Another Reason Not to Get an E-Reader

Josie Leavitt - July 3, 2012

I read with horror the Wall Street Journal‘s article about people’s reading habits being logged and sifted over by their e-reader. Honestly, I’m not surprised that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are poring over the data about how people read on their e-reader. They are watching you read and paying attention.
Do you skip ahead in Fifty Shades of Grey? Do you read horror novels quickly? How many pages do you read in a sitting, do you skip to the ending of mysteries and then start at the beginning? etc. This seems like a mind-boggling trespass of a very private act. Someone is watching you read every time you flick a page. Reading is a private, solitary act that needs to be respected. How a person reads should remain between them and the book.
One of the true of joys of reading is doing it any way you want. Sometimes I read and then reread the character names in my Swedish mystery many times before I continue.  I will just go over the name until I can figure out some way of remembering it. Some names I can grasp, but others with their accents I don’t know and a combination of letters that makes no sense to me are a bit of a struggle. I will often resort to giving them my own names. If I were doing this on an e-reader would that data somehow get picked up? Are lots of people reading like this? Will this information somehow find its way in the hands of publishers and change the way books are translated?
What passages people choose to highlight in a book is also an available aggregate. This to me is the most chilling. What I choose to underline in a text is between me and the book. Margin notes that are typed in your e-reader are also researchable. Wow. So, what I write in my own book is now fodder for the number crunchers at Amazon?  Am I the only one who thinks this is a very slippery slope of invasion of privacy and free speech?
David Levithan from Scholastic was quoted as saying, “You very rarely get a glimpse into the reader’s mind,” he says. “With a printed book, there’s no such thing as an analytic. You can’t tell which pages are dog-eared.” While I see the allure of knowing this, books are not movies. They should not be test-marketed and tailored for the highest rating. Why someone dog-ears a page is their business, not the publishers.
Books should be written by writers who want to share a story and read by people who want to dip into that story in their own way. Just know that every time you pick up a book and smell that wonderful book smell, there’s not a person around mining your reading time for usable data. There’s just you and your book.

19 thoughts on “Another Reason Not to Get an E-Reader

  1. Tim Baker

    Not only is it a bit disturbing to think that Big Brother is watching us read…it also makes me wonder if Amazon et al will use this information to the benefit or detriment of Indie authors…

  2. bflyzone

    I love my Sony Pocket Reader. It has two weeks of battery life, and it doesn’t have a stitch of Internet. I bookmark every time I put my reader down to go to the bathroom. There’s some usable information right there.

    1. Larry Moniz

      There’s always a way to file a lawsuit, but to what avail. First, there’s tacit consent by merely purchasing a tablet or other reader — unlike something that is a necessity, such devices are a luxury. Like it or not, the simplest way to protect your privacy is to avoid using one.

  3. LMGold

    One thing not made clear in the original article is if they can gather info about you if you turn off the Wi-Fi and/or other Internet connection. I only turn mine on to download. I assume I’m safe, but who knows?

  4. Jenny

    Why do book people constantly fight technology that will help them do their jobs–writing, refining, and selling books–better? “One of the true of joys of reading is doing it any way you want.” And no one’s trying to take away your right to read; in fact, e-readers are opening up more options than ever so that people truly can read in any way they want. As for the data question, bookstores and publishers want to know how you engage with the books you love (or hate) so that they can create and/or recommend more books that you’ll enjoy! And if you don’t want “Big Brother” to see your margin notes, buy a physical book, or keep a journal alongside your e-reader. There’s room for both.

    1. Josie Leavitt

      I think the point is that reading should remain a private pursuit. It’s not about eschewing technology, it’s about keeping the act private. I don’t want “Big Brother” knowing what I’m reading or how I read, it’s just no one’s business and collecting data about reading should really be something folks can opt out of.

      1. Pat Dolan

        Jenny, if you want others tracking your behavior so they can recommend books, fine. You should be able to sign up for that. Josie and I should be able to opt out. Rather than being the dinosaurs that you suggest we are, perhaps we are more aware of exploitative uses of eavesdropping and want to retain our privacy.

  5. Eric

    I do like my e-reader, but I don’t like the idea of my reading habits, etc, being watched and recorded. I agree with Josie that there is nothing quite like the smell of a new book, or an old one that I’m reading again.

  6. Larry Moniz

    This would have even been beyond the conception of George Orwell when he penned 1984, long before the era of computers. Reading is as much a thought process as a recreational activity and now bureaucracies and publishers are able to track some of your thought processes via your “tablet habit.” We have indeed entered a frightening era in which even Rod Serling would have felt like Alice in a weird and scary Wonderland.

  7. Frank

    If you want your life to be private then we should be discussing this in person in a sound proof room. Our lives are no longer private unless you live on an island without any telecommunications. If Amazon or Barnes is recording how I read so what! That is the price of admission for the discount of E books over hard copy.
    There is no place to hide anymore. Rather than fret and fight I take it in stride and focus my energies on words and pursuits that make a difference in my life and the lives of others.
    Indie authors, in fact indie anything has a rough time until they learn to use the tools that are out there because of technological advances. You cannot be just an author anymore. You must be part promoter and sales person to get your book or project noticed. In my opinion that is the biggest change in the past 20 years.

    1. Kris

      Frank said: “If you want your life to be private then we should be discussing this in person in a sound proof room.”
      That’s a pretty ridiculous statement. He wants this article to be public, and his reading to be private. They’re different things. I want the fancy dress I wear to be public, my trip to the bathroom private. Different things. The author did not say he wants his LIFE to be private, he said he wants his reading to be private. Making sweeping overgeneralizations in a rebuttal can be an effective way to cloud the issue, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re not reading what he said, you’re reading what you have a pat response for.
      Additionally, your comments about indie authors are not at all related to the topic.
      Frank said: “There is no place to hide anymore. Rather than fret and fight I take it in stride…”
      That’s fine. And others wish to draw a line, tilting at windmills or not, by saying “This is not okay with me.” For what it’s worth, that’s the only way things change, when enough people saying “This thing that exists and seems unstoppable is not acceptable to me.”

      1. Lois

        @Kris – FYI, I’m pretty sure the author is a woman (Josie). Just so you know.
        @Frank – I tend to agree with you. There is a trade-off to having the services and convenience of digital. It’s this sort of ‘invasive’ analytics that gives us the search results we want when we Google something or lets you know when your friends have used an online service or site, which makes me more inclined to trust it. Of course there’s a line, but I don’t think tracking our reading habits (and only if we buy those particular devices that do this, by the way) is crossing it – not when it’s only used to more effectively create and target the products and services we want.
        Also, I think the author’s attitude to not only digital but also publishing in general is extremely old-fashioned. It reminds me of 19th-century idealistic notions of writing and publishing. Like it or not, it’s a business and an industry – deal with it. How someone who makes their living off of it can deny this is beyond me.

  8. Karen

    To those of you who see no dangers in corporations being able to collect all kinds of data about your lives: talk to some Chinese dissidents. You can be jailed, and tortured, for what you read.

  9. CS Perryess

    Here’s another example of Big Brother of the corporate nature going places he doesn’t belong. It causes one to ask, “Where are we going & what are we doing in this handbasket?”

  10. Stephanie Griffin

    I recently went to the dark side and purchased a Nook. As soon as I downloaded a copy of a newspaper I received an email asking me if I wanted to subscribe to it. That was irritating, yes, but I don’t put anything on my e-reader that I want to hide.
    I could care less if they know how fast I’m reading a book. They’ll never know the reason WHY I’m highlighting something. I could be doing research, or writing a paper on the book for a class, or maybe I just like the way the sentence sounds.
    The only people who should be worried are probably the criminals, who might be building a bomb or something. I don’t know, I’m not a criminal!
    I think people should just calm down about the whole thing. If you want your reading to be that private, buy your book at an indie bookstore, with cash! I’ll continue to buy both regular and e-books from my local indie but not from Amazon, who is certainly an evil empire.

  11. Gil

    I don’t think the issue is not whether is right or wrong for them to access an information as personal as MY side notes in MY own freaking e- book. I think the main violation is in the fact that we don’t know this is happening and we don’t have the option to a link saying: ” No, I don’t want any tracking or access to my readings”. Obviously we all love literature , we love books and we need technology. Corporate Business is business ;), and success and consumer behavior is based in this tactics , but I would really appreciate to be asked before they get “all up in MY business” even if It is to suggest books that I will end up loving after I read them. I don’t have an e-book. I wanted to buy one, but now that I know this… I’m really having second thoughts. 🙁

  12. Virginia

    If you buy a print book with a credit card, whether from a brick-and-mortar store or online, isn’t that information tracked and analyzed? Or if you use a rewards card from a particular store? It comes down to what level of “invasion” or “risk” you personally consider acceptable. I love the convenience of my e-reader enough that I don’t mind so much if someone is tracking how fast I read (it seems like an especially trivial concern when I already willingly gave the company my address, phone number, email, and credit card information in order to purchase the ebook…).


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