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Who’s Afraid of Reader Analytics?

Image - iStockphoto: janulla [1]
Image – iStockphoto: janulla

Like A Wolf, They’re Tracking You, Virginia

On the way to the digital disruption of the industry! the industry! we online news people (remember news people?) realized that advertisers were asking for — and getting — more and more data based on how our readers were using our work.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [2]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

In the Ante-Digital Era: At a newspaper, the staff (in hoop skirts) would place your ad and assure you that our circulation rate on a Thursday was 600,000 or more. But could we  tell you how many of those 600,000 fine recipients of our newspaper actually saw your ad? Of course not. We didn’t even know how many people had opened the paper at all that day. Dogs were seen running away with at least four copies and were not expected to be highly reactive to advertising therein.

In the Post-Digital Era: At a news site, the staff (in body art) would watch the clicks. At least one luminously GUI-ed software provided heat-mapping on selected pages so that a newsroom could see where on that page the most cursor clicks were occurring. A headline with the word “sex” in it always glowed much pinker than breaking news about the Security Council.

[pullquote]There is one trend that is striking more fears in publishers’ minds than any other. And that is the fear of data. — Andrew Rhomberg[/pullquote]

This was reader data, pouring in. And a heartbeat later it became reader analytics as someone parsed it.

To be sure, coded ads had been in play for quite awhile, both in print and on radio and TV — call a given phone number or provide a certain code from the ad and the advertiser could tell that you were watching or reading this or that. But those old-media “call-response” ads were nothing compared to what could be done in the online environment, where user movements could be monitored in real time. Advertisers might find out that no one had clicked on their expensive brand message. We were all over it like a cheap suit.

And does that reality today ever, in some news setting somewhere at some time, affect choices about what news is reported, where and how it’s reported, when it’s reported, maybe with “sex” in its headline?

You didn’t come here to talk about the news industry. How silly of me. Step this way, please.

Publishers And The Fear Of Data

There is one trend that is striking more fears in publishers’ minds than any other. And that is the fear of data.

Andrew Rhomberg [3]
Andrew Rhomberg

For me, the fear of Andrew Rhomberg’s [4] London-based company name — Jellybooks [5] — is a lot worse than the data scare. The very thought of jellied books, it’s like something out of Roger Corman, isn’t it? But poor Andrew has listened to me carp about his start-up’s name so long that I think he counts it as useful PR. As long as I spell Jellybooks correctly, right?

And he’s onto something in his latest aria at Digital Book World, The Fear of Data [6]. Kind of grabs you like The Edge of Night.

He’s asking this: won’t data-slinging publishers pass up good books because the analytics will prove that Our Fine Readership really wants schlock?

The fear is that, in the future, worthy books of high literary quality will be shunned. Yet titles are getting acquired by editors even when sales data point toward the reality that they are never going to deliver a positive return. What those who have reservations about data fail to see…is that data will make it easier to find the audience that appreciates these books. Rather than support an expensive marketing campaign across mass retail, publishers can tailor their campaigns to the relevant audience by virtue of an improved understanding of who likes to read a certain kind of book. And just as important, publishers will also discover the optimal approach to reach that audience.

This is the white-hat promise that Nathan Hull makes [7]. He’s one of the most eloquent on this topic right now.

[pullquote]Data gives authors the opportunity to understand what the audience reaction might be. It might influence them to be even bolder, or it might make them realize they overstretched and pushed too far ahead of their audience. — Andrew Rhomberg[/pullquote]

Hull ankled a digital directorship at Penguin Random House in the UK to take up the development lead at Copenhagen’s Mofibo [8] (MOH-fee-boh). That’s the Scandinavian Oyster, an ambitious ebook subscription service that shares deep reader-behavior data with its publisher-partners. According to Hull, with whom I’ve worked on several panels at conferences, Mofibo can tell you not only what someone is reading and where they are in it but also what time of day they like to read, in what place, for how long, how steadily, at what speed, and where they may well be heading for their next read. The more they watch you, the more they know and the more they pass that on to the publishers.

Rhomberg says this is the kind of info that can help a publisher understand where the next fans are. However:

Another fear is that reading data will influence the editorial process.

You mean like the news?

Will books be edited toward the lowest common denominator? Well, let us look at nonfiction books. Doesn’t it make sense to write a textbook, educational text or any non-fiction text for that matter so that it is easier for readers to absorb? The desired outcome is for readers to acquire new knowledge, not to show off the brilliance of the author.

Disappointing, isn’t it? I rather like the showing off of author brilliance, myself.

What about fiction, Andrew?

For fiction books, the issues are a bit trickier. We could say that our mission is to entertain and that we have failed if we are not able to retain the reader’s attention. Yet at the same time, fiction writing is a creative process, and to the extent that the writer is an artist, it may push the reader beyond his or her comfort zone. So if the data shows that we are pushing the user beyond that comfort zone, is that good or bad?

There’s more coming on this part than you might expect. Rhomberg makes the interesting point that for all those Amazon reviews we tear our hair over (and no, Amazon’s people-you-know reviewing policy is not new, I confirmed this directly with Seattle), and for all the mainstream reviews that only the majors can pull down, we don’t hear much from the rank and file readership about what they’re reading.

There are professional reviews, but those are the opinions of an elite few. Goodreads may give a broader measure, but those who review books are often at the extremes—people who love a book and people who hate it. The majority of readers never review books. Reading data provides feedback on those 98 percent, and it can give that feedback before a book is even published by using advance reader copies with tracking software. The data therefore gives authors the opportunity to understand what the audience reaction might be. It might influence them to be even bolder, or it might make them realize they overstretched and pushed too far ahead of their audience.

I’m Monitoring What Provokes You, Sweetheart

My provocation for you today: In an industry quickly becoming dazzled by data, how comfortably are you sitting with this stuff?

[pullquote]As the saying goes, if you torture the data long enough it will confess. — Andrew Rhomberg[/pullquote]

Rhomberg works in reader analytics. Way in. So while he’s a friend and a colleague, we take him — as he understands — as a valued expert with a vested interest in what he has to say about data and reader analytics. But all authors and all publishers, all agents and all editors, all of us now must think hard about how we’re going to handle data. Which battles are worth fighting? Which are not?

Anna Todd. Image: JD Witkowski [9]
Anna Todd. Image: JD Witkowski

How do we find a way forward that promotes the best in literature even when the reader analytics are going through the roof for One Direction fan fiction? I’m not kidding. You may find some surprises in my interview with the delightful Anna Todd [10], first lady of Wattpad nation. She has two four-book contracts (mid six-figures) with Simon & Schuster; 36 foreign translations; 1 billion reads; and a Paramount Pictures option — for Harry Styles fan fiction. Can you imagine the reader analytics that Wattpad’s Allen Lau and Ashleigh Gardner have from such a phenom? Forty million users. Wattpad is the size of the population of Argentina. That’s a pile o’ data.

And will it always be in such good hands as Lau’s and Gardner’s?

Rhomberg is excellent on the worry:

The greatest crime, admittedly, is the abuse of data. As the saying goes, if you torture the data long enough it will confess. The selective use of data to confirm a decision already made can be extremely dangerous. When we follow this path, not only are we deluding ourselves, but we are misleading others, too. Sadly, it happens all too often.

Rhomberg has done us a favor by raising the difficult topic of reader analytics and what the data-devil might make us do.

So what say you: Shall we fear reader analytics? Shall we embrace the data? Got your fan fiction ready?


Elizabeth S. Craig at Wattpad [11]


Update: Our good colleague, the cozy mystery ace Elizabeth Spann Craig, has just posted today about the nice suite of reader analytics she gets at Wattpad. She has images of the graphics for her “A Body in the Backyard” indicating unique readers, votes (Wattpadders register their approval), comments, completed reads, international distribution and more. Drop by and have a look [12]


About Porter Anderson [13]

@Porter_Anderson [14] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [15], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [16] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [17]