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Privacy and eReading Part 1: Overview

Based on the Wall Street Journal article, I thought I would explore the extent of companies’ spying on digital readers.   Data mining and predictive analysis has become an important component of marketing. In The Power off Habit Charles Duhigg shares the story of how Target built a data model that predicted when a woman was pregnant based upon her buying choices. The expecting parent demographic is the holy grail of consumers. They are price insensitive, tend to buy everything at the same place, and are willing to buy almost anything.

Target statistical expert was able to gather the data and determine based upon purchases like vitamins, scent free lotions and soaps, washcloths, and the like (about 25 items in total) that you might be pregnant.  Target would then start sending you baby coupons.  Target then clued into the idea that shoppers don’t want to feel spied on so they mixed the baby coupons in with other stuff so it made it look like you were getting a general mailer when, in fact, Target is sending you a mailer that is likely quite different from your neighbor’s mailer (particularly if your neighbor is a bachelor with no kids).

How can you avoid this? Pay cash. Don’t use your debit card.  Stay disconnected.

There are companies out there that build profiles based on your message board postings, your facebook likes, etc.  In other words, ebook companies aren’t the only ones that are spying on you. Everyone does.

When I started writing this article a few weeks ago, I thought I would address every privacy agreement in one post but that would be unwieldy so this month I’ll post a different agreement each Sunday and talk about what the privacy policy says, how easy it is to find, and what it means for digital readers.

Today, however, we’ll discuss just some general data points of information that digital publishers are acquiring from readers.  Michael Tamblyn of Kobo Books gives several talks a year about the data derived from Kobo readers.  One of his presentations is here entitled “What do eBook Customers Really, Really Want?” Tamblyn is a great speaker and the information that he shares is fascinating. The presentation begins with “What happens when a group of reading obsessed technophiles get their hands on the richest data set in the history of the book industry?”

Gold Reader A Kobo

From this slide we know that Kobo can tell the reader is using a dedicated e ink device rather than an app.  Kobo knows how much she spends per month and whether her purchases are accelerating or decelerating.  They can tell what types of books she is buying (fiction) and whether she reads mostly free or mostly paid.  Kobo makes a game of the data they are mining and encourage you to share it.

graphics for reading Kobo


Kobo is tracking how long you spend reading; how long it takes you to complete a book; how many pages per hour you read; how many pages you read per session; and when you read the most. Then Kobo encourages you to share the information on your social networks

Better in Bed Button

Companies are recording your ynnotations, bookmarks, highlights, and notes. Every time you sync your content, companies know where you stopped reading, when you stopped reading and based on your notes and highlights know what is moving you to interact with the story. They can track the samples you download and how many times a sample turns into a purchase. They know where you are from (geographic location based on IP address); what app you are using or whether you use a dedicated device; how much you read while you travel based on varying IP addresses; what type of method of payment; likely if you are female or male.

Kobo isn’t the only one collecting this data and trying to use it to sell more books to its customers. Every retailer does this. The convenience and features that are offered to you in exchange for the data mining might be a worthwhile exchange. Everyone has a different comfort level. The goal of the series is to just make the reader aware.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Jennie
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 05:24:12

    Which WSJ article? Do you have a link?

  2. Jane
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 07:03:52

    @Jennie – sorry added link.

  3. Author on Vacation
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 07:51:34

    I’ve mixed feelings about this. I use my readers strictly as readers. I don’t add notes or highlights save by accident. My shopping and reading patterns are pretty erratic. At the end of the day, I don’t care what the companies find out about my reading habits. BN tries to recommend new reads to me all the time and I doubt I’ve ever taken even one of their recommendations. I’ve even stopped checking on their free books since they’re usually not books that interest me.

    However, I dislike that companies are not offering customers full disclosure about their “spy systems.” It’s the principle of the thing. Some people would feel very violated by this type of spying, especially if they make more use of their reader’s features.

  4. Christine M.
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 07:57:58

    And this is one of the reasons why I have a Sony Reader, WiFi always turned off and software uninstalled. I hate when companies get nosy like that.

  5. Liz
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 08:40:47

    As someone without a Sony reader (very jealous right now @Christine), I’d really like to know what my options are for avoiding this. For example, if I sideload all of my books, is B&N keeping track of everything I do, or just B&N purchases? If I keep wifi off is it just going to keep storing data until the device is connected? Most importantly, is there an opt out option, and if not, is that legal?

    Thanks for writing this series, this is exactly what I was hopinh for when you poste dthat WSJ article!

  6. Moriah Jovan
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 08:44:07

    I used to refuse to use shopping discount cards at my grocery store because of this. They had them long before anyone else did, and I knew why. It wasn’t a hardship not to, either because a few cents made no difference. But nowadays it’s a lot more than a few cents, so the savings has become too great to ignore. I’m still conflicted about it.

  7. cecilia
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 08:53:39

    I wish Kobo would use great customer service to sell books.

    @Moriah Jovan: I use shopping discount cards, but I share the “account” with a couple other people who don’t live with me. The store gets data, but not for any single household, so at least it’s skewed.

  8. Carly M.
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 08:54:49

    This is one reason to buy from multiple sources. Kobo has probably dubbed me one of their freegans because I download books and never use its apps to read them. But I mix up which indie stores I use and almost never turn on my kindles wifi.

  9. Des Livres
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 09:53:59

    Amazon is one of the few companies I am happy to give information about tastes etc to. They have been tracking me since 1995, and their recommendations can be disconcertingly accurate. I use their betterizer and “improve your recommendations” thing as part of my ongoing attempts to find more books that I will like.

    I look forward to more of these posts.

  10. carmen webster buxton
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 10:02:19

    A note for those who mention not turning on the wifi/3G in their devices. My guess would be that unless you never ever turn on connectivity, your ereader is still going to save the info on you and then upload it as soon as you connect. Most people read with it off, since having 3G/wifi turned on drains the battery much faster. Ergo, it seems likely Amazon and other vendors would design their data collecting software to keep track and report once connected. Otherwise they would get only a fraction of the data then want.

    Loyalty cards are annoying but at least you have a choice to use them or not every time you shop.

  11. Ann Bruce
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 12:13:57

    Frankly, this is nothing new and I don’t see why people would get upset.

    I have almost a dozen credit cards and almost as many loyalty cards. Companies can mine data on me all they want, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to succumb to their marketing and whip out the credit card every time they send me a coupon. Willpower is a nifty thing.

  12. leslie
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 12:20:24

    @Moriah Jovan: My grocery store discount cards are under the name Minnie Mouse address 2222 disney way phone 555-1212. Who says you have to give real info?

  13. Jess
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 12:23:24

    Although I’m not happy about these companies essentially spying on their customers, I have to laugh about what would happen if they spied on me. Ihey wouldn’t know what to make of it.

    Specifically to books, I predominantly read speculative fiction, particularly fantasy and horror. I’ll mix it up between adult and YA (sometimes just because I buy e-books and they have a genre/subgenre but no specific category). Sometimes I’ll read a paranormal romance if it sounds interesting. Sometimes I’ll go a long period of time without reading anything (except my textbooks for college). I have my favorite publishing companies but anything that sounds promising (and is at what I’d consider a reasonable price) is worth consideration. “Customer loyalty” isn’t a big thing with me. If they’re trying to recommend books based on previous things I’ve read, they should know that I rarely love, love, love the previous things I’ve read. I may have read them all the way through and thought they were decent or meant to read them all the way through but had to stop because I refuse to chunk my e-reader through the nearest wall. Sometimes, the last thing I read was for curiosity’s sake and although it was okay, I’d prefer to read something else. I’m all over the board as a reader and any company that tries to figure me out based on that is going to have a hard time.

  14. Estara
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 14:58:09

    @Christine M.: I still happily fiddle with my Sony PRS-650. Of course Kobo and every shop I buy .epubs at (which are loads different ones) can connect the data I leave there, but no one can know what I do on my e-reader (which doesn’t even have wifi yet). Adobe Editions will know most of my big publisher .epubs, but not the Smashwords and other drm-free purchases.

    I buy some Kindle books with Kindle of PC and convert them via Calibre – if Kovid Goyal would at some point implement a phonehome datamining feature that actually WOULD show just about everything about my reading habits – but nothing else will connect all the dots.

  15. WordSpinner
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 15:42:41

    About the grocery store loyalty cards–I have *never* filled out the information on any of my cards, and I still get the discount. I use my parent’s home address for Safeway because they can periodically get money off gas (and it is the station closest to their house) but other than that I take the card and don’t register it.

  16. library addict
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 16:20:44

    It freaked me out the first time I went to access a book on my phone via the Sony app and it asked me if I wanted to go to the last page read. Syncing has never been an option for me, but it’s not something I miss either. I don’t use the app on my phone much, but installed it and downloaded some of the books from my library just in case I ever need to use it.

    I like my Sony 650 with no wi-fi. But I use Calibre to add my books. I shop at multiple stores (Sony, ARe, Kobo, Carina, Samhain, DANL, etc). I rarely buy ebooks from Amazon, though I get the occasional freebie from them. So yeah, unless Kovid hooks these retailers up to Calibre, whatever data they are getting from me is skewered.

    As for Amazon recommends, I wish there was a button to say I dislike so-and-so author so they would quit recommending them to me. The only time I took the energy to email them and complain was when they kept recommending Janet Dailey books when I looked at one by Nora, but that was several years ago about print books, long before they came out with Kindle.

    I do use those grocery store cards and the one from Petsmart. I like getting coupons on stuff I actually buy anyway. The only thing that worries me about them sharing info is the whole possibly giving it to the health insurance companies so you pay higher rates if you don’t buy vegetables or something. But since I live around a lot of farms, I tend to buy my fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market, so the grocery store data is skewered, too. But then I think that’s probably just being paranoid. If they want to mine the data, there’s a certain satisfaction in skewering the results for them. Or they can just think my household is really strange LOL.

  17. Anonymous 1
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 16:57:40

    @Moriah Jovan: 1) Ask for a new shopping card. Do it at a time when the customer service person is very busy. Say you will fill out the form later. Do not return it or fill out card with fake information.

    2) Keep an eye on the ground at the grocery store parking lot. Many times you can pick up a card that has been dropped– and usually run over a few times.

    3) Get together with a few friends and trade cards ever so often.

    I’ve done all three at different times.

  18. suzy
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 17:36:31

    re: grocery store cards
    NEVER use your credit or debit cards or checks. only use cash.
    never use a coupon that has been snail-mailed or emailed to you personally or to your mailing address.

    In the mid-90s I did a report for my BUS 101 class on grocery cards. The local hypermart had them & also tied them to your checking account. I used a possible use that a cereal company could ask the store for a list of Frosted Flakes buyers so they could offer them a Frosted Wheat Flake cereal. (Soon after that GF came out with Frosted Wheaties.)

  19. Statch
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 18:42:13

    Jane, this is a great subject. Thanks for taking it up. The first time this really worried me was when I was shopping for a particular brand of shoes, but didn’t buy them. Then I was reading blogs, and noticed that the advertising on the side was for the brand of shoes I’d been researching.

    I’ve almost stopped using Facebook as I read more about their plans to track people all over the web. Google is getting just as bad, though. I still haven’t decided how far I want to go to avoid this.

    With ebooks, I used to buy from a variety of etailers — whichever offered the best price — and rarely from Amazon. I had a Sony reader without wifi then and put all my books in Calibre and sideloaded from there. Then I bought a Kindle, and not long after, Agency pricing was introduced. With Fictionwise pretty much out of the picture, I now buy almost all of my ebooks at Amazon. I’ve been sucked in by the ease of making the purchase on my tablet – often from your recommendations — and having it go automatically to my Kindle. I love the ability to sync across devices. I had figured out how to do that anyway with Calibre, but it’s so much easier just to do it from Amazon. (I still put the books in Calibre, just in case I decide to switch over to another ereader in the future.)

    I know that I’m giving up privacy for this convenience, and I’m very conflicted about it. Does Amazon keep track of which books I have on my ereader that should have DRM and don’t? If they don’t now, will they do it in the future? If I had children living at home, would I have to worry about ads for the sexier romance novels showing up as they use a family computer? There are so many potentially bad uses for this kind of information.

    Hmm, I never thought to worry about using a grocery discount card. I’m still not really sure why I should?

  20. Reading-Chat Monday: Is Someone Watching What You’re Reading? «
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  21. Joy
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 08:17:41

    @library addict: “As for Amazon recommends, I wish there was a button to say I dislike so-and-so author so they would quit recommending them to me.”

    If you click on “why recommended” then the “not interested” button pops up. Unfortunately you can’t do it author by author, but you can remove the specific book recommendations and I believe the program’s algorithm eventually adjusts.

  22. Rebecca
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 10:51:04

    Thank you for posting this article. I am under the impression that the vast majority of people are uninformed as to what extent their purchases are tracked (and not just purchases) and how that data is used. Think about this with apps on your cellphone as well.
    I went to a very informational seminar on privacy. The presenter made her point like this: Even for people who say they have nothing to hide, you have curtains on your windows, right? We are entitled to a basic level of privacy, and we are not getting it online. And, particularly, when you are getting something for “free,” say, gmail/facebook, it is “free” for a reason.
    We all have to decide our comfort level with these issues–be aware that companies are making money off of you in ways that have nothing to do with what you feel you actually bought and paid for, particularly if you paid nothing for the services.

  23. The Rodent
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 12:13:09

    All of this is scary stuff… And this is why I don’t sync my Kobo or Nook, and don’t use the apps on-line. Side-load everything. (But, yeah, that doesn’t stop Target and Safeway from knowing everything else about me!)

  24. eggs
    Jul 18, 2012 @ 03:50:18

    Don’t worry about your supermarket cards. I used to work for the Interglobal Death-Ray Chemical Technology Corp (real name disguised to protect the guilty) and they already have all of your information cross tabulated if you: A) graduated from high school and B) either rented or bought accommodation in your own name; or C) had a utility in your name – phone/electricity/gas etc.; or D) ever owned a car. If you’ve ever had a phone AND a car they can really tabulate the data. This was in the US. I don’t know what other countries have, but I assume it’s roughly the same. They even cross-tabulate your details if you get a lay-away to avoid credit cards. We all at work used to entertain ourselves looking each other up and seeing how much of the info was accurate and how many times we were conflated with others with a similar name. If they already know where I live, who I live with, when I make phone calls and to whom, what car I drive and how much data usage I have, why they hell would I care if they also know I buy Metamucil and romance novels at the grocery store?

    Particularly interesting was the warranty information. People who conscientiously filled out and sent in the warrantee cards that come with everything from computers to toasters could track their purchases back to high school. Once I worked there and realized that basically anyone could pay to access this level of information about me, I ceased to worry at all about who was tracking what.

  25. Folklorist
    Jul 19, 2012 @ 00:38:08

    Yes, most people have been tracked since they acquired credit. There are things you can do to avoid tracking, but they require ghost addresses and New Mexico LLCs to buy your home and register your utilities, as well as buying prepaid credit cards with cash and refilling them with cash.

    The reasons you should care that so many companies require that you share your data with them are twofold:

    1. The laws that govern data collection, retention, and distribution have not caught up with the Internet, and the Internet is the destination where our lives are heading; and

    2. The profile companies collect and distribute, your second digital self, can and does affect your credit score, your insurance, and your general worth to companies – eventually, the ads you see online and offline can reflect what businesses think of you and what deals you are offered.

    The short summary — shopping at Wal-Mart on vacation with your AmEx card could hurt your credit score and cut your line of credit significantly. Here’s the NYT article on this:

    The author Lori Andrews wrote an excellent book about this subject, called “I Know Who You Are and I Saw WHat You Did” about privacy, social media, and data collection.

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