After the launch of the first eReaders, it didn’t take long for people to realize that the ability to track reading habits could provide useful information for publishers and authors interested in understanding how readers react to their work.
In the Harvard Business Review this week, Grant McCracken asked “Will Netflix Flourish Where Hollywood Failed?”. He pointed out Netflix’s trump card, detailed data about viewing habits, and explained why he thinks the data play is a dangerous gamble,
Netflix has so much data that they are going to be tempted to climb into the creative tent and start offering “advice.” I mean, what is all that data (and power) for, if it doesn’t let you call some shots? They can claim to know exactly what works and what does not. Well, sorry, no. Knowing that something works leaves us a long way from knowing why something works. And this leaves us a long way from knowing how to reproduce it in another movie. The only thing this data can be absolutely sure to produce is arrogance.
I think this observation may be even truer for a medium where most of the action takes place in the reader’s mind. Readers can stop, start, reread or skip, and it doesn’t really tell you anything unless you know what is happening in their heads. The data can also be misleading because it doesn’t take into account the context. If I’m reading on the bus or the train, for example, I have to close my book when I reach my stop. Chances are, I’ll still be thinking about the story though, even if I don’t pick the book up again until a week later. When that happens I might or might not go back a few pages to refresh my memory. I can think of dozens of similar scenarios that could be very misleading.
Data about reading habits is going to be hard to understand. I think it will be much more useful in the aggregate for cultural, anthropological or demographic studies than to help publishers or authors create works that have more appeal to readers.