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Amazon Changed Reading. Now It Could Change Writing

What if Dickens had analytics? Jeff Bezos's Kindle Serials might tell us.

Throughout its 17-year history, Amazon has helped change the way that books are sold, the format in which they’re read and how they are published. Now it could change how they’re written.

In addition to the Kindle Fire HD and the Kindle Paperwhite, Amazon introduced a subscription book format at a press conference in Los Angeles Thursday. These books, called "Kindle Serials," will be released in segments instead of in their entirety. Updates, or "episodes," automatically appear at the back of the book as they’re created or released without extra charge.

Charles Dickens popularized a similar format more than 100 years ago when he famously published many of his works as segments in weekly publications. Bezos invoked the author's works when announcing the new product, and some of them, including Oliver Twist, will be re-released as Kindle Serials.

Dickens, however, didn’t have the Internet. Or data about how readers responded to each of his chapters.

"[Kindle Series] Authors will be able to follow along with reader reaction and adapt the next installments based on the first ones," Bezos said.

Amazon will provide discussion boards for each Kindle Serials book. Unlike most book discussion boards, they may influence the outcome of the books. Unlike in Dickens' era, anyone reading can participate.

"Serialized fiction is perfect for contemporary book culture, where writers interact with their readers directly and books can be delivered with an immediacy that the old pulp writers never could have imagined," said Neal Pollack, author of a Kindle Serial called Downward-Facing Death (yes, it's a yoga murder mystery).

Publishing one segment at a time will enable authors, like app developers, to make decisions based on user activity. Data analytics will push that ability to another level. Do readers have high drop-off rates when a certain character appears? Maybe he should appear less in the next episode. Do they share a certain idea with their social networks? Maybe that idea comes up again.

Amazon publishers are currently little better off than Dickens in the data department. Amazon only gives them access to data regarding sales figures and royalties. But startups are already making book analytics programs that collect insights from readers using Kindles and other e-readers.

One of these companies is called Hiptype. Its plug-in shows publishers where readers lose interest, where they highlight most often and which book samples convert to sales best. Amazon competitor Kobo has an analytics dashboard that monitors metrics such as geographic location of readers. Amazon can’t be far behind.

Digital has transformed all media to some extent. News is a different beast online (in many cases, a furry, cute one…in a slideshow). Video creators work differently online and photos are no longer memorials of moments, but status updates.

The digital book experiment is just getting started. Most tweaks, like social features and sound, have changed the reading experience.

But what will change the books themselves are authors. And Amazon’s new serial format, combined with the rise of data analytics for everything, has potential to change their methods.

[Image: Flickr user HaoJan Chang]

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