Instinct versus Data in Book Publishing

Andrew Rhomberg
Mar 15, 2016 · 3 min read

The New York Times published a great profile on Jellybooksin March, which happens to be a start-up I co-founded

Lets just say that the reaction from authors and publishers to the prospect of “Moneyball for Publishing” was mixed at the time and still is. That’s no big surprise. Whether authors or publishers like it, they will have to confront the issue of reading data becoming available and that means much greater transparency as to how readers actually engage with a book.

It has been said that authors view books they have written with the kind of affection we normally reserve for our children. A year or more of an author's life might go into writing a book, so it is not surprising if a book become almost an extended part of their self.

It is therefore absolutely gut-wrenching when an author discovers that his or her book is unloved. Off course, if it didn’t sell, that was already a pretty strong indicator, that maybe the book was not the world’s darling. However, poor sales data could be explained away with the book not being discovered, being poorly marketed and that if people only discovered it, that they would fall in love with it. Wishful thinking lives eternally in all of us (start-up foudners like me are every bit as guilty of this).

However, data on people starting a book, but not finishing it — in other words a poor completion rate (CR) — is much more difficult to “explain away”. A lousy Net Promoter Score (NPS) indicating that people were not super enthusiastic when answering the question “Would you recommend this book to somebody else?” is equally devastating.

However, the bottom line is that authors and publishers are not in the business of selling paper (printed books) or bits and bytes (ebooks) or sound (audiobooks), but in the business to entertain and/or educate. Reading analytics tells authors and publishers if they achieve the latter. Sales data only tells them if they are moving the detritus of dead trees or electrons around.

Reading data makes us better authors and better publishers. Data provides us with a feedback loop to better understand what works and what doesn’t. It’s the equivalent of applause or stony silence at the end of a musical performance or theatre piece. We adapt.

Others worry that data will start shaping the opinions of gatekeepers, that means what books publisher are willing to bring to market. That may well happen, but it is important to remember that data is designed to help shape decisions not make decisions. We have not (yet) abdicated decision making to algorithms or an artificial intelligence. Data allows for a more meritocratic approach in an industry long shaped by tradition, bias and instinct.

Of course, there is the fear of the new and thus the New York Times piece spread fear in some places, but that fear will essentially subside and data-smart publishing will become the new normal. It is a reflection of the world we live in. Creativity shapes, influences, nurtures and takes inspiration from data. Book publishing is only arriving a little bit late to a development that is already reshaping our world.

Here is the full article. Form your own opinion!

Andrew Rhomberg
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