Could An Overdependence on Data Hurt The Book Industry?
In a 2011 episode of The Simpsons entitled "The Book Job," Homer assembles a team to write the next bestselling young adult novel in an attempt to make an easy million bucks. In lieu of telling an original story or advancing any sort of artistic vision, the team simply co-opts elements of young adult fiction that have already been proven immensely successful. Their finished product, "The Troll Twins of Underbridge Academy," tells the story of a magical school located underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in which the students play a sport called "Fuzzlepitch."
In the years since "The Book Job" first aired, it has become more conceivable than ever that one could predictably produce a blockbuster book by crunching the data on what has sold well in the past. Recent years have brought publishers greater access to data, and with it, more nuanced insight into everything from the topics that certain demographics are interested in to the completion rates of specific books. While most publishers may not aspire to replicate the latest literary fad to the farcical extent that Homer does, some in the industry have expressed concerns that an overreliance on data in service of reducing risk could stymie the creative aspects of title acquisition and diminish the vibrancy of the industry.
Data Is About What's Been Done
In an industry long defined by its reliance on intuitive -- and often unpredictable -- decision-making, data promises to reduce the uncertainty of the publishing business. Yet data also has its limitations, in that by its very nature it is about the past. It tells us little about subject matter that remains unexplored, or genres not yet invented. Could diminishing the role of creative thinking prevent publishers from breaking new ground and from having a diverse set of offerings that satisfy readers?
Caleb Mason, founder and publisher of Publerati, holds this concern and says he has already seen the "stick with what works" mentality in action. Reflecting on his recent trips to BookExpo America, Mason says, "I was amazed...by how few publishers there were, and they all had the same things."
Many will argue that digital disruption and an unstable market have compelled publishers to become less risk tolerant and experimental. But will data shake publishers from the stagnation of uniformity, or lead them further toward the rinse-and-repeat model?
Some data evangelists would argue that big data about reader preferences is superior at revealing reader desires than intuition -- or that focus groups can better extract what readers want. Yet Mason believes this sentiment is misguided. "If a reader can actually describe what they want, then it's probably not that great of an idea," says Mason. "When you look at the history of invention, whether it's Polaroid or the iPod, no one was asking for these devices, but they ended up being revolutionary products."
As more aspects of book consumption become quantifiable, so too, do authors. Publishers are eager to sign authors who already have a significant social media following, as evidenced by the recent slew of books written by YouTube stars and internet icons. But is the lure of big audience numbers blinding publishers to new talent? Mason believes so and it is one of the reasons he created Publerati. "I wanted to do something in the interest of those who are being left behind because they don't have a billion fans, because maybe they can write a very good novel that at least deserves to be published as an ebook," he says.
Mason believes that the tendency to retread worn ideas could open new territory for publishers willing to be bold. The intuitive ideas that set a new trend in motion -- rather than those that latch onto what's fashionable - will be rewarded more handsomely than ever. "At some point, a trend is going to be over," says Mason. "At that point, the benefits of doing something before anybody does it and then having it be successful are huge because you're already ahead of everyone else." The publisher that manages to identify the literary cravings of teenagers unsatisfied by the recent onslaught of broody, dystopian novels have more to gain than artistic credibility -- there's uncrowded market space available.
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."
It's fair to say that despite the considerable benefits of data, publishers are under no grand delusions about the continued importance of artistry in the industry. Nihar Malaviya, EVP and COO for Penguin Random House U.S., says that data can be used to empower, not subvert, artistic impulse. "As always, when it comes to making editorial acquisitions, our editors remain guided by their instincts and expertise, their taste, and an understanding of the prospective consumer market for the submission. Data plays a supplemental role in the process."
Continues Malaviya: "The next great American novel isn't going to be written by data. It's going to be written by someone who is passionate and compelling about a story they have to tell. One of our roles as a publisher is to aggregate the data and make it accessible and meaningful to authors, who will then use it as they see best. Or not."
Malaviya also insists that data is helping publishers address reader discoverability challenges. "Access to increased data allows us to learn what resonates with readers and to then share with them targeted book recommendations. We can also use data to enhance our understanding of readers to better deliver access to titles of ours they might be interested in."
And of course data isn't a new trend in publishing, says Malaviya. "Publishers have been using BookScan to look at sales data for the past decade. There is just more data available than ever before. Access to data does not control their decision-making process, but it can constructively contribute to the work our publishing professionals do each day -- ranging from acquiring a book to marketing it."
Jennifer Yu and Ellen Harvey contributed reporting and research to this article.