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Peeping authors!

I found this article in the Wall Street Journal some time ago, which is about yet another way in which that which you read is now getting tracked. Most are probably unimpressed with the obvious, but at the time this article first came out "Pre-Snowden" this article was really quite shocking, and even to this day can leave ones saying "You bastards!"



"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." Few publishers have taken the experiment as far as Coliloquy, a digital publishing company that was created earlier this year by Waynn Lue, a computer scientist and former Google engineer, and Lisa Rutherford, a venture capitalist and former president of Twofish, a gaming-analytics firm.


Coliloquy's digital books, which are available on Kindle, Nook and Android e-readers, have a "choose-your-own-adventure"-style format, allowing readers to customize characters and plot lines. The company's engineers aggregate and pool the data gleaned from readers' selections and send it to the authors, who can adjust story lines in their next books to reflect popular choices.


"Data and analytics, we've seen how it revolutionized certain industries like mobile apps and gaming," says Mr. Lue. "With reading, we don't yet have that engagement data, and we wanted to provide a feedback mechanism that didn't exist before between authors and readers."


Coliloquy developed its software through Amazon's Kindle data developer program, which allows outside companies to create interactive content for Kindle. Their proprietary data platform draws on complex algorithms, similar to gaming software, that lets readers choose from different narrative pathways.


The company hired six editors and five technology and product developers and began recruiting authors from a range of genres, including romance, nonfiction, young-adult fantasy and erotica. Since launching this past January, the company has released eight titles, and is expanding into crime fiction, legal thrillers and experimental fiction. Mr. Lue and Ms. Rutherford declined to provide sales figures for Coliloquy's titles, citing a nondisclosure agreement with Amazon. But they say more than 90% of readers who buy Colloquy's books, which range from $2.99 to $7.99, finish reading them, and 67% reread the books.


In "Parish Mail," Kira Snyder's young adult mystery series set in New Orleans, readers can decide whether the teenage protagonist solves crimes by using magic or by teaming up with a police detective's cute teenage son. 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. A recent report from Coliloquy showed that the ideal hero for "Great Escapes" readers is tall with black hair and green eyes, a rugged, burly build and a moderately but not overly hairy chest.


In Tawna Fenske's romantic caper "Getting Dumped"—which centers on a young woman who finds work at a landfill after getting laid off from her high-profile job at the county's public relations office—readers can choose which of three suitors they want the heroine to pursue. The most recent batch of statistics showed that 53.3% chose Collin, a Hugh Grant type; 16.8% chose Pete, the handsome but unavailable co-worker; and 29.7% of readers liked Daniel, the heroine's emotionally distant boyfriend.


Ms. Fenske originally planned to get rid of Daniel by sending him to prison and writing him out of the series. Then she saw the statistics. She decided 29.7% was too big a chunk of her audience to ignore. "So much of the time, it's an editor and agent and publisher telling you, 'This is what readers want,' but this is hands-on reader data," says Ms. Fenske, 37, who lives in Bend, Ore. "I've always wondered, did that person buy it and stop after the first three pages? Now I can see they bought it and read it in the first week."


Write to Alexandra Alter at alexandra.alter@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications


Amazon, in particular, has an advantage in this field—it's both a retailer and a publisher, which puts the company in a unique position to use the data it gathers on its customers' reading habits. It's no secret that Amazon and other digital book retailers track and store consumer information detailing what books are purchased and read. Kindle users sign an agreement granting the company permission to store information from the device—including the last page you've read, plus your bookmarks, highlights, notes and annotations—in its data servers.

Amazon can identify which passages of digital books are popular with readers, and share some of this data publicly on its website through features such as its "most highlighted passages" list. Readers digitally "highlight" selections using a button on the Kindle; they can also opt to see the lines commonly highlighted by other readers as they read a book. Amazon aggregates these selections to see what gets underlined the most. Topping the list is the line from the "Hunger Games" trilogy. It is followed by the opening sentence of "Pride and Prejudice."


"We think of it as the collective intelligence of all the people reading on Kindle," says Amazon spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall. Some privacy watchdogs argue that e-book users should be protected from having their digital reading habits recorded. "There's a societal ideal that what you read is nobody else's business," says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for consumer rights and privacy. "Right now, there's no way for you to tell Amazon, I want to buy your books, but I don't want you to track what I'm reading."


Amazon declined to comment on how it analyzes and uses the Kindle data it gathers.

EFF has pressed for legislation to prevent digital book retailers from handing over information about individuals' reading habits as evidence to law enforcement agencies without a court's approval. Earlier this year, California instituted the "reader privacy act," which makes it more difficult for law-enforcement groups to gain access to consumers' digital reading records. Under the new law, agencies must get a court order before they can require digital booksellers to turn over information revealing which books their customers have browsed, purchased, read and underlined. The American Civil Liberties Union and EFF, which partnered with Google and other organizations to push for the legislation, are now seeking to enact similar laws in other states.

Bruce Schneier, a cyber-security expert and author, worries that readers may steer clear of digital books on sensitive subjects such as health, sexuality and security—including his own works—out of fear that their reading is being tracked. "There are gazillion things that we read that we want to read in private," Mr. Schneier says. There are some 40 million e-readers and 65 million tablets in use in the U.S., according to analysts at Forrester Research. In the first quarter of 2012, e-books generated $282 million in sales, compared with $230 million for adult hardcover books, the Association of American Publishers recently found.


Meanwhile, the shift to digital books has fueled an arms race among digital start-ups seeking to cash in on the massive pool of data collected by e-reading devices and reading apps. New e-reading services, which allow readers to purchase and store books in a digital library and read them on different devices, have some of the most sophisticated reader tracking software. The digital reading platform Copia, which has 50,000 subscribers, collects detailed demographic and reading data—including the age, gender and school affiliation of people who bought particular titles, as well as how many times the books were downloaded, opened and read—and shares its findings with publishers. Copia aggregates the data, so that individual users aren't identifiable, and shares that information with publishers that request it.


Kobo, which makes digital reading devices and operates an e-reading service that stocks 2.5 million books and has more than eight million users, has recently started looking at how readers as a whole engage with particular books and genres. The company tracks how many hours readers spend on particular titles and how far they get. Kobo recently found, for example, that most readers who started George R.R. Martin's fantasy novel "A Dance With Dragons" finished the book, and spent an average of 20 hours reading it, a relatively fast read for a 1,040-page novel.


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