publishing analytics

personal-metricsPersonal metrics – information that we collect about ourselves – have a natural appeal.  We want to be better – if we can measure something about ourselves and optimize it, we will.  Today that process is becoming easier with the help of sensors to collect personal data and web sites that help us make sense of it.  Individuals are keeping track of all kinds of personal data – including caloric intake, how much we’ve exercised (e.g. Nike + iPod video below), the state of our finances.  This is what Gary Wolf in a recent Wired article referred to as “self knowledge through numbers.”

Nike+iPod in action

So why not personal reading metrics?  We capture general statistics about reading levelsof the population.  And with a little bit of mathematical dexterity it is possible to calculate our per capita consumption of books.  But this doesn’t tell us anything interesting about our individual reading habits.  e-Book readers offer a platform that could help us collect and track information about what and how we read.

For starters we could track:

  • Total books read over a given time period; also categorized into genre or type
  • Books never completed (similarly categorized)
  • Average number of pages and words per session
  • Average length of each reading session (which could yield average reading speed) and time between reading sessions
  • Amount of reading by time of day

Data could be uploaded to websites with the appropriate algorithms and graphing capability to take care of the analysis and trending for us.  By providing just a little of additional personal data, we could even benchmark ourselves against other readers with similar demographics.  Anonymized aggregates of such data could provide publishers with valuable information about their titles and readership.

Such metrics might be viewed as self indulgent.  But, given the natural inclination to improve our stats,  they could spur us to read more.

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super-crunchers-book-coverIn his book Super Crunchers: Why Thinking by Numbers is the New Way to be Smart, Ian Ayres outlined how statistical methodologies are challenging expertise and intuition in a multitude of fields including seemingly unlikely areas such as film making.   In the book, he discussed the approach used by a company called Epagogix to selecting movie scripts which would most likely produce a profit at the box office.  The firm developed a neural networkto based on the analysis of numerous successful and unsuccessful scripts.  The neural network tuned the weights of the various input factors to a point where, according to Epagogix executives, it could pick winners eight out of ten times.  By Hollywood standards – or any other entertainment industry for that matter – that is a phenomenal success rate.

Interview of Ian Ayres, author of Super Crunchers

The claims were both lauded and challenged in the popoular press, but venture capitalsts were sufficiently impressed to invest in the company and start using its methods in movie production.  Given the length of time it takes to produce films, it will be awhile before the methodology is able to show us the money – or not.

But the story raises an interesting question for publishers.  Could this approach be used to select books for publication – especially in the fiction arena?  The first reaction to such a proposition might be a dismissive, defiant NO – such a thing is impossible.  How could an algorithm, a mindless piece of software make a judgment about the merits of art and the reaction of its human consumers?  Actually, if we stop and think about it, this may not be such a stretch.

  • Track record – Publishers have a poor history of selecting books that will be profitable.  Estimates of profitability range from about 1 in 10 to 3 in 10.  This by itself is a clear indication that the human powered title selection process is deeply flawed (at least from a business perspective).  Perhaps an algorithm could do better or at least no worse.
  • Distractions, distractions – Much of human intuition is geared toward protecting ourselves from danger and figuring out the behavior of our fellow humans.  These serve us well as a species, but not so well when it comes to analyzing in a brutally objective manner those elements that make titles successful.  The reason a publisher takes on a title may have more to do with relationships than business considerations. 
  • Short memories– Any kind of statistical analysis starts with a meaningful collection of data.  The human memory is an amazing, but in many respects fallible tool.  It is hard to keep in mind thousands of samples of successful and unsuccessful books – we usually just remember the outliers on either end of the spectrum.  So we develop rules of thumb that may be biased to the outliers and perform poorly for the bulk of books published.
  • Useful judgments– What we’re really good at is figuring what are the right factors to take into consideration in the first place; not sifting through mounds of data to assign the weights to these factors.  Book publishers can build predictive models based on factors they judge to be the most important.  Then back test the models and see which factors really are significant.  Once the key success factors are identified, sample data sets can be fed into models like that developed by Epagogix to tune the weights for each factor and start making predictions.

Katherine Hepburn confronts the computer in Desk Set

Will publishers adopt such analytical methods in selecting their titles?  Maybe – but probably not.  As Ayres pointed out in his book, when Epagogix approached one major Hollywood studio about their algorithm and presented their evidence for its effectiveness, the firm was turned down cold.  When Dick Copaken, CEO of Epagogix, asked the studio executives why they wouldn’t use the tool even it picked 8 out of 10 winners, they replied that it would interfere with their long standing relationships with agents, agencies, actors, producers and directors.  “We wouldn’t be invited to the right parties.  Our wives would hate us.” 

Opportunity could be knocking for publishers who are weary of the pursuit of elusive best sellers, and need new thinking to survive in this dreary economy.   Perhaps the most counter intuitive idea we would have to swallow is that to find better art, we may to have sublimate part of our humanity.



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book-a-minuteRecently, Penguin Books announced it would be bringing out more ultra short run teaser editions to better test the market for new titles and avoid the risk of longer book runs.  This cautious attitude is not surprising given the economic climate and mounting evidence of declining book sales.  Will this trend catch on and continue beyond the current recession (or mini-depression)?  Hard to say, but sometimes practices started during hard times become standard procedure even after the economy recovers.  For instance, the much hated (by publishers anyway) returns policy used by most bookstores today was begun during the Great Depression as a way for bookstores to survive.

Teaser editions may also be part of a longer term trend wherein every aspect of a book is tested to ensure a viable market or at least cut one’s losses before too many resources are expended.  This is a valuable discipline for publishers to follow even in good times.   A short run, however, has to be accompanied by a well targeted marketing  campaign since it is, in essence, a statistical sample that will be used to validate a larger production run.  

How could such test market testing work?  Here are some thoughts.

  • measure-manA brief pay-per click ad campaign to test book covers, title and pitch to see what works best and learn something about the motivation of potential purchasers.
  • Data from BookScan to identify sales trends for similar titles and provide a guide as to which channels offer the best results.
  • Blog tours and social media campaigns n lieu of book tours and other traditional book marketing to save money and get the buzz started with target groups of readers.
  • In some cases, the initial test runs could be with e-books rather than print books.  As the market for e0books broadens, this will no doubt become more commonplace.

In addition to being low cost and targeted, everything done during these teaser campaigns would have to be clearly measurable if the are to be of any use as barometers for consumer interest.  

Every industry adopts the technology of its age.  Mass production and mass marketing co-evolved.  In this century, the uber technology is the Internet.  Book publishing businesses may begin to look and act more like software development companies.


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The Business Blook as Beta Publishingtape-measure-2One of the benefits of living in a digital world is that it gets easier to measure everything.   For example, if we have an online store, we can measure the traffic that comes to our websites and the behavior of visitors once they are there.  We can count conversions – e.g. sign-ups, downloads and / or sales.  With this information, we can optimize different aspects of the website to deliver a satisfying experience for both the customer and the website owner.  So why not optimize the books we sell to deliver a better reading experience?  The term “book” now glows with an electronic aura.  E-books are showing impressive growth, though still a small percentage of overall book sales, and there are many new sales channels opening up for books in electronic form.  It seems conceivable that soon we may see some form of content testing for books in electronic format. 

Google’s free Website Optimizer tool

Publishers could offer variations of sample content on a website or blog to see which drives more interest before making the commitment to an expensive print version.  Certainly authors who develop their content through the medium of a blog already have a good start on this process if they let the blog metrics guide their choice of content for their title.  Publisher could also offer different beta versions of a book title through electronic channels – e.g. serialized content online, to e-book readers or mobile phones – to  see which results in better customer reviews, sales, etc.  In this way a book could be optimized toward a finished product that customers really want. 

In addition to content, other elements of a book could be tested, including:  book title, cover design, cover text, testimonials, even chapter titles.  The tests might even provide greater predictability for future print book sales.   Tools are already available to make such testing easy, inexpensive and statistically significant.  Publisher intuition about what works would serve as a starting hypothesis; testing would be the objective final arbiter of what actually works. 


Which version would you buy?

Will publishers explore “book optimization?”  Perhaps not right away.  But the ease and cost effectiveness of measurement in the digital realm, and the high cost of failure in the analog (read “print”) world could certainly make it a more attractive option in the future.



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grim-reaperOUCH!!  The retrenchment of consumer spending which has led to declining book sales is now beginning to ripple through book publishing.   Book sales have fallen dramatically in both the US and UK during the final four months of the year and is leading many publishers to cut staff to control costs and attempt to maintain profitability or stem losses. 

In the past several weeks, a number of major book publishers have announcd layoffs and restructurings, including:  Houghton-Mifflin, Simon & Schuster, Random House and MacMillan

 Book publishers face many uphill battles to preserve or restore profitability in this economy:

  • Consumers on strike  – Willingly or not, consumers are being “de-leveraged”and the trifecta of foreclosure mess, rising unemployment and credit strangulation are likely to mean flat or declining book sales across the board for some time to come.
  • Still high commodity prices– Though oil prices have fallen dramatically, many of the commodity prices that most affect publishers are still at high levels.  The Fed’s latest attempts to “reflate” the economy may actually exacerbate this situation.
  • Dependence on expensive sales channels– Most large publishers are still heavily dependent on the large chains for the bulk of their sales.  This is probably the most expensive book sales channel there is when you factor in the costs of discounting, returns and paying for in-store positioning / promotion.
  • Business model– The large publishing houses are now suffering the downside of having morphed from being primarily backlist and midlist tenders to being a “hits” driven business.
  • Scourge of the returns policy– Book publishers are still bearing the burden of returns from booksellers – an antiquated practice developed during the last depression.

Interview with Sara Nelson, Editor-in-Chief, Publishers Weekly


Perhaps in all of this doom and gloom there is a silver lining.  Layoffs at book publishers are at least partly the result of a business that is not able to withstand the rigors of its current environment.  The pain can, however, force a rethinking of outdated business models and industry practices.  There are new publishing technologies and marketing tools that can help publishers survive – and (gasp!) prosper – even in a period of extended austerity. 


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author-loftWhy do authors write?  They want a wide exposure for their ideas and stories.  Publishers have generally focused on playing the role of Darwinian gatekeeper for those ideas; determining which will live and die accoring to often opaque criteria.  This has been driven in part by the investment required to successfully produce and market a printed book in a few crowded and competitive channels. 

In an interview on The 25th StorySeth Godin chided publishers for misunderstanding their true role in the book industry.  He noted:

Publishing is far too focused on the pub day. The event of the publication. This is a tiny drip, perhaps the least important moment in a long timeline. As soon as publishers see themselves as marketers and agents and managers and developers of content, things change.

If they would help authors find that wider exposure for their ideas, and not be locked into the concept of printed books and sales in bookstores, they could leverage that intense desire and potentially be more profitable than they ever dreamed, he insists.  What would such a publishing model look like?  Here are some thoughts.

Author “lofts” – In a idea driven book industry, publishers provide online spaces where authors are encouraged to develop their content and build an audience around it.  As I have discussed before this could include, but not be limited to, blogging, building socials networs around content and carefully tracking the size, engagement and needs of that audience.  These lofts are essentially incubators for authors and could be dsigned to be self funding.  Not every author becomes published in the traditional sense, but they have a real opportunity to move their ideas forward.

Pyramids of values – Not every idea will (or should) become a printed book.  The ideas may be most effectively expressed in a blog, or best distributed in some digital form – e.g. widgets or e-books.  Or shared out on social networks.  Books are being delivered in chunks – via e-mail, on CD (ala the NetFlix model) or to iPhones.  Any of these idea distribution modalities can serve to create an audience. 

free-samples-of-foodFree (and sumptuous) samples – Just like fine cuisine, ideas should be sampled to be fully appreciated.  In the past, this has been limited to reviews, carefully controlled excerpts and author appearances.  However, the degree of sampling necessary to become a loyal member of the audience varies by individual.  This calls for broader and more flexible sampling tools – e.g. Google Book Search.  Google has settled the lawsuit with the AAP and the Authors Guild, opening the door to wider access to the content of books.  Despite the fears of the publishing industry, this will increase book sales, but it may reallocate the revenues.

new-star-formingAll of this is leading to a new concept of book.  It begins as a “digital haze” where consumers can sample content and publishers can see whether the idea should be promoted to a higher place on the value pyramid.  Some ideas will find their audience and may eventually form a (solid) core: a printed volume which represents to the consumer, author and publisher the highest expression of value.  Not every idea makes it all the way up this pyramid, but not every idea has to. 

As Godin points out, there are many ways to monetize ideas.  The key is to build an audience for those ideas by being creative in the way you develop, promote and manage them.

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While blog touring is still relatively new as a book marketing and promotion strategy, some anecdotal learning and tribal knowledge are beginning to emerge.  There are a number of good reasons why authors, publishers and book marketers should consider blog tours.  The blogosphere is:

  • Influential – 12 of the top 100 media properties in the US are now blogs
  • Large – 100+ million blogs & over 1.3 million posts daily
  • Global
  • Mainstream

Since blogs often bear the personal imprint of their owners, it is easy to forget that they can be powerful media properties.  For example, in May 2008, Nielsen Online reported monthly audience numbers for some of the top blogs.  Here is a sampling:


VISITORS (million)

Huffington Post









One important consideration is which blogs to invite to a blog tour.  Bill Rederick’s approach to selecting blogs for a tour is highlighted in this guest post on All Book Marketing.  Bill is the author of My Virtul Book Tour Secrets!, which covers blog touring in depth.  He describes his formula that involves combining seven factors to determine a blog’s suitability.

Author Karen Harrington who recently conducted a blog tour to promote her book Janeology(published by Kunati Books) shared her experiences and learning in a recent post.  She used the firm PumpUpYourBookPromotion.comto manage her tour.  She was accompanied on her virtual tour by other writers and found this helped amplify the positive results she achieved.  She also found that the blog tour had an “echo effect” with many bloggers who became aware of the tour contacting her about follow-on interviews.  She also noted that many of the bloggers on her tour also posted on Shelfari and LibraryThing giving her book additional exposure.

Another example of a blog tour, for author Mary DeMuth’s (Authentic Parenting) blog tour in late 2007, was showcased on Gooward Editing.  It demonstrtes some important lessons learned about blog touring and provides a good analysis of the data used to evaluate the success of the tour. 

Author Susan Wittig Albert has had expreience with both blog tours and traditional book tours.  She compared the two types of promotion in an interview on Blog Book Tours.  She liked the convenience and low cost of the blog tour, but felt it lacked the impact with readers of a conventional book tour.

Ben McConnell & Jackie Huba

Ben McConnell & Jackie Huba

The authors of Citizen Marketers, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, provided a new twist on the traditional book tour.   In October 2006, they asked readers of their blog, Church of the Customer, to help them select cities for their upcoming book tour.  Readers could invite them to speak at events in their locala area.  As a result, they went on a book tour that spanned 40 venues in 5 months.  They sold almost 7,500 copies of  their book and in the process tripled traffic to their blog.   Nice work!

intrepid explorers

intrepid explorers

The blog tour is coming of age in step with the maturing of the blogosphere.  At some point in the future, much of the experimental wisdom will be refined into neat should’s and should not’s, must’s and must not’s.  Until then, success belongs to the intrepid explorers who aren’t afraid to try new things.  We salute you – and keep that wisdom coming!


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