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Amazon’s Data Mining of Novels

I find data-mining as interesting as the next person. On any given day, you’ll find me clicking into the results of surveys about consumer habits, in any number of categories. I do this for reasons that are as unnecessary as they are ambiguous.

Being from Washington, DC, and having cut my political teeth at an early age, I know how much wiggle room – and wishful thinking – is spun into the cloth of marketing data and rankings.

So much of it is subjective: how the questions are asked, who is contacted, the size of the group, etc. Increasingly, companies are finding new ways to harvest and apply information extracted through data mining their customers.

Amazon, for example, uses the amount of ebook pages read by a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, and the pace of that reading, in order to determine how much money they will pay the book author, and when.

Of course, Amazon is doing this same thing with all their videos, right? If someone watches ten minutes of a 90-minute movie, then shouldn’t the payment made to the owner of that movie’s income rights be distributed in the same way as the Kindle Unlimited payments to authors have been?

Seems logical. Maybe they are already doing things this way.

If it is only authors who are held to this standard and not movies, video games, and other forms of entertainment, then is does come across as if Amazon is discriminating against authors.

On the other hand, a business is precisely that: a business. Amazon exists to make money. Period. [pullquote]The longer they succeed at staying in business, flush with cash and ripe with innovation, the more opportunities they make available to the rest of us. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Opportunity?[/pullquote]

Change is difficult, usually, simply because it feels different, or requires unfamiliar tools, or even a new language. (Remember how people communicated with one another – letters, telephone, in person – before the advent of social media? No? Me neither.)

A novel is a single entity with many parts. To place a value on only some of it is to disrespect the whole of it. What would happen if I went into Barnes & Noble and, at random, picked a book off the shelf, tore off the first fifty pages and marched myself up to the register, ready to pay only for the portion I’d selected to read?

How many authors’ works have I read, thinking, I won’t make it through this book, or, I don’t like this story at all, only to get 200 pages in and be blow away by the masterful style of the writer as he or she brings it all home.

When I sit down to write a novel, I put together a complete story. Beginning, middle, end. Whether or not you read the whole of that story is not in my control. I can’t know what’s going on in your life, causing you to stop reading my novel only a few pages or chapters into it. Maybe a family emergency, or a work promotion. Maybe you were so inspired by the ideas in my first two chapters that you ran to your keyboard and started writing a novel of your own. Or, maybe, you just didn’t like my story. As the author, should I be penalized, financially, when a reader picks up my e-book only to find a story that doesn’t connect with them? It happens. With books. With music, movies. Clothes.

After all, when it comes down to it, you really can’t judge a book by its cover. Or even by its reader reviews. We are each our own universe, bringing our ideas and hopes and needs to the written pages of a book, whether as author or reader. To point out that we each see life, and books, through our own lens, is to state the obvious.

So, after some contemplation on Amazon’s decision to compensate Kindle Unlimited authors based on the amount of the book read by the consumer, I’ve come to the conclusion that readers should be more wary of this idea than authors.

[pullquote]The only real advantage of this particular Amazon program is that it clearly demonstrates the tremendous level of intrusion retailers have achieved – and with our full cooperation – into private spaces and moments, like reading a novel.[/pullquote]

When will schools start issuing e-readers to students and using this type of software to determine whether or not those students have read the required pages? How about businesses applying the software, with the intention of determining how many employees have read the CEO’s boring novel, or the company’s rule books, now conveniently in e-book format, from HR or Marketing?

Sometimes, it takes me a long time to finish a book, mostly because I tend to read five or six of them at the same time. I start, stop, start again. The odds are close to 100% that if I start a book, I will finish it. Just don’t hold me to when.

This change that Amazon has implemented doesn’t impact my process as a writer. I will continue to write what I like, because I like it. I have published works and manuscripts ranging in length from seven pages to more than three hundred pages. While it is the dream of every author (most, anyway?) to have every new reader become a lifelong fan of his or her work, it is unrealistic.

When it comes to, well, everything they do, Amazon makes their own rules. I’m there by choice and always have the option of either following along, or moving along.

Though our paths are voluntarily intertwined, this giant company and self-published me, we each have the power to separate from the other, at will. This is the defining spirit of enterprise in America, and in the American marketplace.

What will change for me is how I interact with Amazon as a reader. I see a return to paper in my future – to books I can toss from sight, or skim through with one eye on the page, or greedily devour with just me, myself, and I along for the ride. If Amazon wants to know my thoughts about the book, or how much I read, how fast, they’ll have to go about it the old-fashioned way…and take me to tea.

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