July 21, 2014
Stats for books: Next Big Book to crunch data, produce depressing graphs
by Sal Robinson
It came for baseball, elections, and now it’s coming for us. Data-crunching, the darling of the past couple of years (along with its strange, slightly patronizing nephew, “explanatory journalism”), has got its eye on the publishing industry, and a start-up, Next Big Book, is testing the waters, in partnership with Macmillan.
Next Big Book is a division of Next Big Sound, a company launched in 2009 that analyzes all kinds of data for the music industry—YouTube and Spotify plays, social media stats, radio—and compares them against sales to determine which outlets have the most impact.
They’ve been very successful—in an article for Mother Jones, Gabrielle Canon says they now provide “data for 70 percent of the music industry”—and at the end of May, they announced the creation of Next Big Book, intended to do the same type of thing for publishing. The site for Next Big Book is a carbon copy of the Next Big Sound site, promising “exhaustive coverage and powerful search and analysis tools” wrapped up in a “friendly and intuitive web app designed for our enterprise clients”… or essentially, a dashboard on which publishers can track the effect of things like an author’s appearance on “Fresh Air.”
Their first publishing client is Macmillan, who got on board about a year ago and has been working with Next Big Book to develop the service. Early results are pretty interesting, if maybe not earthshaking. From a Times article by Leslie Kaufman reporting on the launch:
Fritz Foy, Macmillan’s executive vice president for digital publishing and strategic technology, said that in limited testing the Next Big Book tool had already provided insights.
“The one I couldn’t believe was the absolute overlapping correlation between traffic to an author’s Wikipedia site to book sales,” Mr. Foy said. “It is such a tight correlation that at first I thought it had to be wrong.”
The company has also found correlation between spiking interest on Goodreads, the social media site owned by Amazon and focused on books, and sales at Barnes & Noble stores.
I for one am not surprised that active Goodreads users shop at Barnes & Noble (presumably instead of buying the books through Amazon, which is sweet), but things like the Wikipedia searches are intriguing: they give the outlines of a picture of a buyer, considering buying a book, Googling around, and then, armed with what? confirmation that the author exists? won some prizes? has a personal life? plunking down the $24.99.
Of course, the concern is always that a service like Next Big Book will have an effect on the other end of the publishing sausage machine as well — that the data gathered on previously successful or unsuccessful books will lead publishers to look for books that match the former’s qualities, and avoid the latter’s, leading to ever greater levels of blandness and quashing the chances of anything truly new and great. However, in some of its outposts, publishing is actually really good at doing this already, without data, and there are other concerns in the mix — as Tim Parks observed in a post for the NYRB blog yesterday, the connection between sales numbers and perceived success of a book can be highly dysfunctional at best.
Still, I look at the charts on the Next Big Sound site—all spikes and valleys—and can only think of the lowlands the Next Big Book folks are going to start encountering when they assemble most publishing statistics. But just because the chart lines may not have the visible, ardently hoped-for (by publishers and authors) drama of units moving in response to NYT reviews and Wikipedia-page tweaking doesn’t mean they aren’t —each individual reading —full of incident.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.