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.
“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.
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 who’s 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, Oyster’s 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