MELISSA BLOCK, host:
E-books are going mainstream. Digital downloads are now 9 percent of the book market. That's up from just 3 percent last year. And that number is sure to grow after all those new Kindles and iPads are unwrapped over the holidays.
But as e-books replace paper, some book lovers and authors worry that Americans are losing the ability to keep their reading private. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.
MARTIN KASTE: Amazon's Kindle 3 is designed to stay closed. The sleek plastic case has no visible screws, but that doesn't stop the dedicated tear-down geeks who take things apart on YouTube.
Unidentified Man: You really got to wiggle it, wiggle it around and, ta da, there it is. Ha ha.
KASTE: Inside you'll find one item that most readers don't spend a lot of time thinking about:
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man: It's got a UFL connector here, which goes through a little micro coax to the GSM antenna up here. Let's take a look at it.
KASTE: It's a cell phone antenna for what Amazon calls Whispernet. It's how Amazon sends you new books, and it's also how the Kindle reports back to Amazon about you.
Most e-readers have some kind of antenna: cell phone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, sometimes all three. To Cindy Cohn, a lawyer with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, those antennas are a threat to the inherent privacy of the act of reading a book.
Ms. CINDY COHN (Lawyer, Electronic Frontier Foundation): We've always strongly believed that, you know, what you read is nobody's business but your own.
KASTE: Of course, online stores have long tracked which books you buy, but with e-readers, they're now able to know whether you've read them.
Ms. COHN: What happens with these e-readers is that they log not only what book you're reading but the, you know, the book and the page and how long you look at it. I mean they're constantly tracking what you're doing on the device.
The EFF combed through all the privacy policies and written up a handy side-by-side comparison - we have a link at npr.org. But the privacy policies leave important questions unanswered. For instance, how long do they store your page-views, and is the device using its location sensor to track where you do your reading?
The big e-book companies refuse to get into these details. Apple, Barnes and Noble, Sony and Amazon, they all declined interviews. And NPR isn't the only one asking.
Mr. SCOTT TUROW (Author): Last time I visited their main offices in Seattle, I began asking impolite questions.
KASTE: Author Scott Turow recalls the time he grilled executives at Amazon about this. Turow is now president of the Author's Guild, and he'd like to know if Amazon keeps track of who reads what.
Mr. TUROW: My sense was, from the answers I was getting, that they have collected that information for their own internal purposes.
KASTE: Turow doesn't think Amazon is sharing those data with other companies. And that's a lost opportunity, says Brian O'Leary. A publishing consultant, O'Leary says detailed reading data could become a boon for the industry.
Mr. BRIAN O'LEARY (Publishing Consultant): Better understanding when people stop reading or stop engaging with your content would help you create better products.
KASTE: Companies could graph the page-turns of thousands of readers as they make their way through the latest Stephen King novel. That's data that might interest the author, too.
Mr. STEPHEN KING (Author): I wouldn't have a problem looking, but I would probably ignore what I saw.
KASTE: King says thinking too much about what the audience wants isn't good for a writer. He says it's like a pitcher trying too hard to steer the baseball. But he expects companies will keep on collecting this kind of reading data.
Mr. KING: Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me, but it is the way that things are.
KASTE: When contemplating the fact that books now come with antennas, even the master of creepy admits to being a little creeped-out.
Martin Kaste, NPR news.