Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Book Publishing has a data problem, and the industry is finding solutions

All publishers, small and large – whether in trade publishing, academic or independent publishing – are all united by one single truth: None of them has very much data by which to make decisions.

Let’s Look at Some Scenarios

If an educational publisher ponders whether to take a textbook and re-publish it the following year with two additional chapters the author has written, what data exists to inform that decision? What data is out there that would tell the publisher whether a price premium would be justified by that new addition? Or, what data might suggest that these two additional chapters would move the book out of its ideal length, and maybe make it a little too long and a little less useful to the end user?

If a trade publisher ponders whether to make an offer on an independent author’s new science fiction novel, what data drives that decision? Does a publisher use computers to inform its thinking on whether a book is “good” in some objective sense that will sell? Or, does the publisher just use gut instinct? And, should the publisher trust any numbers presented by the author of his or her own sales? Is there data to back that up? Is it current and updated in real-time?

If an independent publisher ponders whether to take an existing series and create audiobook versions for it, what data drives the decision on whether to offer this as serialized content vs. traditional audiobooks for each title? What data drives the price given to each audiobook, save for “convention”? What data drives who gets to narrate each work, other than gut-level decisions on whether it’s easier to engage a third-party narrator than deal with diva-like demands from the book’s original author once you get him or her in the studio?

Everywhere you turn, publishing as a modern industry is defined by a profound lack of data.

If I ask you to tell me how many audiobooks James Comey or Hillary Clinton or J.K. Rowling sold yesterday, in any given market, could you tell me? Could you tell me whether there were more Shakespearean classics sold as ebooks or print books within the United States this past spring?

Could you even begin to tell me what the ideal number of pages for a brand new fiction author writing for the Asian market is, based on the last 10 years of market data?

I could go on and on. Any question I ask the book publishing industry, it won’t be able to answer. And if it can answer superficially, it won’t be able to answer the next-level, deeper dive questions.

So publishing, as an industry, flies blind most of the time. It relies on data that’s largely incomplete, that’s always running months behind, and never quite what anyone needs.

How frustrating. Don’t we live in the Information Age?

The Industry Is Beginning to Solve the Problem

Fortunately, there are some new companies that can help address the industry’s age-old problem of a profound lack of data. The first is Bookstat, a Palo Alto, California-based company founded by the anonymous industry analyst “Data Guy,” who runs the Author Earnings website.

In the closing keynote at the upcoming Digital Book World (Oct. 2-4 in Nashville, Tenn.), Data Guy will permanently shed his moniker, revealing his real name and show off his Bookstat company’s new service, which provides data to the publishing industry in a way never before seen: thoroughly and in real-time.

In information provided to Digital Book World, Data Guy recently demonstrated an example of his data, pulling the sales for J.K. Rowling (who he claims has generated the most revenue of any author in the United States in the last 12 months) specifically for Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018:

  • 4,670 ebook units sold within the United States on Saturday, Sept. 1 ($32,479.80)
  • 6,538 digital audiobook units sold within the United States on Saturday, Sept. 1 ($155,730.54)
  • 2,163 online print units sold within the United States on Saturday, Sept. 1 ($58,915.55)
  • For a total of $247,125.89 in sales on Saturday, Sept. 1, alone (within the United States)

Pushing the Industry Forward

Believe it or not, this type of granular sales data has simply been non-existent until now. And according to Data Guy, this data wouldn’t show up even down the road within “traditional” data sources used by larger publishers in the industry, to inform their decision-making.

Bookstat stands to challenge the industry in meaningful ways and, as a result, push it forward. If publishers have access to newer and better data like this – across every book, across every publisher and across every genre – the industry can make better decisions and better involve technology in those decisions.

The second company worth highlighting is Storyfit, a young company out of Austin, Texas, which is applying “artificial intelligence” to the art of deciding which stories are “good” and “bad” fits for certain media. For example: Is this book a good fit for a Facebook marketing campaign across Europe? Is that book series a wise investment for a movie studio to option the film rights? In comparing these three books on sending a spaceship to Mars, which is the most likely to be the most popular and sell the most units, if all are priced the same way?

Storyfit uses specific machine learning – algorithms and data analysis – to predict content marketability, improve discovery and drive sales for publishers. Led by CEO Monica Landers, a former TV producer and media executive, the company is leading the charge to figure out the answers to questions like these, and many others.

In the end, it’s exciting to see data, as the solving of data-related book industry problems, as the next frontier for publishing. And it’s thrilling to start to see these challenges being discussed and shared, and successes celebrated, as the industry evolves and moves forward.

Bradley Metrock, CEO, Score Publishing

Score Publishing owns and operates Digital Book World (DBW) as well as VoiceFirst.FM and The Alexa Conference.

DBW is the annual conference and gathering of the wide world of publishing, and the 2018 event will take place Oct. 2 – 4 in Nashville, Tenn., U.S.A., at the Music City Center. The conference and expo will bring together as many as 1,000 decision-makers from across the global realms of publishing and technology. Information and registration for DBW is available at Digital Book World.

Main Photo by Perfecto Capucine on Unsplash

Inset Photo by Nemichandra Hombannavar on Unsplash

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