As new services track habits, the e-books are reading you

Written by New York Times | San Francisco | Updated: Dec 26 2013, 15:28pm hrs
KindleAmazon and Barnes & Noble already collect vast amounts of information from their e-readers but keep it proprietary.
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.

Self-published writers are going to eat this up, said Mark Coker, the chief executive of Smashwords, a large independent publisher. Many seem to value their books more than their kids. They want anything that might help them reach more readers.

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 include Entitle, a North Carolina-based company are hoping to profit by telling all.

Were going to be pretty open about sharing this data so people can use it to publish better books, said Trip Adler, Scribds chief executive.

Scribd is just beginning to analyse the data from its subscribers. Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see whos done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

Here is how Scribd and Oyster work: Readers pay about $10 a month for a library of about 100,000 books from traditional presses. They can read as many books as they want. We love big readers, said Eric Stromberg, Oysters chief executive. But Oyster, whose management includes two ex-Google engineers, cannot afford too many of them.

This could be called the Sizzler problem. In the 1990s, the steak restaurant chain tried to beef up sales with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, which got bigger as it got more popular. But as more hungry customers came, the chain was forced to lower quality, which caused customers to flee, which resulted in bankruptcy.

These start-ups are being forced to define something that only academic theoreticians and high school English teachers used to wonder about: How much reading does it take to read a book Because that is when the publisher, and the writer, get paid.

The companies declined to outline their business model, but publishers said Scribd and Oyster offered slightly different deals. On Oyster, once a person reads more than 10% of the book, it is officially considered read. Oyster then has to pay the publisher a standard wholesale fee. With Scribd, it is more complicated. If the reader reads more than 10% but less than 50%, it counts for a tenth of a sale. Above 50%, it is a full sale. Both services say the response has been enthusiastic, but neither provided precise numbers.

Scribd, which has received more than $25 million in venture funding, began as a site for posting documents, including pirated books. Offering a subscription service, said Jared Friedman, Scribds chief technology officer, introduces a sort of interesting business opportunity to collaborate with publishers rather than be at odds with them.