Could An Overdependence on Data Hurt The Book Industry?
Data in Moderation
All of this is not to say that data is poisonous to the book industry. Many publishers are mindful of looking beyond mainstream trends and are applying sales data in interesting ways to do so. Dan Lubart, SVP of strategy and publishing operations at Hachette, explains that sales data is actually helping Hachette identify promising self-published authors before they hit the bestseller lists. "[Data] won't say what author we should sign, but it will give acquiring editors a list of high-value targets of authors that have multiple books ranked in the top 1,000 in Barnes & Noble, for example." Elsewhere, Hachette can also monitor books that haven't gone viral yet but are still quietly gaining traction, using retailer rankings or even social media. This allows acquiring editors to gain "weeks or months of lead time" on reaching out to or signing the authors of those books, Lubart says.
Publishers also recognize that there are limits to what sales or reading behavior data can tell them, and at a certain point, artistic instinct becomes invaluable. In certain sectors data's predictive power holds less pull. "If you are talking about finding the next health guru that sells a million copies, there is a lot of data that can help you back that up," Heather Fain, SVP and director of marketing strategy at Hachette, says. On the other hand, deciding whether or not a certain theme in fiction will resonate with readers or whether readers will identify with a certain author's writing style is one with which data offers significantly less assistance. "Fiction...is one of the places where our role as tastemakers for the industry really comes into play," Fain explains.
Angela Tribelli, CMO of HarperCollins, says that data only tells part of an author's story. Where data analytics can indicate "consumer interest in say a topic or a celebrity," they're less likely to be able to gauge the "popularity of a particular author's take on that topic." Publishers may learn from analyzing consumer data that what readers want to see on the shelves next summer is a book about healthy eating. But an experienced editor with strong instincts and the ability to sniff out a strong voice in a pack of authors, all penning books about the next big diet craze, is still invaluable. "That's where our editors' expertise and instinct is invaluable. Data can only take you so far."