to read – and having a library of books in my pocket at all times means I’m never without a book.  One feature of the Kindle software is called Whispersync.  It keeps track of where you are in a book so that if you switch devices (from an iPhone to a Kindle or an iPad or desktop), you can pick up exactly where you left off.  Kindle also stores any bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in the cloud so they can be shared across devices.   Whispersync is a useful feature for readers, but it is also a goldmine of data for Amazon.  With Whispersync data from millions of Kindle readers Amazon can learn not just what we are reading but how we are reading.  In brick-and-mortar bookstore days, the only thing a bookseller, author or publisher could really know about a book was how many copies it sold.  But now with the Whispersync Amazon can get learn all sorts of things about how we are reading.  With the insights that they gain from this data, they will, no doubt,  find better ways to help people find the books they like to read.

I hope Amazon aggregates their Whispersync data and give us some Last.fm-style charts about how people are reading.  Some charts I’d like to see:

  • Most Abandoned - the books and/or authors that are most frequently left unfinished.  What book is the most abandoned book of all time? (My money is on ‘A Brief History of Time’) A related metric – for any particular book where is it most frequently abandoned?  (I’ve heard of dozens of people who never got past ‘The Council of Elrond’ chapter in LOTR).
  • Pageturner – the top books ordered by average number of words read per reading session.  Does the average Harry Potter fan read more of the book in one sitting than the average Twilight fan?
  • Burning the midnight oil – books that keep people up late at night.
  • Read Speed – which books/authors/genres have the lowest word-per-minute average reading rate?   Do readers of Glenn Beck read faster or slower than readers of Jon Stewart?
  • Most Re-read – which books are read over and over again?  A related metric – which are the most re-read passages?  Is it when Frodo claims the ring,  or when Bella almost gets hit by a car?
  • Mystery cheats – which books have their last chapter read before other chapters.
  • Valuable reference – which books are not read in order, but are visited very frequently? (I’ve not read my Python in a nutshell book from cover to cover, but I visit it almost every day).
  • Biggest Slogs – the books that take the longest to read.
  • Back to the start – Books that are most frequently re-read immediately after they are finished.
  • Page shufflers – books that most often send their readers to the glossary, dictionary, map or the elaborate family tree.  (xkcd offers some insights)
  • Trophy Books – books that are most frequently purchased, but never actually read.
  • Dishonest rater - books that most frequently rated highly by readers who never actually finished reading the book
  • Most efficient language – the average time to read books by language.  Do native Italians read ‘Il nome della rosa faster than native English speakers can read ‘The name of the rose‘?
  • Most attempts – which books are restarted most frequently?  (It took me 4 attempts to get through Cryptonomicon, but when I did I really enjoyed it).
  • A turn for the worse – which books are most frequently abandoned in the last third of the book?  These are the books that go bad.
  • Never at night – books that are read less in the dark than others.
  • Entertainment value – the books with the lowest overall cost per hour of reading (including all re-reads)

Whispersync is to books as the audioscrobbler is to music.  It is an implicit way to track what you are really paying attention to.  The data from Whispersync will give us new insights into how people really read books.  A chart that shows that  the most abandoned author is James Patterson may steer readers away from Patterson and toward  books by better authors.  I’d rather not turn to the New York Times Best Seller list to decide what to read.   I want  to see  the Amazon Most Frequently Finished book list instead.

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  1. #1 by Dominikus on March 26, 2010 - 9:33 am

    Great idea by amazon and possibly a sign of things to come: Sooner or later all our digital media consumption will be tracked by some service (I’m looking at you, Apple ;)).
    Amazon should buy http://www.goodreads.com and embed their reading histories with a social network, creating “neighbors” who’re currently reading the same chapter as you and so on.

    • #2 by Thomas on March 30, 2010 - 10:45 pm

      “Amazon should buy http://www.goodreads.com and embed their reading histories with a social network…”

      Amazon already bought Shelfari, which does exactly that.

  2. #3 by Zac on March 26, 2010 - 9:28 pm

    I am into this in a nerdy way you cannot fathom.

  3. #4 by Michelle M on March 27, 2010 - 10:37 am

    The lists you suggest sound interesting, but even more I’d like to see the stats for a particular book that I’m looking to buy. Knowing what percentage of people finished a book would be more valuable information to me than reader ratings and reviews, which are biased by self-selection.

    • #5 by Paul on March 27, 2010 - 11:14 am

      Michelle – indeed, stats like the abandonment ratio, re-readability index, should be there right next to the ratings and reviews. — P

  4. #6 by Russell on March 27, 2010 - 2:05 pm

    Great idea. Make sure you email amazon.com about it. They pay attention to this stuff.

  5. #7 by Steve on March 27, 2010 - 11:20 pm

    Bookstat nerds. Never thought I’d see that.

    But I wonder how authors will feel about seeing some of those statistics. Will they really want to know that, say, 40% of the people that bought their book never finished it? And, does that imply problems with the book, or something about the readers that never made it through?

  6. #8 by Patrick on March 29, 2010 - 1:25 am

    Love your ideas! If the information is gathered anonymously – which is entirely possible despite user IDs being integral to the app-buying process – then why not?

  7. #9 by juandesant on March 30, 2010 - 7:27 am

    One similar to the “Never at night” category would be a seasonal density map: I tend to re-read The Lord of the Rings always in the summer, but I really don’t feel like going through Mordor in winter ;-)

  8. #10 by Jonathan Bourke on March 30, 2010 - 7:34 am

    Wow, amazing idea. Am just finishing my first book on Kindle for iPhone, and I can certainly see more purchases in the future. I recently read a comment along the lines of “5 star enjoyment, 2.5 star writting”. Using a combination of reading speed and page turner stats, you could get a good feel whether a book would be a nice easy read or something more involved.

    Jonathan

    :-) feeling pleasently chuffed at the fact that I have read all of “A Brief History of Time” and it’s sequel, “The Universe in a Nutshell”. Pageturners?

  9. #11 by Eric on March 30, 2010 - 10:54 am

    Trophy books on a Kindle make no sense. No one can see you pretending to read them or sitting on your bookshelf.

  10. #12 by Chris Wolak on March 30, 2010 - 11:44 am

    Way cool! Its already known that most non-fiction books aren’t finished. I read once that the majority of people read the first chapter and that’s it. You know some maniacal literary snob or political wing-nut would create an app to make it look like they did indeed read—and finish—all the “right” books . . . at a brisk pace. Book marketing would never be the same!

  11. #13 by Carrie on March 30, 2010 - 3:55 pm

    i am a total stats junkie and would love to see info like this. if not for what the population as a whole is doing at least for myself ala the stats itunes collects.

  12. #14 by Chris on March 31, 2010 - 11:58 pm

    Does some of this information not give you the willies? Remember when the Patriot Act tried to get libraries to tattle? For some people, Kindle is a remarkable invention. But I want to hold my books, and have the sensual experience of feeling the paper and weight of a book in my hands.

  13. #15 by Joe on April 1, 2010 - 4:55 pm

    I don’t want any of that information collected about my reading habits. They’d best offer a way to opt out. No one else has any right to know what I’ve been reading, or how I read the books I purchase.

    Corporations: Keep your eyes out of my house!

  14. #16 by Ranga Kandadai on April 11, 2010 - 9:55 pm

    I think this should finally lead to a pay-per-chapter model. For starters: you could purchase all of the book before hand for 80% of the MRP, or you could pay 25% up front and pay the remaining 75% only if you thought the book was worth pursuing.

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