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« Google knows what you're looking for - so what? | Main | What's the big deal about tpyos? »

Amazon knows what you're reading - so what?

I expect the less tradition bound [reader] will expect and use some content flexibility [built in to the book of the future]. Main character’s name is the same as your ex’s which spoils the mood? Do a little find/replace, and “Call me Ishmael” becomes “Call me Ralph.” (or whatever). Set the latest Stephen King to mild, scary or terrifying, or your Harold Robbins to suggestive, lurid, or Don’t-Let-Yer-Mom-Catch-You-Reading-It! Only like happy endings? Select that version. The Future of Books, Doug Johnson, 1995

Readers of "Great Escapes," an erotic romance series co-written by Linda Wisdom and Lynda K. Scott, can customize the hero's appearance and the intensity of the love scenes. Your E-Book is Reading You, Alexandra Alter, 2012

We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted. Code of Ethics of the American Library Association, 1939

I will admit that I find engaging with a friend, a librarian, or a bookstore clerk who knows me and my reading interests a very happy experience. While the NYT Book Review is authoritative, I have to wade through a lot of "literature" reviews to get to the stuff I really liked - mysteries, gritty historical fiction, and hard science fiction. The knowing librarian doesn't bother trying to pawn any book off on me that may have the word "sensitive" in its review or to suggest anything that a high school English teacher would assign.

Amazon, my e-bookstore of choice, uses a form of artificial intelligence/data mining to provide a reader's advisory service as well. By examining my past purchases and the degree of interaction I've had with them*, my Amazon screen displays long lists of recommenced titles. And yes, they do it to increase the number of books I will be tempted to purchase. And yes, it works. However, the human librarian and the bookstore clerk are also motivated by the same somewhat self-serving objectives - to increase circulation and sales.

Alexandra Alter in her Wall Street Journal article "Your E-Book is Reading You," (read the whole article - it's really fascinating) writes:

Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers' digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company's vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people's attention.**

What? - a publisher studying the interests, needs, and buying habits of consumers to better tailor its product to meet those interests, needs and habits! Heaven forbid this were applied to athletic shoes, fast food, or automobiles. We, as consumers, might get what we want instead, perhaps, of what's good for us.

It's a double-edged sword, this others knowing your tastes, interests, and political learnings.  You go online and people are going to learn something about you, like it or not. But this kind of information can help marketers filter out the irrelevant in the fire hose stream of information that blasts at us everyday. And that is a good thing, not just for the marketer but for me, the consumer, as well so long as I understand that I AM being targeted.

We'll look at the dark side of the "what others know about you" force in the next post.

* I wonder what Amazon will make of me purchasing Fifty Shades of Gray (more erotica?) but then only managing to read the first half before giving up on it (less erotica?)

** Could apply the same data mining techniques be used to create and select books for reluctant readers in our schools?

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Reader Comments (4)

I was just thinking about this idea in terms of Pinterest. What we know about people by the names we give our boards. I think it is what it is and we, as consumers, can choose how and where we participate. Love the post--looking forward to Part 2 of your thinking.

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFranki

Hi Franki,

This benefits/drawbacks dilemma of shared personal information is true of a lot of sites. I keep thinking about how much Netflix and Apple and Google all know about me. Awareness is the main thing, I guess.


July 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Unless I tell Amazon that something I'm purchasing is a gift, it thinks forever that I like tripe like James Patterson novels or historical fiction (well, not all of that is tripe, but still, I don't read the stuff). Even based on things i purchased for myself, Amazon screws up a lot in its recommendations, and Netflix doesn't understand me at all because at least five different people occasionally use my account, and we have disparate tastes. When it comes to the Kindle, Amazon's emailed recommendations are frequently wrong, in part because I seldom even finish all the samples that I download, let alone the books I purchase. Or maybe a sample will lead me somewhere else, to say Google Books or Amazon's search inside the book so I can get more of an idea about whether a book is worth it. Maybe I'll stick a book on my wish list, but eventually decide I can't afford it. What really influences me are 1) blogs and 2) CSPAN's book TV, which I watch faithfully even though I cancelled cable. You'd think that Amazon would have noticed by now that most of the samples I download are related to the Book TV broadcast schedule, and they'd directly market some of those (with links to the appropriate author presentation). That would show that they really do have me figured out.

July 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJude

Hi Jude,

Thanks for the excellent reminder that these attempts to personalize recommendations are not fool-proof and that other review sources can be a better choice for selecting reading and viewing materials. I wonder if this awareness needs to be part of digital survival skill set for students?

Bill Ott's column in American Libraries is one of my favorite review sources. He and I seem to have the same low tastes!

Appreciate the comment,


July 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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