It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour. Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them." And on Barnes & Noble's Nook, the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first "Hunger Games" book is to download the next one.
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.But in publishing, reader satisfaction has largely been gauged by sales data and reviews—metrics that offer a postmortem measure of success but can't shape or predict a hit. That's beginning to change as publishers and booksellers start to embrace big data, and more tech companies turn their sights on publishing.
"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."
Some authors welcome the prospect. Novelist Scott Turow says he's long been frustrated by the industry's failure to study its customer base. "I once had an argument with one of my publishers when I said, 'I've been publishing with you for a long time and you still don't know who buys my books,' and he said, 'Well, nobody in publishing knows that,' " says Mr. Turow, president of the Authors Guild. "If you can find out that a book is too long and you've got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I'd love to get the information."
Others worry that a data-driven approach could hinder the kinds of creative risks that produce great literature. "The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn't have anything to do with," says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "We're not going to shorten 'War and Peace' because someone didn't finish it."