No, Data Isn’t Killing Literary Fiction
Sophie Rochester asks in a recent article on The Bookseller, “Can publishing keep its soul in an increasingly data-driven future?” Rochester seems to have her doubts. She makes the argument that data-driven decision making conflicts with the creative intuition of editors and authors. If all book publishers do is chase sales data, then they will continue to reproduce the bestsellers of the past and cease to nurture groundbreaking literary fiction. That’s why the industry is currently over-run with adult coloring books, dystopian young adult fiction, and thrillers with “Girl” in the title, or so the argument goes.
Book Business conducted several interviews last year with leaders in the book industry that indicate otherwise. We asked how book publishers are using data and, specifically, how it influences their acquisition strategy. Nihar Malaviya, COO at Penguin Random House made it clear that data does not play a significant role in acquisitions. “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.” He added that data is helpful for targeting the right readers with the right book and understanding how readers want to access a publisher’s titles.
Heather Fain, SVP and director of marketing strategy at Hachette, said that data could assist in certain non-fiction acquisitions. “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.” But it’s still up to the editor to decide which health guru can share their insights in the most captivating way, added Fain.
Aside from this anecdotal evidence, the idea that data-driven decision making somehow relegates literary fiction’s position in the industry doesn’t make sense. In fact, the blockbuster chasing that Rochester condemns reveals a lack of thoughtful data analysis on the part of publishers pursuing that strategy. Yes, sales data can track what types of books sell well, but what’s more interesting about data analytics is its ability to pinpoint new opportunities. A deeper dive into book market data can reveal underserved niches. In fact, Rochester even mentions in her article that Amazon used its massive repositories of data to identify a gap in the global publishing market, launching it’s translated literature division AmazonCrossing. She describes that move as ironic. I call it smart.
Some publishers are already using data analytics to identify new opportunities, rather than rehash old successes. For example, chief marketing officer Rick Joyce told Book Business that Perseus Books Group invested in a social listening tool called ForSight to track trending conversations across a variety of social media platforms. He said that the tool not only identifies potential topics worth covering, but also reveals interesting ways to relate a book to a popular issue, pinpoints key words to include in marketing campaigns, and identifies new, engaged audiences that Perseus should be targeting.
Other publishers, like Cengage Learning, have invested significantly in market research. The publisher surveys college students regularly to learn what new problems Cengage can solve for them. David Forman, SVP of product and user experience, said that Cengage is identifying these new problems through extensive research projects like 21 Voices. The project, launched in August 2014, tracks the college careers of 21 students. “They are sending us a constant stream of insights into their lives,” said Forman, through video chats, texts, emails, and in-person interviews. The goal is to better understand how students learn and to identify new ways that Cengage can improve that learning experience. “What we get out of this kind of research are new problems to solve without getting distracted by looking in specific disciplines or trying to solve a preordained problem.”
Ultimately the assertion that publishers are utilizing data to write the next bestseller misunderstands how publishers can and are implementing data insights. Analytics can reveal unique ways to market a title, what audiences the book may be most valuable to, how a book should be priced, and more. But no publisher, to my knowledge, is using data to tell them what authors should be writing. Nor do I think data indicates that literary fiction is an unworthy endeavor. Truly groundbreaking fiction can live on for lifetimes, fueling publishers’ backlist sales. Data doesn’t seem to be the problem here, rather a lack of data understanding.
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.