March 16, 2016
Moneyball for books (and other adventures in marketing)
by Simon Reichley
Let’s be real: you’ve probably started more books than you’ve finished. Is this fact a source of shame? Sure. Is it also part of a new-fangled analytic platform aiming to transform the way we market books? You bet it is.
As Alexandra Alter at the New York Times reports in her profile of fledgling data analytics company Jellybooks, we may be entering into the Moneyball era of ebook publishing. Media companies like Spotify, Netflix and Amazon have already found ways of quantifying and data-fying and tracking and tracing and sorting and selling all of the effusive metadata that we emit simply by being online. These companies know exactly how long you listened to Untitled Unmastered, how many consecutive episodes of The Affair you watched, and how much time you spent shopping for vintage glassware online. THEY KNOW!
But publishers? Not so much. At least that’s what Andrew Rhomberg, CEO of Jellybooks would have you believe, and it’s why his company has conducted a pilot test of software that collects and reports statistics on the habits of ebook readers.
How does it work? Publishing houses in the U.K., U.S. and Germany all contribute novels, which are then given away for free to a group of readers who have consented to do a little self surveillance. After finishing or giving up on the book, readers click a link embedded in the ebook, which sends a report of all the data gathered by the device back to Jellybooks for analysis. Nope, not dystopian at all. The publishers involved declined to be identified, citing fear of “alarming their authors.”
Here’s the pitch from Jellybooks website, annotated for clarity:
We have a special kind of book candy for readers. [Book candy? Are you fucking kidding me?]
Jellybooks offers you, the reader, ebooks free-of-charge from leading publishers. These are Advance Readings Copies (ARCs) that are made available as ebook for test reading purposes. In many cases these will be available to you even before they are released to the general public.
In return, we ask that you help us understand how you read books. This is really simple: read the ebook we provide and at the end of each chapter click the “sync reading stream” button in return for receiving the free ebook. You may also choose to write a review, but this is entirely optional. We are primarily interested in your reading data. [Somehow, this fails to be reassuring.]
The data Jellybooks receives will be evaluated on behalf of the author and publisher to help them better understand the audience for specific titles and how people read them. How many readers finish the book? Where do readers give up on a book, if they don’t like it? Which chapters are particularly popular or difficult? Do you read on weekdays or weekends, in short bursts or long reading sessions? Are these books that you simply cannot put down or books that you lose interest in after a few chapters? Help us answer these and other questions, so that authors and publishers can better serve you, the reader.
So, here’s a question: What percentage of surveyed readers finished a “successful” novel? About 60%. How about a “not-so successful” novel? Less than 25%. What metric is Jellybooks using to determine whether a novel is successful? We don’t know.
On average, about half of Jellybooks’s pool of readers finished the book that they started. Which isn’t surprising at all, really. Or, at least not to someone who reads even semi-regularly. Or knows people who read.
Overlooking the weird, infantilizing tone in which the pitch is written, the premise of the endeavor seems strange. Is this really a major problem for publishers? Are we really so out of touch with our readership that we need this data to tell us what our readers like? How does it help us know our readers more?
This kind of data-driven marketing seems frequently to presuppose a kind of empathy gap. It asks, “How could you possibly understand your readers without computing the life out of them?” And this supposition supports the presumption that Jellybooks (and data-driven book marketing endeavors) are all about serving the reader. What services such as this are really doing, however, is molding both reader and publisher to best serve the needs of the market. It’s about removing difficulty or challenge or risk from the equation, and transforming publishing into a simple pleasure delivery system. Which, in the end, will serve no one, save the marketers.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.