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Hooray, My Ereader Is Spying on Me

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Twenty years ago, the cops chased me for trying to learn who buys books, and why.

Today's Wall Street Journal article detailing the way that ereaders report consumption data back to Barnes and Noble and Amazon will raise some eyebrows. There will be horrified comments, and some fresh fears about invasion of privacy. If enough consumers are angry, the vendors of ereaders might even choose to allow consumers to opt out.

But the charming world of publishing has lived in the Data Dark Ages long enough. Authors and editors have long bemoaned the fact that publishers know very little about who buys their product, and how it is consumed once it leaves the bookstore.

Exactly 20 years ago I began my publishing career as an intern in the marketing department at Random House. The sales system was newly networked, and publishing executives were getting timely data on how many copies were shipped. But they didn't know to whom, and they didn't know why.

On the marketing floor, we knew we were ignorant. But the data just wasn't available.

So off we went -- a marketing manager, an assistant and me. Three subway tokens later, and we stood in the middle of South Street Seaport, armed with clipboards and a four-question survey we'd hacked together the previous day. "Excuse me, sir," we'd say. "Can we ask you a few questions about your book buying habits?" We'd even brought gifts -- a copy of Flashmaps New York for anyone who would help us out.

But there were two problems. First, everyone we stopped seemed to be from friendly European countries where little English was spoken. And secondly, the cops chased us away. In truth, they were security guards. "Sorry, miss. This is private property. There's no soliciting here." It was a big rush, actually. Book nerds like me aren't often chased by anyone in uniform.

Fast forward exactly twenty years, and I'd like to applaud the makers of ereaders for collecting some of the first usable readership data in the history of publishing. If they want to know how quickly I tore through the new Christopher Buckley novel, or that I never finished War and Peace, so be it.

I wasn't aware that my Nook transfers user data back to Barnes and Noble, yet I can't think of a way that it harms me. When I browse titles at the retailer's website, I assume they're already using cookies to follow my e-footsteps around their store. In 2012, that's a given. I willingly donate this information in exchange for the ease of shopping at home. It seems naïve to assume that a miracle device which plucks newly purchased titles out of the ether shouldn't blip a few post-transaction details back to its maker.

If you don't like it, you can always buy a hard copy.

Sarah Pinneo is the editor of the book publicity blog Blurb is a Verb. She is most recently the author of Julia's Child (Plume 2012).