Publishing Plasticity: Don’t fear the e-reader

Reading in print is different from reading digitally. One study has shown that students report longer reading times, but also higher multitasking, when they read e-textbooks compared to print ones. Another one found that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.” Michael S. Rosenwald says results like these have given rise to concern among neuroscientists that humans are “developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online,” and that “[t]his alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

There are two claims here: one is that reading behaviour like skimming is taking over from slower, deeper reading, and I don’t disagree. The other claim is that “traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.” Rosenwald acknowledges that it’s not as simple as this when he writes: “There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision.” (I’m no expert, so I’ll have to take his word for it that there are in fact genes for language or vision.) However, in the next sentence, he argues that “the brain has adapted to read … spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press.” In other words, it’s not just that our brains are changing as individuals in response to our reading habits; it’s that humans as a species evolved the “trait” of being able to read in response to our use of specific technology.

I am curious to know which research Rosenwald is using. The implications of viewing reading as an evolutionary adaptation to certain tools are not small. This is an example of a teleological understanding of the history of reading. On this view, science, technology and the human brain march upward together on a linear path toward fulfilling the human goal of the Printed Book. It’s a neat and tidy view, and if we take it, we are more likely to defend print reading as inherently superior over digital technology, at least until we’ve had a few more centuries to evolve our new digital reading trait.

However, human beings did not join hands and agree to begin reading all at once, “several millennia” ago. If this evolutionary view of reading behaviour were correct, then people from cultures where literacy became widespread only a few centuries ago would be centuries “behind” on reading skills, print or digital. But reading is not an evolutionary trait; it is a skill that can be mastered, or lost, in a single generation. Neuroplasticity is different from evolution.

This brings us back to the first claim, that reading behaviour like skimming is taking over from slower, deeper reading. If we are doing more and more of our reading digitally (which we are), and if digital reading gives rise to behaviour like skimming (which it appears to), and if skimming results in less cognition and understanding (as many psychological studies suggest), then we have a problem.

As we attempt to interpret these findings and consider how they should inform our choices as publishers, I think we should be cautious before we draw any sweeping conclusions based on our limited research. A December 2017 article in the Review of Educational Research “Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal” examined 36 psychological studies on the subject of print vs. digital reading. The authors state that to their knowledge, “this is the only systematic review on the topic of reading in different mediums since 1992 that juxtaposes the contemporary field of reading digitally against the long-established and deep-rooted research on reading in print.” The study leaves me with the impression that researchers have only just begun to investigate the differences between print and online reading, and that, unsurprisingly, further research is needed:

In addition to the aforementioned need for details on textual aspects, there is a need for more clarification regarding individual differences factors and text processing in print or digitally. Simply stated, individual difference factors are the variations or deviations among individuals with regard to the characteristics shown to play a significant role in human learning and development (e.g., working memory, academic ability, gender; Gagné & Glaser, 1987). In the case of reading in print and digitally, individual difference factors such as reading rate, vocabulary knowledge, and topic knowledge have been shown to be particularly pertinent. . . . Surprisingly, very few studies in this review considered such relevant individual difference factors as fluency or topic knowledge as potential explanations for performance outcomes between print and digital reading (Kendeou et al., 2011). Thus, assessing the role of individual differences factors could help clarify patterns in comprehension performance across mediums.

They conclude, carefully, that “medium plays an influential role under certain text or task conditions or for certain readers.” This measured answer makes sense to me. With respect to the question of how publishers should respond to the rise of digital reading, I think we have a responsibility to investigate our biases and personal reactions to these kinds of claims with curiosity, setting aside our personal preferences and assumptions about different reading formats, and thinking about what it is that the readers and writers in our specific areas (genre fiction, children’s literature, Indigenous authors and content, Black literature, etc.) need for their particular “text or task conditions.”

Rosenwald quotes Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (which I have not read, for the record). Wolf worries that “the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.” To illustrate this, she describes herself reading a novel: “skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed.” But her reaction to watching herself exercise these (frankly remarkable) skills, the same skills that university education expects of us, was surprising: “I was so disgusted with myself.”

I think this illustrates how odd the panicked conversation about digital reading really is. Yes, reading in different contexts places emphasis on different kinds of skills. If print reading is falling to the wayside, I don’t think publishers need to clutch desperately at it as though it is a thread by which human intellect hangs.  We should absolutely study the different affordances of each medium, but not from the point of view that one is inherently better. Wolf points out that “the brain is plastic its whole life span” and is “constantly adapting.” Publishers need only take inspiration from that.

Final Essay: Reflection on Learning (PUB 802)

Each student will write a final essay (approximately 500-750 words) that outlines their experience in the course, and the ways in which their thinking about the roles of technologies in publishing, and in our lives, has changed as a result. Students can focus on a single takeaway, on several, or discuss the course as a whole. The takeaway need not be about a specific piece of knowledge, but rather about the experience as a whole.

Three months after the start of PUB 802 – Technology & Evolving Forms of Publishing, I can barely remember what I wrote on my cue card on that first day when we were asked to write out what we wanted to get from the class—but no matter what I wrote, I leave this class satisfied with the knowledge I have gained.

I remember feeling slightly overwhelmed by the fluid structure and the amount of autonomy we were given from day one. But coming from an educational background (I work for a school board), I understood the reasoning behind and the importance of letting students take control of their own learning. I understood that I would be more engaged in the course material if I had played a role in selecting in.

It has been an interesting experiment, seeing how these strategies that we encourage our teachers to use have played a role in my own life over the course of the semester. And I think that when looking back on my year in Vancouver, this course will stand out for me because of the forward-thinking structure it was delivered in, and because I will remember more of the content having made a conscious decision that this was information that I wanted to learn.

While I’ve taken many marketing, business, writing, and design courses before and have found much overlap with that content and the content in many of our other MPub classes, this tech class contained new information—information that will have a real and lasting impact on my life.

As much as I had hoped around the start of the class that I would leave with more concrete skills to navigate the ever-evolving world of tech, I understand now after our deep dives into the difference between the web and the internet, digital reading, tracking and measuring, and so forth, that having the background knowledge and the language to talk about these things is equally important (and has hopefully given me a solid foundation on which I can base future independent hard skills learning on).

I think a big part of the reason I have been able to take so much away from this course is because we used the plugin to annotate all of our readings. While I have always been a decent note-taker, being required to dig deeper and pull meaning, connections, and questions from the text on a public stage in front of my classmates lead me to think much deeper about the readings rather than take them at face value. I found in doing the annotations, I became more critical of the authors and was more likely to fact-check their claims, even if the articles came from reputable sources. I was also much more likely to seek out additional information to broaden my and my classmates’ understanding of the topics we were learning about. This sense of community, both between myself and the class, and the class and the author, has helped hold us all accountable to being engaged and doing proper research. If only this relationship dynamic showed up more throughout the online world, it would be a healthier place.

I also have a new appreciation for evolving and emerging technologies such as AI. Prior to this class, I was fearful and skeptical (and I think I still am, which isn’t a bad thing), but now I am able to acknowledge the problems rather than ignore them. I definitely can’t fix them, but I know that having an awareness and understanding of how they impact my life and my career is necessary. Furthermore, I understand that things like AI and metadata can benefit our lives, such as by leading to greater accessibility, knowledge, and connection. But that without proper regulation in place to hold big tech (and ourselves) accountable in this very real world, the results could be disastrous, as we have seen recently with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

I leave this class equipped with the tools necessary to understand technology, even as it shifts and changes. While we spent the last three months looking at things through a publishing lens, I feel that the background knowledge I have gained is applicable to many different fields and will be of benefit to me whatever career path I follow.

I could go on about my experience planning and leading a class, the weekly blog posts, or the contribution to public knowledge—all of which also challenged me to grow and learn—but I’m running out of space, so I will just say thank you instead.

Digital-first publishing

What I had thought prior to MPub was that digital content for publishers was mainly to supplement the content. It is fascinating to see some publishers move to a digital content-centric publishing and marketing strategies. I recognize that this may be a rise in digital content publishing in the next several years.

I think of it this way: because word of mouth sharing and recommendations is still the biggest way people discovery the books they read or buy according to BookNet Canada’s report on the English market in Canada. But the way we communicate those word of mouth recommendations is increasingly online through social media and instant messaging. Now if we come across anything we like online and think a friend or family member would like it, you can so easily and instantly link it to them through dark social.

In Harlequin’s video-centric marketing strategy, they share that 90% of consumers say video helps them make buying decisions. If such a large percentage of your readership is trusting digital content like for Harlequin, then it would not be so much of a stretch to see them also create a digital only imprint like Penguin Random House’s Penguin Petit. In these cases, this content needs to be good enough in its form to stand on its own and not seem like it is supplemental content. For new and growing publishers, it is this point that I think is most important for them in introducing digital content to their business plan. It must be digital-content first publishing or else it may just seem like it is adding to the noise.

While it is convenient to have your favourite book accessible to you in any format you please: print, ebook, audiobook, etc. Digital-first publishing would need to exist first, only available as a digital format (at least, at first) and optimized for that format. As I have introduced and discussed in class before, Webtoons (webcomics with a vertical layout) would be one case that does this extremely well. Essentially webtoons have transformed and innovated the art of comic storytelling in a way that only works to be read digitally with the infinite scroll-type experience. Webtoons simply would not be the same experience if it was printed as a book, and arguably its purpose is completely defeated if it was to be printed.

For new and growing publishers to include digital content I would recommend if they want to publish digital content, it must be solely on a new imprint. First they would need to recognize that there is a potential audience for their imprint too. The new imprint would help to differentiate from their main publications and so that it does not seem like it is supplemental material. It must be digital-first publication with print, ebook and audio formats being the one that supplements the content down the line (or maybe it would not work out at all, like with webtoons as I’ve said). After the imprint is established, publishers can play with how the content release is being staggered or episodic to retain audience engagement because of the evidence people don’t read until the end and getting to the level of deep reading for online content is a challenge. Overall, publishers would need to strongly consider how the user experience of digital content software to overcome these challenges needs to be optimized for it to work.


Let’s address the root of the problem and not the split ends

Studies like those that Konnikova cites in Being A Better Online Reader do show that reading online creates a different type of reader behavior, which may manifest in increased likelihood to skim and decreased retention. But it’s important to put those observations into context.

For one, there are a few areas where we can notice a correlation and dig to find whether causation is there too. One of the reasons retention could be so low is because of the skimmable nature of digital reading. The root of these predicaments could be addressed at the same time by adapting digital texts to create different reading behaviors.

That’s something that one organization, The Rebus Foundation, is looking to do — create an environment for webbooks that encourages deep reading behaviors. As explained on their website:

Bringing books truly into the web will be transformative. We have joined the W3C to help define a new, open and integrated web standard for webbooks, one that will enable better sharing, annotation, collection, and deep reading of digital books. In this sphere, we are focusing on deep reading ecosystems for academics and scholarly readers.

It’s important to look at the verbs that they’re using to describe deep reading: sharing, annotating, collecting. It’s not just a matter of pointing out the problem and hoping you gather enough people that agree with you; they’re adapting the technology to fit the people and not the people to fit the technology.

Each of these actions they’re hoping to facilitate can be traced back to the reasons we find digital reading so difficult. Sharing capabilities help create a more tangible community around the texts, annotation (like taking notes in the margins) helps readers interact physically with what they’re reading, and collecting helps people feel that what they’re reading is more than ephemeral.

Through Booknet Canada’s State of Digital Publishing statistics, we can see that traditional publishers aren’t perhaps giving as much thought to digital reading, but that’s not to say that it’s not being done. The Rebus Foundation is doing work in the scholarly sector of publishing, but that means that those solutions can’t be transferable to other areas of publishing (and maybe also reveals that our hang ups with deep reading are most closely associated with scholarly texts in the first place).

So, not only is it the responsibility of publishers to address issues surrounding digital reading, but it’s already being done.

For the most part, traditional publishers seem to be giving up the fight with ebooks to Amazon and focusing on their print sales. While the longevity of print no doubt will prevail, and unlike Dan Cohen I don’t think ebooks will in the next few decades be the dominant form of the book, it does make me question the integrity of the publishers’ dedication to the form of publishing. To not recognize the evolution of the industry seems to me a major misstep, at least for those who can afford it. E-readers and audiobooks enable accessibility; it’s not just a matter of personal preference but of exclusion.

I think once publishers realize “make print books more attractive” isn’t the best response to “what do we do about digital reading?” then we’ll find an equilibrium in the industry.

Digital Tracking & the Responsibility of the User

Digital tracking has been in the news lately more than Donald Trump – who knew that any topic would ever manage that?! Or no… wait, you could easily just argue that it’s still about Donald Trump and politics, only that the focus is the tens of millions of online users that got duped. In her article about The Cambridge Analytica files, the fragment that stood out the most to me was the question writer Carole Cadwalladr posed to Wiley in regards to an analogy to bullying. Wiley responded, “’I think it’s worse than bullying because people don’t necessarily know it’s being done to them. At least bullying respects the agency of people because they know. So it’s worse, because if you do not respect the agency of people, anything that you’re doing after that point is not conducive to a democracy. And fundamentally, information warfare is not conducive to democracy.”

This aspect of data tracking shook me to my core. The reality is that 7 years ago, I had a messenger conversation with one of my smartest friends in Romania and he was showcasing to me his Master’s work. I did hear him when he said that every single keyboard stroke, even those that are deleted, in fact remain encrypted in the system. I heard him but I did not listen.

Online users range dramatically in behaviour, and some accept tracking as “a matter of fact,” while others become disenchanted and slow down… and others grow paranoid and disappear altogether. The main issue here is the ripple effect of this revelation. In my case, after my friend’s lessons began to sink in, I took a step back and converted my page from personal content to a collection of articles. In other words, I deliberately became the gal at the water fountain spouting “Hey, did you knows?” and all about content relevant to me: astronomy, nature, relevant people of the world, moving digital shorts, etc.

I also monitor the settings each time Facebook makes an update. I think they’re not going to do anymore but they had this habit of overwriting the new settings because they were expanding the menu… and the onus was on you to untick a bunch of sections. In addition, one of the tools I’ve employed since the new updates has been the careful curation of posts – some are locked to “me” (with the lock symbol), most are “for friends only,” (the two people logo) and once in a blue moon, some are “global” (with the globe logo). The latter is my way of manipulating what I want potential employers or non-friends to know about me, who I am, what I care about. Political content is something I post less and less about, and never allow it to be public. It still exists, however, computationally-speaking, as part of my “online persona,” but I am one of those people that believes that if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.

On a larger scale, however: in conjunction with the #deletefacebook movement, an immediate response came from Elon Musk. Both Space X and Tesla had around 2.6 million followers and Musk deleted them both within minutes of being challenged on Twitter. Mark Zuckerberg reacted shortly thereafter by first, reverting to the older model of showcasing family and friends postings, and subsequently, in a very intelligent PR move, issuing a public apology in several newspapers, on both sides of the ocean.

Is that enough though?

I don’t think so.

I think the responsibility lies with each individual. The trouble is that whether educated or not, school-taught or life-taught, millions and millions fell into the traps of silly apps, without ever bothering to retrace their steps when they were told “the results require access to a, b, c.”

Do you know what I’m referring to? If you do, don’t accept.

If you don’t, I’ll let you look it up because a lesson learned by yourself is a lesson better remembered.

I’m going to end with a data tracking anecdote: the friend mentioned above was told to use his personal computer as test hamster. By accessing the IP remotely and harvesting the full list of keyboard strokes, including the deleted ones, he found out that his girlfriend was cheating on him.

Nothing is ever lost in the digital realm, remember that.

Changing our online habits: a start

In considering the Cambridge Analytica breach of Facebook’s data, digital tracking and online privacy has been brought to the top of the public’s concern. I am relieved that this is not news that mainstream news sources is ignoring and is being properly covered across the board. Since the news came out, it has been a very eye-opening revelation that the “Big Brother” dystopian landscape has already happened and is our reality. What can we do before it is too late?

While deleting Facebook may seem like the easiest solution, I do not think there are any simple steps that I could suggest changing our behaviour about digital tracking. Also, not everyone has the luxury of deleting their Facebook profiles and still retain the same amount of follower reach or brand awareness for their businesses. High-profile companies like Tesla, SpaceX, all associated with Elon Musk have made the choice to delete all of their Facebook pages. These companies are popular enough that they do not need to depend on Facebook anymore. There is also the #deletefacebook movement occurring too. However, the solution is not as simple as deleting Facebook but rather making meaningful changes to your online habits and the traces you leave behind.

Everyone has their own relationship with technology and social media, and the levels at which they depend and use it. While one person may jokingly (but with a grain of truth) say they cannot live without their smartphone in their hand, there are some people who still completely embrace the analog and all the levels in-between. Where you fall on that scale depends on the person. That is why it is so crazy to believe how much of an influence of the curation of online advertisements and articles by Cambridge Analytica had a role in the U.S. election.

To understand Cambridge Analytica’s strategy, they used psychographic information. Psychographics is not a term that is unfamiliar to our classes either. Cambridge Analytica optimized their data analysis process to micro-target specific groups of people based on their personalities. Similarly, for publishers this data would be immensely valuable to their marketing strategy too, just applied in a different context. We have already tried to narrow down exactly where our audience lies with resources like Vividata for our media projects.

It is almost like this double-identity/awkward place to be in as both a stakeholder in these data companies optimizing their analytics for publishers, and also treading the lines of being the potential target for other brands and know exactly what is happening to you but “don’t mind.” When Cambridge Analytica spreads fake news, and “alternative facts”, I think here is where it is important to balance which courses are credible or not, doing a careful reading, and to triangulate the information from what the source is telling you. Then, it is also about being a skeptical reader and having the self-control to pause for a moment and think before spreading an article. At the other end, checking the credibility of the source, who the author is, the publisher will help too. For publishers, I believe this is where it is important to build a genuine relationship between readers, the authors, and the publisher itself so that readers know that what they are reading is from not only from a credible source, but wants to inspire a genuine connection with its audience. I think that leveraging social media as a platform for that interaction is a way that can be done. Overall, these are just a few of my suggestions!


Tracking digital reading behaviour to improve students’ e-reading experiences

If I were going to use tracking to enhance publishing practice, I would like to use it to address the needs of educational publishing. In my experience in psychology and biology classes in my undergrad, it’s becoming very common for textbooks to come with digital components. In my classes it was usually a website you could log in to and access the text on the web, as well as view other media. There was usually a limited and finicky highlighting and annotation function, too. My experience as a user varied a lot from book to book. I remember finding some textbook’s corresponding sites useful in their content but frustrating to navigate. I think exploring student preferences and consumption behaviour would be a great application of tracking. If I were an educational publisher I would use reader analytics and tracking to specialize in delivering very user-friendly e-textbooks.

One challenge would be that students are required to read their textbooks. This means they don’t have the option to skip passages that are unreadable. The data would show a high engagement rate, but only because the students had no choice but to finish the chapter. Even in cases where they didn’t, this data would be skewed in that it would not be a reliable measure of the readability of the passage.

For that reason, my tracking in education publishing would instead focus on two other areas. The first would be on measuring time. For example, measuring the average length of time it takes students to complete a passage, or how long students are able to focus on a typical textbook before they have to put down their device. This information (which would likely differ between different fields) could be used to tailor the length of sections and chapters so that they are in readable sizes, and to let publishers know which parts need work before they release the next edition. It would also be useful for professors in planning their syllabi.

The second area I would focus on is making the reader analytics software responsive and customizable. The reader would create an account and read the text, and the reader tracking software would become familiar with their particular reading habits. Once the software had analyzed enough of my reading behaviour data, it would be able to tell me how much time to set aside for each particular chapter, when my prime studying time of day is, and how often I need to take a break.

The challenge here would be that the customizable software would function better and better over time as it became familiar with your reading habits. But by the time the software got good at understanding the student, the semester would be over. So maybe my reader analytics software could include a short “training” period where the reader is asked to run through a few pages of different kinds of text, designed to represent the kinds of text common in that particular field. The reader’s habits could then be understood and taken into account by the software a little faster. This is kind of like how Cortana (the Siri-like bot that comes with Windows 10) “learns” my accent and dialect of English by having me read particular phrases out loud.

The reason I would like to focus on educational publishing is that I would rather apply reader analytics to the goal of improving student success and experience than to hyperfocused marketing campaigns. As textbooks today in many fields are a hybrid of print and digital, educational publishers must understand student’s preferences and behaviour and take them into account when planning digital reading experiences.

Due diligence and transparency in the age of digital tracking

It’s true that digital tracking is pervasive; but comparing the tracking and use of people’s data without their consent (which is what Cambridge Analytica did) to tracking people’s reading behaviour with their consent (which is what a company like Jellybooks does) is not entirely fair. One is a serious breach of trust and violation of privacy for political uses and the other, a tool to develop ways in which we can market books better to sustain a precarious industry. The only way I see these two forms of tracking intersecting is if we assume that digital tracking of any sort is a risky venture, which, true, is not an entirely unreasonable apprehension to have. The Cambridge Analytica incident has especially forced us to revaluate digital tracking and its ethical implications.

What Cambridge Analytica did was manipulate Facebook users by way of an innocuous personality quiz. They dangled the carrot of money in front of people in exchange for access to their Facebook data. The participants knew their data was vulnerable, because they had agreed to the ‘Terms and Conditions’ of the test, but few must have wondered what harm would come from someone knowing what they had “liked” in the past year. Fewer would have realized that they were endangering not just their own privacy but their friends’ privacy as well, because by agreeing to the T&C’s of this test, they automatically enabled Cambridge Analytica to access their friends’ data, thanks to Facebook’s default terms that allowed their friends’ data to be used as well. None of the participants were made privy to the reason their data was being collected. Had they known the reasons, one hopes that most would have declined. Even Facebook – at least from what the reports say – did not know the nefarious ends to which user data was being collected. They thought it was only for academic purposes. Even if we assume Facebook was in on the charade, the people who participated in this quiz and by extension, millions of other people connected to them, definitely did not know that their data was being manipulated for sophisticated “psychological operations”, with the end goal to “microtarget” the British and American electorate to vote in a way that aligned with the political ideology of Cambridge Analytica’s funders.

Now, if we think of the ways in which digital tracking is done in publishing – and if we take the case of Jellybooks – they encode ebooks with software that tracks a reader’s engagement with that book. The software “records the reader interactions across a range of 3rd party apps such as iBooks and Adobe Digital Editions (ADE)”. The data is used to market books more efficiently. Software such as Jellybooks, OptiQly, and machine-learning programs that have the ability to predict bestsellers are useful because they are injecting some much-needed innovation into the publishing industry in a way that helps marketers position books better and readers to discover them easily. The problems occur when tests are conducted on users who are not entirely made aware of what they are getting into. In an interview with The Guardian, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie talks about the lack of “due diligence” on the part of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL. I think this due diligence is crucial. It is incumbent upon Jellybooks to be transparent to its ebook testers about its intentions and its end goal. It is also incumbent upon them to ensure that their software is encoded only into the ebook the reader has agreed to test for and not all the ebooks on their devices. If there is gray area, they should provide users information on ways to disable, delete or uninstall their software and ensure their reading behavior does not continue to be tracked by Jellybooks’s third-party affiliates. This sort of due diligence should extend even to organizations we don’t typically associate with participating in the publishing process, like Facebook. We’ve all “liked” posts about ostensibly generic and harmless things like Barack Obama auto-tune singing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, shared information about our favourite films and participated in quizzes like “Which Pride and Prejudice character are you?” When we partake in social media activity, we think we are participating in the extended community of our friends. We don’t think our data is going to be harvested for ulterior motives. I am not sure whether the solution – although some have already done it – is to absolutely stop digital tracking or social media activity. My social media averse family would seem to think so.  But I, personally, think the solution is for organizations to promise complete and absolute transparency and “privacy settings” that, by default, are not checked to allow access to personal data. The solution is also, as Wylie puts it, for users to participate in any digital endeavour with “a healthy dose of skepticism”.  Beats hearing “I told you so” from your siblings.

Metadata for Tracking

My blog post from last week discussed some specific questions I had in regards to tracking reader habits. So, this week, I want to discuss something more behind the scenes of tracking—metadata.

A couple weeks ago, our class discussed the metadata behind books, but what about the metadata behind the readers? In an article on the Publishing Perspectives blog, the owner of Jellybooks Andrew Rhomberg talks about some of the reader data they collect: “Do they open the book? Do they finish the book? Do they read the book during their commute or do they read on weekends? Do they read the book fast, do they read it slow?” and many other questions are listed, questions that Jellybooks aims to answer with their reader tracking software.

These are great questions to answer, and I can definitely see how the answers to such questions would help publishers make more informed decisions about what books to publish, and when. However, I think a lot is left out by excluding the metadata of readers. Questions like “Do they read the book during their commute or do they read on weekends?” implies that Jellybooks knows when people are on their commute, but those who work on weekends could be reading on their commute and their reading time would count as weekend reading.

People who read using ereaders know that their reading progress is being tracked. (It would be in the terms and conditions, and even if they do not read the T&Cs it should be obvious to the average person.) If Jellybooks and other reader tracking software companies collected metadata from their readers to specify their collected data, I think they would get a lot more useful, specific information. They could start with a reader survey, asking questions such as: When are you most often commuting to work / school? What are your most common days off? Are you generally a slow reader or a fast reader? These questions can help to narrow down and specify the data already being collected and help publishers and booksellers to better know their customers.

Not the Publisher’s Problem

Most publishers are not your undergrad’s English Lit prof. They don’t care if a book is understood on a deep, intrinsic, life changing level. They only care if the book sells. There may be small independent publishers that serve a niche need or are publishing passion projects, bu at the end of the day if a book doesn’t sell (for whatever reason) the publisher is going to go out of business.

There are many reasons why books sell. It’s pretty; it’s unorthadox; it’s a conversation piece; it was recommended by a friend; the person wants to look smart; they need a couple chapters of it for school. So too are there many reasons why eBooks sell. It’s convenient; it’s a space-saver; it’s cheaper. But whatever reason it sells for, the point is that it sells and the publisher makes their money. The publisher doesn’t care if you read the book to the end, or put it down after the second chapter and never pick it up again. Why would they? They already have your money.

Publishers, it is important to remember, will publish via whatever platform is available. Paperback, hardcover, eReader…if scrolls were still used as a way of housing the written word, you could probably find them at Indigo. But so far all we have are eReaders or computers for digital text. Therefor, it is down to the producers of the eReaders to adjust the technology so that there is not a decrease in understanding or retention of content. Publishers can then adjust the way they design an eBook by using the specs required for the unit. Maybe it’s about changing the way the “paper” looks, or adding a layered mechanism that allows a reader to turn a “page”, or incorporating better ways to be able to highlight and make marginal notes. Perhaps publishers and eReader designers can work together more to find solutions to better translate a physical object into a digital rendition.

That being said, companies like Kobo and Amazon’s Kindle are, like publishers, still making money from the sales of their products, so it’s hard to say how much they care either. But they probably should, because any eReader that people actually want to read from, study from or retain what it is they’re reading would probably soar ahead of the “traditional” models. Like the iMacs of the late ‘90s, eReaders are relatively young, so there is likely going to be a drastic shift in how eReaders are designed, which is good news for the people who want to actually understand and remember what it is they are reading.

I’m Just Thinking We Need a Little Less Ayn Rand Up in Here

Having grown up in America, where capitalism is treated as a moral standard, I can see the appeal of having easy access to the details of everyone’s interests and opinions. At the bottom line, even in an industry so necessarily introspective as publishing, any business’s priority is to remain in business. If data is the key of finding out how to sell your product/idea and who to sell it to, then it would be stupid to ignore its significance. It’s important for us to identify how much this affects the decisions we make as publishers and how relevant our decisions are to the predicament at large.

Arguably, publishers don’t have the same capacity or intent for thwarting democracy that the folks over at Cambridge Analytica do. But at the same time, publishing is a medium for information. The key is to make someone’s ideas — fact or fiction — spread as far as possible. If we’re collecting readers’ data, it’s because we want to know how to sell things to them, which is still at the core level still a tool that can be used to create a more homogenized and/or polarized society.

The relative definition of privacy adds another layer to the problem. When Jellybooks or Facebook quizzes ask for your data and give you something in return, they’re acquiring consent. The problem is that the average human will assume a level of innocuousness in the action. For Jellybooks, there’s perhaps a little more transparency; you are aware that you are receiving a good in return for doing something. The insidiousness of Cambridge Analytica was the purposeful lack of transparency. But at the end of the day, it’s the capacity of the technology rather than its use that’s to be taken under scrutiny. The information that they wanted was for the most part public knowledge. If someone likes the “I hate Israel” page and then likes the “Kit-Kat” page, and their account isn’t privacy locked then I have the ability to see that information. Back in the early days of Facebook, users liked pages specifically because they wanted the public to know. It’s not that users don’t want people to know about their interests – it’s that they don’t understand the full significance of what giving consent means in a particular situation where someone has the ability to ask a ton of people at once.

Since coming to Canada and specifically since learning about how the Canadian book industry is subsidized by government grants I’ve been observing the alternatives to a capitalist approach to publishing. It’s not that I don’t think that Canadian businesses should be exempt from the motivation to make money, but rather that Canadian publishers should be more in tune to the problems that arise from a fully capitalist approach to anything — that placing too much value on monetary gain doesn’t place enough value on human welfare. The socialism that publishing in Canada is in part built upon reinforces the idea that creating literature, art, and research is a public service that creates public goods. Looking at the language used so often to talk about user data, we see words like: harvest, mine, scrape. At an etymological level, the terminology used removes the idea of users as people and instead creates a psychological objectification of the user base. Though we as publishers see ourselves as the medium through which writers reach readers, that distance grows ever wider when we reduce readers to dollar signs and binary code.

I’ve traveled down this unwieldy path of the philosophical dilemmas that data tracking brings up, but at the end of the day what it really comes down to is transparency and consent. Cambridge Analytica was deliberately unethical where I would hope publishers could maintain integrity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with data tracking, as long as the proper measures for consent are set up (and they’re not just used to avoid legal backlash).

I will say that to an extent I think this race for data tracking software in publishing is a little misled. It implies that we aren’t reaching readers now that we otherwise would be reaching if we had more information about their reading behavior once they’ve already purchased a book. I would argue that we would be selling books to the people who are already buying them rather than opening up a new market, and that we already have a lot of data about the people who read books; we know their demographic information, their interests, their location, and how much they’re willing to spend on books. What I’d like to see is real concrete evidence that tracking reader data would make an impact on the book market.

Tracking for Manuscripts

If tracking were to be used to enhance publishing practice, I would develop a system that allowed unknown/unpublished authors a chance to make their way to the forefront. I would take data from sites like GoodReads, or, as well as other places for book reviews, such as Amazon. I would (or rather, the technology would) search for phrases like “I liked this book because…” or “the (blank) didn’t resonate with me” — descriptive phrases that gave concrete examples of what worked in the book and what didn’t. This would amass a database of certain ebbs and flows of plot, character, theme, etc. A manuscript could then be scanned into they system and the computer would search for similar ebbs and flows: Are there repeated romance themes in what is supposed to be a horror novel? Is there variety in dialog tags? How many action scenes are there? Which words get repeated the most (e.g. ‘sad’, ‘cried’, ‘whimpered’)? The program could then take that information and find comparable books and give a range of what was most successful and least successful, and why readers liked or disliked it.

This could be used in tandem with software that tracks trends in bestseller book sales. For example, if what is “in” in a particular season is dystopian young adult novels, the public might not notice a quirky, modern day love story about two tennis players. Or the audience might be tiring of the dystopian theme and be ready for it. It would all depend on timing, which a trend tracker would be able to plot. A trend tracker like this would take data from bookstores like Indigo, and (if they could get their hands on the data) Amazon.

This is not to say that the data collected and used to analyze a new manuscript would then make a guaranteed call. But the process could help unknown publishers get their books noticed a little bit more by acquisitions. It is important to note that in this hypothetical situation it would be only new authors that get put through the analyzation. As has been discussed before, a best selling author is more likely to keep producing best sellers, so they already have a better stamp of guarantee on their work, for better or worse.

The technology may always be a little bit flawed, but it just might make task of picking out the best bets in a stack of manuscripts that need more work (or that the world isn’t ready for, or has seen enough of) just a little bit easier.

The Churning Must Go On

As more news emerges about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I feel myself going through a range of emotions – confusion, disbelief, insecurity, paranoia, anger . . . and resignation. I am sure I am not alone in this flux. We’re all in it together – willingly or unwittingly. As a Facebook user (a decade now), I feel I’ve already shared so much with FB that there is no turning back. They have my number already. But then so do I. I think FB and I finally understand each other. This entire event actually drove me to look for some answers in the Indian mythology (we have answers for everything!).

Samudra Manthan is one of the more popular stories of the Bhagavata Purana, which finds expression in numerous South Asian miniatures and carvings across the ancient Indian kingdoms. It’s a fascinating story of the Devas (good guys) and the Asuras (bad guys) jointly churning the Ocean of Milk or Kshirsagara to obtain the Nectar of Immortality or Amrita. Although initially it is decided that the nectar would be shared equally between the two, but the Devas tricked the Asuras and consumed it all to attain immortality. However Amrita was not the only object that emerged from the Kshirsagara. The Bhagavata Purana describes numerous other living and inanimate beings which were birthed from the Ocean. This episode talks of alliances, treachery, deceit, intentions, desires and problem-management, among other things. But the chief image which is being highlighted is, of course, the manthan itself. The churning.

Mythology expert, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik says churning is not the same as tug-of-war. Both require a force and a counter-force, but whereas a tug-of-war implies the two sides implementing force at the same time (so that one side may win), churning requires one party to let go while the other applies force, and vice-versa (so that both are benefited). Change in any form has met with reactions and counter-reactions, but we, as a civilization, have never dwelled on them for too long. Kingdoms have emerged, and kingdoms have been devastated; people have settled and people have moved; temples and mosques and churches have been built and destroyed; there has been love, there has been hate, but nothing has been permanent. A constant churning has been in progress – sometimes in good faith, sometimes in ill-will; but much like the Devas and Asuras, we have been realizing the need for alliance and acceptance; the need to rise to the needs of the times; putting the land above everything else, at some point or another.

The Cambridge Analytica episode brought back the churning into focus for me. We’ve been part of the push and pull to unearth the digital delights of this world. We’ve actively contributed with our data to make our lives better. We’ve been tracked, and quite willingly too. I would like to point out that I feel I’ve been tracked not just the last few years on internet, but essentially since my birth. My kindergarten profiled me as a ‘sweet, but talkative child’, the neighbourhood grocery man knew my buying behaviour, the salesman at the clothing store quickly profiled my likes and dislikes about colours and patterns, my parents thought I was a rebel, my friends thought I was crazy cuckoo. Point being, we’ve been profiled forever. It’s nothing new. With the advancement in technology, this profiling has, in a way, made our lives easier. We have better cars, better houses, better clothes, better medicines etc. Someone is paying close attention to our likes and dislikes and making things just for us. So far, so good.

So while I happily consume the Nectar of Ocean, much like our gods did, I cannot ignore the other darker things that emerge from this or cry unfair. The data that benefited us, can also manipulate us. We need to be aware of that. Alternatively, we can disconnect from the internet and go back to our old ways. But really, is it possible to be disconnected in today’s world? We’re all caught in the spiral now. We can either roll with it or it’ll churn us, whether we like it or not.

What we need today is awareness, of our actions and the implications it can have; not only on us as an individual, but society as a whole. The greatest thing about our world today is the ease of communication. We’re on the cusp of being connected to every other individual on this earth. We’re not without power.  We have access to higher thoughts, ideologies, and intelligence to push back on manipulative intents. It’s all about the push and pull.

The churning must go on.

Anumeha Gokhale

To the Tracking Train!

Data tracking is not the distant future. It is happening now. Companies are realizing its usefulness and they are using Big Data to their advantage in all sorts of fields, from grocery stores to healthcare to cannabis. So far, publishing seems a little late to the game. But why? Are we scared of tracking’s use cases? Are we intimidated by the technology? Maybe the solution to this lies in getting the old guys out of the business and hiring young, tech-savvy people. But that’s a discussion for another day. The point is, avoiding tracking in our line of work is not the answer. If we can harness the power of Big Data tracking, the industry will be better off for it.

In a previous blog post I talked about Crimson Hexagon and how they are analyzing social media conversations to better understand their customers’ customers. I still believe social media is the best way to do this because it gives us a peek into an audience’s real likes and dislikes. We don’t have to stick to the scope of what our audience likes in a book; if we can determine our reader’s general interests, we are able to offer them a book they will truly like, including a book they themselves didn’t even know they needed!

We don’t read books in a vacuum. There is always something going on around us that influences how we feel about a book. Consider a reader with an emotional connection to a children’s book they read when they were young. If we analyze reading habits, we can find out that they like this book, but even if they still like this book as an adult, they won’t necessarily like other children’s books, even with similar stories. Something about that particular book is special to them. By analyzing the environment of a reader’s likes and dislikes we can pinpoint why people like certain books. Imagine being able to provide someone with their childhood nostalgia from an entirely new book! We are maybe not quite at that point yet, but by analyzing the surrounding personality of a reader, we can get even closer.

People talk to their friends and family and in Facebook communities and forums. They share things they find funny and thought-provoking. They check in online to locations that they visit every day. They share content with each other that is so that person. We already know that word of mouth is one of the best ways to promote a book, now we just have to start looking where this word of mouth marketing is actually happening these days. It is not useful for publishers to avoid using tracking technologies. We already know that it is helping companies develop more robust plans of action in plenty of industries. By harnessing the power of social media tracking we can become better in our acquisitions and in developing a focused and formidable niche. Avoiding this tracking simply because we don’t fully understand it is not a viable business solution. We have to act on it now to avoid becoming obsolete.

Invasive Tracking – Is it so bad?

Digital Tracking and, correspondingly, the Big Data it produces is like every other technology in this world, including books: it can be used to the benefit or detriment of humanity. There are huge ethical considerations about what use and how much of it is appropriate, and I myself am a bit torn on the subject. The vast amounts of data collected can be used to better understand human psychology, perhaps at a scale that traditional experimental methods cannot accomplish, and this knowledge can be utilized in different ways. On one hand you have the Cambridge Analytica case, showcasing how this data can be used to manipulate people at a societal level with huge consequences. On the other hand you can, for example, take the results of this controversial Facebook experiment, wherein people’s social feeds were manipulated to see how it affected their emotional levels, and use it to create a happy user-base–by using the findings, reducing the negative to positive content ratio on peoples’ feeds, and improving their emotional health (to whatever extent it can). On the other other hand, that same data from that same experiment can be carefully implemented by Facebook to control peoples’ emotions (to whatever extent it can) towards some sinister end goal.

Data tracking has the potential to be used for more than just capitalism and marketing; it can be used to better understand human behaviour, and I do not think there should be an imposed limit on what kind of tracking can take place – so long as it is all transparent, honest, and consensual. I think of the internet as a shopping mall, and Facebook, or any other website, a storefront–If you are entering somebody’s website (if you are entering somebody’s store), they have the right to know and understand who their customer base is, they have the right to know a little bit about you. In a physical store, they can know this from physical cues (the owner sees you enter the store. Maybe you’re wearing a shirt that says something, or maybe you go directly to a specific section to browse. It gives cues of your interest), or from social cues (the owner strikes up a conversation with you to find out what you like, to be able to make a recommendation for you). There might be a loyalty rewards program, tracking your purchases to understand your likes and tailor recommendations to you. Online just has different ways of tracking your behaviour and the potential to generate a lot of data from its tracking automatically.

For me, unethical comes in at the use stage. Once all of this data is acquired, it can be used to better serve the customer, the patron, the person regularly visiting your site, etc. But it can be used in terrible ways – sold to other corporations, weaponized to manipulate people at a societal level, etc. When identity becomes a commodity, data has gone just a touch too far.

When your online behaviour on one website affects how another website responds to your browser, then I think there’s a problem. Much like the pizza demonstration from Ghostery, it’s a little unsettling to have your information spread without your consent.

To get back to the question, now that I’ve laid out my stance, I’ll relate this to the publishing industry. Publishers, platforms, distributers, etc, have the right to collect information on their customers. The Jellybooks example of tracking reader behaviour in ebooks. But, say, if my reading habits on my ebook started to influence advertisements I see on my laptop chrome browser, then there is unethical and, what I think should be illegal, distribution of that information without my express permission.

As a data collector, the person or corporation collecting the data should be responsible and held accountable for the data collected. But they can certainly collect data to help them better serve the customer, if they so choose, and if they are transparent and receive consent for their use of it.

The Adaption Advantage

As it stands right now, Jellybooks is well-positioned to move in on one of the publisher’s most important (and hardest) jobs: to determine if a book will sell well or not. There is an opportunity for authors to harness this technology and share their books with readers to determine if they are print-ready, bypassing the publisher all together.

Yet there is also an opportunity for publishers here, if they are able to move fast enough (which seems to be a lot to ask in this industry) to take it. If publishers incorporate technology like Jellybooks as a regular part of their service offerings and business practices, there is a chance that authors will feel they need publishers to help them get the most out of the technology to perfect their stories.

Publishers could send draft manuscripts to readers, which would be similar to ARCs but much less polished. The Jellybooks technology would measure reader interest, which the publisher could analyze alongside other decision-making factors (intuition, current trends, etc.) that determine if a book gets published or not.

The data would also help publishers determine how to allocate resources to different books. Books that most people finish and read quickly may only need minor suggestions and copy edits, while books that people stop reading after chapter three would be flagged as needing a closer look at what happens at that point in the book. The editor could then go in and analyze that section of the book, and work with the author to make targeted revisions. This agile revisions process would involve the editor, the author, and the reader (who has been missing from this equation in the past).

By getting more feedback on a book before it is published, publishers and authors can better ensure books will be well received by target audience. Hopefully, the additional work that will go into getting a book ready for print will be balanced out by increased sales that result from stronger books.

Other companies that release products often do rounds of focus group testing to perfect their products, and so it makes sense that this process should be adapted to the publishing industry, especially with the support of technology. Why not have research-based feedback to bolster the editing process? If editors can use this technology to help them do their jobs more efficiently and effectively (by becoming experts in interpreting and responding to the data), then they will be able to mitigate the threat of losing their jobs to the technology.

If we want to stay relevant, we need to find ways to use emerging technologies, like Jellybooks, to our advantage.