SAN FRANCISCO - Before the Internet, books were written -- and published -- blindly, hopefully. Sometimes they sold, usually they did not, but no one had a clue what readers did when they opened them up. Did they skip or skim? Slow down or speed up when the end was in sight? Linger over the sex scenes?
A wave of startups is using technology to answer these questions -- and help writers give readers more of what they want. The companies get reading data from subscribers who buy access to an array of titles for a flat monthly fee, doing for books what Netflix did for movies and Spotify for music.
"Self-published writers are going to eat this up," said Mark Coker, the chief executive of Smashwords, a large independent publisher. "Many seem to value their books more than their kids. They want anything that might help them reach more readers."
Last week, Smashwords made a deal to put 225,000 books on Scribd, a digital library that unveiled a reading subscription service in October. Many of Smashwords' books are already on Oyster, a New York-based subscription startup that also began in the fall.
The move to exploit reading data is one aspect of how consumer analytics is making its way into every corner of the culture. Amazon and Barnes & Noble collect vast amounts of information from their e-readers but keep it proprietary.
Now the startups -- which also includes Entitle, a North Carolina-based company -- are hoping to profit by telling all.
"We're going to be pretty open about sharing this data so people can use it to publish better books," said Trip Adler, Scribd's chief executive.
Quinn Loftis, a writer of young adult paranormal romances who lives in western Arkansas, interacts extensively with her fans on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Flickr and her own website. These efforts at community, most of which did not exist a decade ago, have given the 33-year-old a six-figure annual income. But having actual data about how her books are being read would take her market research to the ultimate level.
"What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader's mind?" Loftis asked.
Scribd is just beginning to analyze the data from its subscribers. Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.