On writing

Data analytics will change how publishers buy future books from an author

I don’t know if it this is a true story or not, but I heard that when Assassin’s Apprentice came out Robin Hobb was nominated for a best new writer award (I think it was the John W. Campbell award). Her editor had to quickly contact the award organisers to tell them she was ineligible, given that she was already published under the name Megan Lindholm.

Like I say, I don’t know if the story is true, but as a myth I like it anyway.

A lot of authors change their name mid-way through their writing careers. Some do it because they want to write a in a different genre. Others do it because they’re prolific writers and they want to write more books than they think the market can bear.

Still other writers change their name because they can no longer sell books under their current name. Sales are modest and their publisher refuses to buy any more books. If you trawl the internet and read the articles on how book sales work, you will soon realise that low sales of one book almost automatically lead to lower sales of the next because the buyers who put the books into the stores order less copies of your next book, and so on in a downward spiral. Some of my favourite authors, whose books I automatically buy, have had their careers stymied this way.

I was hoping that eBooks would fix this problem. After all, an eBook never goes out of print and the cost of keeping an eBook on the shelf is relatively small compared to the cost of keeping physical books.

It might still, but I can see another disturbing book-selling trend coming for eBooks.

In her article, Your E-Book is Reading You, Alexandra Alter, from the online Wall Street Journal talks about the analytical data that is being collected by booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble when readers read e-books on the Kindle and Nook. They can already tell you, for example, that the first thing most readers do when they finish reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is order the next one.

Data mining is big business, especially for companies who are trying to change your buying habits, and it can lead to some disturbing trends. Charles Duhigg, from The New York Times, explains how Target worked out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did in How Companies Learn Your Secrets.

Publishers are no different. They’re in the business of selling books, and they want you to buy their books.

Like it or not, the acquisition of analytical data will almost certainly change how publishers acquire new titles. In Your E-Book is Reading You, Jim Hilt, vice President of eBooks for Barnes and Noble, says

“Publishers might be able to determine when interest in a fiction series is flagging if readers who bought and finished the first two books quickly suddenly slow down or quit reading later books in the series.”

Your E-Book is Reading You, Alexandra Alter, Wall Street Journal

Imagine what that could do to your ability to sell a new book.

Sometimes this will work. Some series, particularly long ones, do lose readers as the books pile up. Even as a writer I can see advantages with not having to continue to write a series long after readers have given up on it.

The real problem I forsee is that in their search for higher ‘ratings’, book publishers will go the way of the major television networks, where they kill a promising show mid-season because it hasn’t got enough of a following, without giving it enough time to build up that following in the first place.

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