Amazon Innovations

How Amazon Reads Its Customers Like A Book

The biggest question around Amazon’s Seattle brick-and-mortar bookstore — as well as the upcoming second location in San Diego — remains a philosophical one: Why would an online retailer that already sells books need to put up with the hassle of running a physical store? After all, it can sell an exponentially larger number of hardcovers and paperbacks out of its faceless fulfillment centers than in a cozy bookstore, right?

Of course, it can, but that’s asking the wrong question. Wondering what Amazon is doing selling books (or any item people will buy) is so 2015. Instead, what if Amazon is looking to traffic not in books but in how readers go about absorbing the ideas within them?

First, recent data from consumer analytics startup Jellybooks revealed that the rise of eBook and Kindle culture has given marketers insight not just into what books readers buy but how they’re reading them — or if they’re reading them at all. In a blog post to Digital Book World, Jellybooks CEO Andrew Rhomberg explained how his company has been sending free eBooks to consumers in exchange for basic demographic information and permission to track their reading habits.

Unsurprisingly, Jellybooks found that many readers don’t bother to finish a good deal of the books they start, but thanks to the ability to read over customers’ shoulders, it now knows when they tend to stop. For male readers, the critical point where they’re either hooked or nonplussed on a novel comes between the 20th and 50th pages; for female readers, that comes somewhere between page 60 and page 100. However, 90 percent of readers who get to the centennial mark end up finishing the book.

Jellybooks’ data gets a lot more granular than that. Extra insights include how marketing affects readership, whether the presence of prologues and epilogues influences completion rates and so forth, but as Rhomberg told The New York Times, the study shows that publishing companies, as well as online and offline booksellers, are entering a new age of interaction with their previously opaque readership bases.

“We still know almost nothing about readers, especially in trade publishing,” Rhomberg told NYT.

Jellybooks has no relationship with Amazon, but it’s foolish to think that one of the largest eBook sellers in the world — that also just happens to sell one of the most popular eReaders in the world — isn’t pulling apart the data on how its customers read, like Rhomberg’s startup. In fact, analysts puzzled by Amazon’s foray into brick-and-mortar bookstores have bandied about the idea of its two locations not as places to sell more of the written word but to gather data on how its customers shop for titles in a physical space, instead of just online.

“I really don’t think they’re that interested in selling books,” Patrick Connolly, an analyst at ABI Research, told TheStreet. “If you look at how the store is laid out, it seems to be set up to gather information about customers, much like they do online, and seeing whether that works in real life. We’re seeing this bringing of online analytics to the real world. They’re looking to see can this information be generated, is it of value and is having a physical store essential in their omnichannel strategy.”

Far be it from any analyst to explain to Amazon that knowledge is power. If it can obtain detailed insight into how its customers read, who’s to say it can’t start ranking books higher that are more likely to hook readers in the first few pages? In fact, Amazon’s new “commitment” to self-publishing and helping emerging writers could turn into an assembly line of the most popular story features — kill main character here, insert long-lost father here — to churn out guaranteed bestselling titles.

It sounds like a dream for Amazon — and a nightmare for writers everywhere.

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