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We need incognito book purchasing

There are valid reasons for wishing to purchase a book without being tracked

In the physical realm, purchasing a book without revealing one’s identity involves little effort beyond proceeding to a store one does not usually patronise and paying in cash. Unless one is seeking illegal volumes, which are unlikely to be obtained at neighbourhood booksellers’ anyway, these obvious techniques are nearly guaranteed to throw friends, banks, and marketers off the scent.

Alas, there is no such thing as an incognito shopping trip in the digital world. Not only are our transactions permanently etched into our credit card records, they are carefully logged and scrutinised by the stores themselves. Any purchase on Amazon, to name but one, forever hounds us in the form of recommendations, obvious or otherwise. Emails and pages are subtly optimised to highlight content related to our past acquisitions, whether in style, length, or subject matter. While we may be given opportunities to decline outright suggestions, there stops our control of the process — and we must provide a reason for declining, which further enriches our personal file.

A lifetime of reading is bound to include a few “one-off” purchases: a quasi-pornographic thriller our friends are raving about, a sex manual in a moment of self-doubt, an introduction to growing prize gardenias in a brazen attempt at living it up. The fear of permanently tainting our record may prevent us from making such atypical purchases.

This is not only a matter of convenience, though; our personal freedoms are very much at stake. Books are heralded as an instrument of free speech, even as their distribution model turns into a poster child for surveillance. In a world of digital publishing, of large, centralised distribution platforms, there will no longer be any way to purchase a book without revealing one’s identity to the seller — and, possibly, the editor, its PR firm, a select group of advertisers, and a few thousands of their closest number-crunching buddies.

There are valid reasons for wishing to purchase a book without being tracked: not wanting to reveal one’s sexual orientation, social or religious beliefs, ailments and diseases, etc.

Storage and communication companies are increasingly interested in zero-knowledge services, opaque tanks and pipes into which even their maintainers cannot peek. Systems like Tor have also long offered anonymous browsing capabilities to those in need. Enabling anonymous purchases, or distributing books the contents of which are not known to the distributor, requires no new technology.

While it could be difficult to set up, for anonymity is amongst the hardest things to guarantee online, it is, without a doubt, an attainable goal.

It is high time that such systems be put in place. For our convenience, certainly, but also to safeguard our ability to publish and purchase books without fear of our interests being held against us. The publishing industry must be careful to maintain its role as a conduit for ideas, good or bad. As we attempt to turn ourselves into publishers-distributors, we must not allow the latter role to blind us to the long-term interests of our readers.

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Comments: 7

  1. Harold Jay Fannin

    All of the concerns pointed out by Francios are valid. The mega booksellers like Amazon see you as a customer to constantly harvest. A transaction for them is an “opportunity.” It creates problems for us all when their intent is to market and sell us whatever and whenever they can even if they infringe on our sanctity They do it because they can. They do it because their primary function is to sell and not satisfy we, the customers. The shopping experience in a digital world also includes the aftermath of unwanted solicitation. Buyers need to considering purchasing from other sources.

    But there is an opportunity here for new smaller publishers to not practice this and get business because all they seek is a simple one-on-one relationship between the author and the reader. This is a radical new concept if we look at history. The author has always been a accidental tourist in the book-selling process. The publisher takes the rights and proceeds to sell the book with the author getting royalties never knowing who actually bought their books. Demographic data is not knowing you customer. There is a distant relationship in this system limited to one-way fan-mail and statistics. The new arrangement should be all about relationships. I promise you will see radical new marketing approaches in the very near future that will change all this. Authors and writers need to connected and able to communicate if we are to usher in a new experience in this digital world. All we seem to do is talk about digital problems. There will be digital blessings as well. Just wait. My publisher, Inner-Face Publishing, is very sensitive to all this and as an author, I am looking forward to connecting to my readers in brave new ways.

  2. While I agree with you, I do think as a business, its important for us to know who is buying our books. For me its not the collection of the information – its the application which is important.

    As a publisher, I need to know who is buying the books I’m releasing…this helps me track trends so I can better develop my marketing strategy, the lines and submission calls I put out. However, at no time do I think the information I collect should be used to badger and harass my readers.
    The aim is to create a partnership between the seller and the buyer. To do this one has to understand who their reader is and understand they don’t desire to be pestered and hovered about with things shoved down their throats.

    • You highlight an interesting tension between the needs of readers, resellers and publishers. There is no doubt that data can be collected in a responsible way, and that it can be put to very constructive use.

      The key, I believe, is to allow users to opt out, and for the data collectors to know as little as they can afford to, given the demands of operating their business.

      Data is often collected in the physical world: the difference lies in the possibility of escaping collection, which has so far been removed entirely from digital distribution channels.

  3. That’s one reason I frequently use cash for purchases, even those purchases I wouldn’t mind being linked to me. There’s no reason to give out so much information.

    Sure, as a business owner, I’d love to know absolutely everything about everyone who purchases one of the books we publish, but my first goal is making money, and if I can do that better by learning less about my customers, I’ll happily learn less.

    And while it’s not the main thrust, a new business I’m trying to start would easily lend itself to anonymous sales of electronic media. Take a look: https://gust.com/c/ebooks_in_person

    • Frequent use of cash does indeed remain one of the best ways to derail invasive purchase histories and tracking programmes. Every little bit helps, as the saying goes…

      Reliable metrics are indeed extremely valuable to business owners, and for valid, positive reasons. Our current model is intent on optimising everything, and therefore favours the intensive collection of data. Gathering fewer statistics, and better protecting what has been gathered, will certainly require a high-level shift in our thinking, in addition to the usual array of anonymising technologies.

  4. One word: Bitcoin.

    • Some form of anonymous currency may indeed be part of the equation. The key question, of course, is whether the technical requirements of such anonymous means of purchase can be lowered sufficiently for the general public to embrace them…

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