The Internet of Bookish Things

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Audience + InsightThe Internet of Things, or IoT for short, is one of those buzzwords that is making the rounds in Silicon Valley. Earlier this month, many of the electronic gadgets on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas were connected cars, autonomous drones, Internet-connected thermostats (Nest) and others. Sensors and Internet connectivity are seemingly being embedded into almost anything.

So what is the Internet of Things? According to Wikipedia:

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects, devices, vehicles, buildings and other items which are embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data.

We don’t think of books as Internet-connected things, though innovations like conductive ink have made it possible to connect even printed books to the Internet.

More important than experiments with conductive ink is the significant number of books that are now published and read in the form of ebooks. Ebooks are consumed either on e-readers based on electronic ink (“e-ink”), such as the Kindle, or on the iPad, and the many tablets, large and small, based on the Android operating system, be it Amazon’s Kindle Fire or Samsung Galaxy Tab. And increasingly, ebooks are also being read on smartphones, as screens have become both larger and sharper.

These devices capable of displaying and reading ebooks create a layer of connectivity, software and sensors that turn ebooks into nodes on the Internet of Things, and in essence, enable books themselves to collect and exchange data about how and when consumers open, read, navigate, abandon or finish books. We can even learn what activities distract people from reading and how sticky a book is in terms of making its owner come back for more.

Thus we now have, in essence, an Internet of Bookish Things.

This Internet of Bookish Things is opening up new avenues for understanding how readers interact with books. We can now measure the level of engagement a book generates and thus indirectly measure the level of emotional response a book creates. The Internet of Bookish Things is also enabling tools to improve publishing workflow—from acquisition to marketing, publicity and much more—by providing data to make smarter publishing decisions. In the past, we relied on Nielsen sales data; now we can also take into account reading data, demographic details of readers, reading patterns (commuters versus weekend readers) and much more.

With time it will also change publishing workflows themselves. All too often the publishing process stops on publication date. But in the future, we will think more and more about the lifecycle of a book well beyond its publication date as well as how we maximize the satisfaction of readers and strengthen the relationships between author or publisher and the reader.

The future is not about publishing being a content business, but rather an industry focused on entertainment and learning outcomes. In other words, publishing may become an industry focused on maximizing the satisfaction of readers, and in the process, maximizing the lifetime value of readers to authors and publishers. Which is already how Amazon thinks about its customers.

One of the challenges is that much of the data today flows into the data silos of retailers like Amazon, Apple, Google and Rakuten, and remains trapped there (Facebook is noticeably absent from this list).

Kobo, now a subsidiary of Rakuten, has recently restructured its management team to focus on the potential that this data offers in maximizing merchandizing decisions and revenue optimization.

Amazon’s book recommendation engines are mostly based on sales transaction data and click data (intent), but increasingly reading data is starting to shape those algorithms as well, though still in limited ways, as Amazon’s attention is distracted by other matters.

Netflix has shown us how the switch from people receiving movies online (whether streamed or downloaded) instead of as DVDs has completely changed the company’s perception of how content is consumed, and what signals are relevant to assess the appeal of a piece of content. If somebody watched a movie, “from start to finish” and “how often they pause” are much stronger signals than ratings of click data.

So how can publishers harness this fountain of data?

To answer this question, we will report from the academic and STM sector on how publishers are collecting data through their own reading apps and platforms, whether developed in-house or licensed from third parties, and putting the data they collect to use. We will also report on how trade publishers are devising ways of collecting data from third party apps and using it not simply to better understand readers, but to also understand and predict how well a book soon to be published will perform in the marketplace.

Ebooks have provided us with a new format in addition to hardcovers, paperbacks and audiobooks, and with a 20-30-percent market share are now a firm part of the publishing landscape and, dare one say, even a “mature” part of the publishing ecosystem.

Thinking in Internet-connected terms is still very alien to publishers, however, though it is one of the key trends that will reshape publishing in the next five to 10 years. The next wave of transformation in publishing is not about the content being digital—ebooks, digital audiobooks, apps and more—but about data and digital tools that help better understand audiences, distribution channels and much more.

Over a series of 12 posts, we will explore this Internet of Bookish Things and how the ability to collect and exchange data between reader and retailer, publisher, agent and author is leading to a new wave of innovation that we call “data-smart publishing.”

In next week’s post, we will explore how readers consume novels and what the Internet of Bookish Things is teaching us in general about reading for fun and entertainment. In later posts, we will explore non-fiction reading, how data reveals differences between individual titles, and how one can conduct product testing and market research prior to publication date on books, as well as how we can assess the word-of-mouth potential of a book.

We will also be holding a workshop on data-smart book publishing at the upcoming Digital Book World Conference in New York City. The workshop takes place on Monday, March 7th from 2pm to 5pm, just prior to the main DBW conference. We will look at the challenges publishers face in collecting data, making sense of data and applying it so they can publish smarter, more efficiently and more profitably. The workshop will include speakers from Elsevier, Bonnier and others sharing their experience of turning themselves into data-smart publishers.

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5 thoughts on “The Internet of Bookish Things

  1. uflemm

    Wow! A “device capable of reading eBooks”–I want to see this, whatever it means. Or, perhaps more to the point, is it too much to expect that someone writing about books can put comprehensible sentences together?

    1. Andrew Rhomberg

      Hi uflemm,

      I’ll pass the comment on to my editor. As for me being poor at writing? True! I would indeed starve as writer (don;t expect any books from me…). I make a living trying to understand book readers. 🙂


  2. Bruce Watson

    I was already using Kindle to see how far readers had gotten into my book “Light: A Radiant History…” Problem there is the answer — not very far. But I’d long ago noticed that in 95 percent of e-books, Popular Highlights come thick and fast… for about 10 pages. Then, either A) no one finishes ANY e-book or B) they get tired of highlighting. I suspect it’s A.

    1. Andrew Rhomberg

      Hi Bruce,

      Well only about 5% of books get read by 75% or more of the people who start them or so we find…

      Unfortunately, the default option is for people to drop off after 20-100 pages…

      I really can’t say, if this behaviour is more typical for self-published books (more of those on Amazon) than “traditionally” published books, as we lack the data for that…




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