The Future of Publishing in a Data-Driven World

By: Ali Albazaz

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

From the invention of the moveable printing press, in the 13th century, to the introduction of ebooks, in the mid-90s, there has never been a moment when the publishing industry has not been evolving to catch up to the way people select and purchase books.

And yet for the longest time, the decision-making process throughout the industry has remained the same: editors and literary agents are tasked with selecting books based on their experience and knowledge of past market behavior, and gut feeling is relied upon to predict the world’s next bestsellers.

And what’s happened as a result? Harry Potter author JK Rowling was told there wasn’t a future market for children’s books, with her original manuscript being rejected 12 times before publication. Other New YorkTimes bestsellers like Twilight received 14 rejections, and even cult classics like Stephen King’s Carrie tallied 30.

Furthermore, what percentage of great novels never made it past an author’s hard drive because of these decisions? How many great writers gave up after the first few rejections?

Enter the age of data. The explosion of information that has been made available to us through online activity, social media, and the introduction of more precise methods to capture and analyze this data has poured into every industry. And for publishing, we’re just at the tipping point.

Data-driven decisions are set to transform the well-established processes that have long been accepted as industry standard. First, it will allow decision-makers to better understand reader preferences and accurately predict future trends. Second, data-driven decisions will equalize the publishing process for everyone and better be able to select the world’s next bestsellers. And lastly, it will set the pace and tone of what we’ll be able to accomplish in the years to come.

What Do Readers Want?

Before big data, it wasn’t possible to track reader preference at scale. The industry relied on editors and agents to predict future trends based on past market research and behavior.

Data was aggregated through focus groups and mailed-out surveys, but numbers were limited and the collected information was such a small pool that no strong conclusions could be made. There was also often a discrepancy between what people said about a piece of literature, and how they actually felt about it. In this way, analyzing actions and behaviors became much more predictive than aggregating opinion.

Everything changed when people began to read digitally, though. Whether logging onto an online reading forum, clocking chapters on a daily commute, or turning pages on an e-reader, people were leaving a digital trail in their wake wherever they were reading.

With connected devices, it’s now finally possible to track people’s behavior at scale. We can track if someone is not sleeping at night because a book is so good they can’t put it down, or if someone consistently reads fantasy novels for two hours every day.

All these behaviors and preferences can be recorded and analyzed to determine strong trends that can be used within the industry when it comes to making decisions about publishing a book.

The Science of Picking the Right Book

Publishing typically consists of two parts: selecting the right book and leveraging a good marketing campaign to bring that book to market. By analyzing reader patterns and collecting behavioral data, we now have the ability to optimize the first. Marketing campaigns are also greatly enhanced by using data to more accurately target specific demographics with the right message.

Using data to drive decisions, the industry can now rely on the market (readers) to determine what type of content gets published. It both removes the uncertainty from the process and guarantees that what publishing houses are printing is what people actually want to read.

Data-driven publishing is just the first step toward turning the book-selection process into a science. Progress is constantly being made to uncover new ways to understand how readers respond and react to literature.

One area that will likely gain traction in the next couple decades will be measuring the hormone levels of readers, which, although it may sound like science fiction, would allow for greater understanding of people’s emotional responses to literature. Of course, science will first have to evolve so that hormone levels can be measured without a prick of the finger.

Data as the Great Equalizer

Making data-driven decisions benefits everyone involved in the publishing pipeline.

For authors, the ability to test writing through online forums and communicate directly with readers can give them a greater understanding of the publishing potential of their work. Moreover, data decreases the uncertainty over whether publishers will be interested in their books, as reader preference drives the market.

The advantage for readers is that they receive better access to books and have the knowledge that their preferences are what is driving the type of books being created. In addition, readers can connect directly with authors through online platforms and provide feedback or start conversations on the books they are reading.

And lastly, publishers are in a better position to believe that the books they are selecting have the potential to become the world’s next bestsellers. There is less risk involved, as the books have been vetted by a test readership, and data has indicated where there is greatest interest.

In a data-driven world, everyone benefits.

The Future

Using behavioral data to identify trends and select books for publishing is the most accurate toolset we have available to us in 2016.

In the next 10 years, we’ll start to see technology push the boundaries of publishing, and our ability to understand what readers want will help ensure publishers are never saying no to one of the world’s next bestsellers again.

Author: Ali Albazaz

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