For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public. The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.
Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.
Pinpointing the moment when readers get bored could also help publishers create splashier digital editions by adding a video, a Web link or other multimedia features, Mr. Hilt says. Publishers might be able to determine when interest in a fiction series is flagging if readers who bought and finished the first two books quickly suddenly slow down or quit reading later books in the series.
"The bigger trend we’re trying to unearth is where are those drop-offs in certain kinds of books, and what can we do with publishers to prevent that?" Mr. Hilt says. "If we can help authors create even better books than they create today, it’s a win for everybody."