One of the things I talk about in Audience Evolution is how certain sectors of the media industry have historically been much more active than others in terms of gathering and analyzing data about their audiences. Generally (not surprisingly), ad-supported media have been much more active in this regard than non ad-supported media in this process I call the rationalization of audience understanding. This is what makes stories like this recent one from NPR about the new forms of audience information that are available to the book publishing industry (an industry that has historically been perhaps the least interested in analyzing audience data), thanks to electronic reading devices like Amazon’s Kindle, so interesting.
As the story illustrates, book retailers and publishers can now potentially know where, when, and how much of, a book gets read. Book publishers have never really had this kind of information about the consumers of their products before. In this regard, they’ve been in a very different boat than, say, television and radio programmers, or Web site operators, who have access to incredibly granular data about who is consuming what, when, where, and for how long.
One might argue, that since books are not ad-supported, there’s little to be gained from this kind of information. On the other hand, perhaps there are important insights about how, when, and where we read that could be gleaned from such data, leading to publishing and editorial decisions that better align the books that are published with the interests and habits of readers (maybe, for instance, the majority of book readers seldom make it past p. 150 and publishing books longer than that is a waste).
One thing that the history of audience research has shown us is that the scope and depth of the information available about audiences’ media consumption patterns has tangible effects on the nature of the content is produced. Along with a former grad student of mine (who was also a publishing industry executive), I wrote a piece a few years back that examined how the then-new, detailed data provided by the BookScan system of measuring and reporting books sales was impacting decision-making in the book publishing industry. BookScan provides all sorts of detailed information about when and where book purchases take place, allowing pubslihers to go well beyond scanning the weekly New York Times best-seller lists. Now, the book publishing industry is on the cusp of yet another dramatic extension of the type of audience inf0rmation that is at their disposal — information about the actual process of reading books.
Whether the industry chooses to use the data — or whether they will ultimately be allowed to use the data — remains to be seen. As the NPR story notes, substantial privacy concerns are raised by the data gathering capabilities of these electronic reading devices. And, as we’ve just seen this past month, with reports released by both the Commerce Department and the Federal Trade Commission that deal with the privacy concerns raised by the growing array of online audience data gathering tools, concerns about the privacy of our media consumption have a prominent place on today’s policy agenda.
And so, the process of audience evolution will be affected to some extent by the decisions of policymakers. What’s more interesting to me, though, than the question of if, or to what extent, privacy protections need to be put into place, is the question of whether the production of cultural products should be guided by more detailed information about audience behavior. This question gets right to the art v. commerce tension that makes media industries so fascinating. Is cultural production helped or hurt by a greater rationalization of audience understanding? I certainly don’t have the answer, but I do think it’s important that we recognize the magnitude of the question that developments such as those reported by NPR raise.