I am generally under the impression that big data is beneficial. It can be used to improve cities, businesses, and schools. It can make energy grids smarter and help fight the flu. But I'm less sure about a question posed by NPR: Is data from e-readers useful for authors?
Data is being collected about your reading habits. That information belongs to the companies that sell e-readers, like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And they can share — or sell — that information if they like. One official at Barnes & Noble has said sharing that data with publishers might "help authors create even better books."
The data is also, of course, a brilliant marketing tool. Best-selling author Scott Turow says e-readers can collect a lot of information about their owners.
"You can tell everything about how somebody reads a book," says Turow, "whether they are the kind that skips to the end, how fast they read, what they skip ... So [data from e-readers] can give the author specific feedback. You know, '35 percent of the people who bought this book quit after the first two chapters.' "
The question then becomes: Could knowledge of this data erode the creativity of authors? If you know that a high percent of people aren't finishing your book will it stifle great ideas or brilliant literature because authors are writing for an audience they think will read their work? Would the world's great novels have been written if the authors thought people wouldn't read their work based on data? Books that, at the time, were seen as busts and only later became classics might have died before reaching the page.
"There's a certain logic to that from the business side," [author Scott] Turow says. "Why should we publish this book if 11 readers out of 12 can't make it past page 36? But the 12th reader may be more discerning in her tastes, and it could turn out that what the people are thumbing their nose at is Ulysses or the novels of [William] Faulkner."
If you buy this logic -- that more data could negatively impact the quality of books -- it's important to recognize that this market analysis was happening in the publishing industry long before e-readers came along. It might not have been as detailed as what we can get now, but it still impacted what authors wrote. Why else do you think there are so many self-help books? They sell. Of course, whether you see reader data as a good thing or a bad thing could also depend on whether you write (or read) fiction or, say, self-help books.
Either way, authors now have more information about the demographic that is reading the book. Writing for your audience is now a whole lot clearer. And that will no doubt bring changes. Whether that's a good thing, though, is yet to be seen.
Will the romantic image of the author being isolated in the country to write great literature be replaced in our modern society with the author isolated from the onslaught of reader trend data?
E-Readers Track How We Read, But Is The Data Useful To Authors? [NPR]
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com