How Publishers Misunderstand Kindle, by Ted Striphas

Last week, in a post entitled “The Book Industry’s Moneyball,” I blogged about the origins of my interest in algorithmic culture — the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects, and ideas.  There I discussed a study published in 1932, the so-called “Cheney Report,” which imagined a highly networked book industry whose decisions were driven exclusively by “facts,” or in contemporary terms, “information.”

It occurred to me, in thinking through the matter more this week, that the Cheney Report wasn’t the only way in which I stumbled on to the topic of algorithmic culture.  Something else led me there was well — something more present-day.  I’m talking about the Amazon Kindle, which I wrote about in a scholarly essay published in the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (CCCS) back in 2010.  The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  (You can read a precis of the piece here.)

The CCCS essay focused on privacy issues related to devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, which quietly relay information about what and how you’ve been reading back to their respective corporate custodians.  Since it appeared that’s become a fairly widespread concern, and I’d like to think my piece had something to do with nudging the conversation in that direction.

Anyway, in prepping to write the essay, a good friend of mine, M—-, suggested I read Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (New Riders, 2006).   It’s an astonishingly good book, one I would recommend highly to anyone who writes about digital technologies.

Greenfield – Everyware

I didn’t really know much about algorithms or information when I first read Everyware. Of course, that didn’t stop me from quoting Greenfield in “The Abuses of Literacy,” where I made a passing reference to what he calls “ambient informatics.”  This refers to the idea that almost every aspect our world is giving off some type of information.  People interested in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, want to figure out ways to detect, process, and in some cases exploit that information.  With any number of mobile technologies, from smart phones to Kindle, ubicomp is fast becoming an everyday part of our reality.

The phrase “ambient informatics” has stuck with me ever since I first quoted it, and on Wednesday of last week it hit me again like a lightning bolt.  A friend and I were talking about Google Voice, which, he reminded me, may look like a telephone service from the perspective of its users, but it’s so much more from the perspective of Google.  Voice gives Google access to hours upon hours of spoken conversation that it can then use to train its natural language processing systems — systems that are essential to improving speech-to-text recognition, voiced-based searching, and any number of other vox-based services.  Its a weird kind of switcheroo, one that most of us don’t even realize is happening.

So what would it mean, I wondered, to think about Kindle not from the vantage point of its users but instead from that of  As soon as you ask this question, it soon becomes apparent that Kindle is only nominally an e-reader.  It is, like Google Voice, a means to some other, data-driven end: specifically, the end of apprehending the “ambient informatics” of reading.  In this scenario Kindle books become a hook whose purpose is to get us to tell more about who we are, where we go, and what we do.

Imagine what Amazon must know about people’s reading habits — and who knows what else?!  And imagine how valuable that information could be!

What’s interesting to me, beyond the privacy concerns I’ve addressed elsewhere, is how, with Kindle, book publishers now seem to be confusing means with ends.  It’s understandable, really.  As literary people they’re disposed to think about books as ends in themselves — as items people acquire for purposes of reading.  Indeed, this has long been the “being” of books, especially physical ones. With Kindle, however, books are in the process of getting an existential makeover.  Today they’re becoming prompts for all sorts of personal and ambient information, much of which then goes on to become proprietary to

I would venture to speculate that, despite the success of the Nook, Barnes & Noble has yet to fully wake up to this fact as well.  For more than a century the company has fancied itself a bookseller — this in contrast to Amazon, which CEO Jeff Bezos once described as “a technology company at its core” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005).  The one sells books, the other bandies in information (which is to say nothing of all the physical stuff Amazon sells).  The difference is fundamental.

Where does all this leave us, then?  First and foremost, publishers need to begin recognizing the dual existence of their Kindle books: that is, as both means and ends.  I suppose they should also press Amazon for some type of “cut” — informational, financial, or otherwise — since Amazon is in a manner of speaking free-riding on the publishers’ products.

This last point I raise with some trepidation, though; the humanist in me feels a compulsion to pull back.  Indeed it’s here that I begin to glimpse the realization of O. H. Cheney’s world, where matters of the heart are anathema and reason, guided by information, dictates virtually all publishing decisions.  I say this in the thick of the Kindle edition of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where I’ve learned that intuition, even unbridled emotion, guided much of Jobs’ decision making.

Information may be the order of the day, but that’s no reason to overlooked what Jobs so successfully grasped.  Technology alone isn’t enough.  It’s best when “married” to the liberal arts and humanities.



10 Comments on How Publishers Misunderstand Kindle, by Ted Striphas

  1. Confusig the means with the ends is a very good way to point out how so much of what Amazon does, in Kindle and elsewhere, confounds conventional thinking. Of late, a lot of what they’ve done–KSO, Prime Video Streaming, Prime ebooks, even their pbook venture–are being seriously misread.
    By now it’s clear KSO isn’t really about subsidizing the Kindle price but about building an ad-distribution business; that Prime Video and eBooks aren’t intended as standalone products (for now) but rather sweetners for Prime, which itself is really a loyalty program rather than a shipping service. Indeed, the Prime ebooks effort isn’t just about building consumer loyalty but also about giving added visibility and revenue to KDP authors. In every case, the gain for Amazon is one or more steps behind the publicly visible product or feature.
    The same with those “ambient informatics”.
    The *real* value to Amazon isn’t in knowing what a specific reader reads, but rather in how that information can help them refine their recommendation engine. More, it can help them analyze incoming content, say self-published titlles, to identify works worth promoting, even investing in. In this model, personal information isn’t particularly valuable, (yes, I read a lot of SF. Big deal.) but *aggregate* data, combined with demographics, geographic data, and public data? Very valuable. Especially for a company looking to sell products across continents and diverse cultures.
    Small wonder they refuse to breakdown Kindle or ebook sales.
    The data is part of their profit. (It has value and it would otherwise *cost* money to acquire.)
    It really shouldn’t be a surprise that a company that sees infrastructure as a profit center should see data as part of their profit. And a part that doesn’t get reported or taxed. :)

    Reminds me of what Microsoft is doing over on XBOX live; not only are they providing their own inhouse music and video commercial services, but they are also hosting compementary and *competitive* services so that somebody looking for a TV show to watch can find it on the Zune paid service or free on Netflix or Hulu.

    This bears some thinking on, indeed.
    A new lesson for the 21st century: profits need not be in currency.

  2. I am at a loss to understand what Amazon is getting out of my book reading other than its ability to suggest other books. Not only am I a very eclectic reader, but since I share my Kindle account with my daughter, the books we buy are really an amalgam of the two of us. In the case of my purchasing a knitting book, Amazon might think to recommend yarn and knitting needles but that’s about as far as it could go with information useful to its business. Thus I fail to understand the point of the author. Maybe I am just dense.

  3. I’d venture to guess your reading habits are not as eclectic as you think they are; if nothing else, Amazon’s algorithms are capable of finding the unity amid all the eclecticism, which helps the company to build a more accurate profile of who you are. In terms of what Amazon does with this information, you need to think about the matter from Amazon’s — and not your own — perspective. It’s not only about product recommendations, although it is in part. Consider, for instance, Amazon’s recent move into publishing. I’d venture to guess that they’ll be using information scooped up from people’s Kindles to determine what types of books they ought to be publishing.

    My guess would be that Amazon knows that you and your daughter share a Kindle — or that you share it with someone. Even if it doesn’t, the algorithms I’ve been writing about are adept at “smoothing” and “scrubbing” data, or discerning the “signal” amid all the “noise.” I’m not saying they’re perfect, by any means, but I’m confident they’re more powerful and widely deployed than people tend to give them credit for. Hence, my post, which I’m grateful to you for reading.

  4. Thats ten minutes of my life I’ll never get back …

    And this stuff about Amazon’s big Information gain is way way way over stated.

  5. @Howard: Have you seen this?

    Signature quote: ” With EPUB 3, publishers should be able to build software into their books that tells them how much a reader reads, when they read and for how long, for starters.”

    That is the kind of information Amazon can get without building spyware into their ebooks, just off their own servers. It is valuable.

  6. Felix – I think it is valuable … up to a point. But I believe it is way overstated in the article and in your comment. That’s just my opinion :-)
    They’ll find out that people read in this and that pattern. That they read mostly at lunch or tea or at night or on the bog. That they read for an average of … 35 minutes or whatever. And they already know what we buy from Amazon, and that many of us buy indie titles and side load them. That many read titles of dodgy origins. All very interesting and fascinating. But as I say, a big deal about very little imho.

  7. The value of such information about any one reader is low, yes. Say a few cents over a couple of years. But multiply it by the millions of people Amazon sells to and it starts to add up. (Think of olympic swimmers shaving their bodies to reduce drag; it doesn’t make much of a difference by itself but in a competition where fractions of a second count, every little bit helps.)
    More importantly, it is data *doubly* valuable to Amazon because it is *their* customers they’re profiling and because nobody else can get it. Even cheap things can be valuable if nobody else has them. Like the Kindle Special Offers. It is doubtful there is much outside money coming in for those banner ads. Maybe like Google’s ads, they only bring one cent each. Per device. Per day. But if Amazon has 10 million KSO’s out there, each bringing in one cent a day, that’s over $30 million a year.
    Not trivial.
    In the end, it doesn’t matter all that much *how* valuable it may or not be, but it is an interesting indicator of just how big the gulf is between Amazon and the rest of the publishing world. It’s almost as if they are playing two entirely different games or running a road race where one team has a modern car with a GPS unit and the other has to stop and ask for directions at every intersection. 😉
    Knowing is usually better than guessing, right?
    That is the value of data.

  8. I don’t see any business logic in your argument at all Felix, and I don’t see that value you see. It’s easy to assign value and so some sums, but it has to stand up. It doesn’t imho. The rest of the publishing world is well within competing distance if they chose to. The trouble they chose not to because they can’t see beyond the tips of their noses. And the Indies don’t seem to have any leadership or vision to join together to launch their own. This data stuff is froth.

  9. I have had a Kindle since V2, but I doubt Amazon knows a whole lot about my e-reading preferences. I think I’ve turned the wireless on twice since I got it, and most of the books I have on it have been uploaded via USB connection rather than wireless or whispernet. I also have Kindle on my Android, but don’t have my accounts synced, and thus far have only downloaded free ebooks from the Kindle store on the device. Most of my tablet reading happens on the Overdrive app where I read books from the public library. Now THEY know a whole lot about my reading habits, but since they’re not in the business of selling books, they don’t seem to care a whole lot.

  10. I guess Amazon will discover how long it’s taking me to read Moby Dick!

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