Doc Martyn’s Soul: The Internet of Things

Let’s put a chip in books. Let’s get data out of books. Let’s have a sensor linked to the pages. I’m not writing about digital content; I’m talking good, old print books.

The Internet of Things (IoT). We’ve probably all heard of this and have a basic grasp of what it means, too. Boiling it down to as simple a concept as I can (mainly so I can get my own head around it), it’s the idea that everyday objects—or things—are connected to each other and to data mines. In other words, the car with an automatic sensor that indicates when it’s moving or not or the fridge that in the future will monitor whether there is milk in it or not, etc. One of the great things about the IoT (in my opinion) is that these Things can collect data and we can learn from that data and can intuit trends and ideas from that data to make life better. Of course, there are many real, legitimate concerns about the captured and shared data that might come from the IoT, but I’m going to remain on the positive side of this argument for now or else this blog won’t have a lot of point.

Usage data is a gold mine for marketers. If we know more about how our customers use the products they buy from us we can make the product better; we can make the experience better; and we can give people what they want, when they want it. Usage data in the book-publishing business is, um, limited. Right now, a thousand-plus people are waving their arms at their screens and shouting: ebooks! Yes, yes, yes. However, ebooks make up twenty percent of the books purchased, which means that eighty percent of books are not being included. That means that eighty percent of possible usage data is going untapped, and it means that the data that is being untapped is that which pertains directly to our central product: printed books.

In the uber-connected (in the original German sense and not in the taxi service sense) world of the IoT usage data is everywhere. If printed books were part of the IoT imagine what we might learn about the products we produce and the content contained therein. Tiny, embedded sensors would be able to tell when a spine was touched but not picked up, but the book next to it was. How many pages do people read of your book in one setting? Do they stop at a certain point and not return? Is the book read in on particular room of the house or on a commute or on the beach? Is it purchased and then sat on a bedside table in a pile, part of the tsundoku of a person’s book life? But if we could tap into that information what would we even do with it? On a very Big Brother level we would finally know where our books end up. This would be priceless. It might also be too invasive, so let’s stay on the anonymous side of things for now. If the spine (or front cover for that matter) is passed over for another book we might learn if it is something about the title or the design. We might also be able find out that the book for which it is passed over is a competitor or, alternatively, a completely different subject that might be worth publishing another book on. If the book is picked up in a store and the cover examined, blurbs read, copy examined, we could deduce that certain blurbs/blurbers are more effective, that our copy is excellent or needs work (and thus changed in the next print run or fixed in the POD file immediately), or whether the cover design as a whole works. If we learn that people read one of our books a chapter at a time but not on consecutive days, returning to pick it back up in a few weeks, we might infer that there is great value in the chunking of that particular book for chapter dissemination. If certain chapters are never read, again, a future edition might be edited to replace that chapter with something different, thus improving the product.

The potential possibilities for what we might learn from a connected print book seem fascinating to me. I won’t deny that there is something a little intrusive about the solitary and personal activity of reading a print book being disturbed by the sensor in the book sending information about what you are doing out into the IoT to be used by marketers like me. But if that data mining is anonymous and it shares with me-the-marketer information from which I can improve the experience for me-the-reader then I’m all for it. From the marketing perspective I will surely only be able to improve the content and the book. I will also learn about the habits and tendencies of those who read our books. Incredibly powerful information for a marketer because I can tweak the campaigns to better resonate with the consumer. If I’m not interested in doing these two things then I’m in the wrong profession.

I highly doubt we’ll see print books as part of the Internet of Things any time soon. I think most people view a printed, bound book as something resilient to the passage of technology time; after all, for the most part the “thing” that is a book is little changed since its inception. I do also on a certain level question myself as to why I would even want to destroy the sanctity of sitting down in my favorite chair and reading a book. But when I sit in my office chair I practically cry out for the day when I might know such priceless information. I’m not quite ready to lead the charge “west” searching for data mines, but when they’ve been located I might just pick up my pickaxe and join in the fun.


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