Publishers are from Venus, Data is from Mars: Can they play together nicely?

Research centers like Book Net Canada, and tech companies like Kobo, are collecting data on readers and books. They provide valuable knowledge to publishers, and can answer questions publishers have wanted the answers to. Where do readers hear about their books? Does a dollar price difference mean more or less buyers? Are ebook readers print readers as well? This research helps publishers make what they feel to be safer moves in the content they publish and how they publish it. However, publishers should be cautious as to how they use this data. As creative industries publishers need to first learn how to shift through massive amounts of data rather than try to accommodate it all. Also, if publishers rely solely on data to make decisions they can harm the collective minority of readers and mid-list authors. The individual reader and author are still valuable, and if publishers stop taking risks on new authors and new genres, we’ll be left with a national-wide book list with no diversity, uniqueness, or ingenuity.

The trade publishing industry has largely relied on risk and chance when acquiring and publishing their lists. They do their best to follow current genre trends, look to other media to see what characters people are connecting with, maintain proven plot progressions, and base their sales and marketing strategies on what has worked for them before (The Economist). Even with years of experience, every publishing company takes manuscripts, crafts them into books, lets them out into the world, and crosses their fingers that readers will respond well.

“Amazon executives considered publishing people ‘antediluvian losers with rotary phones and inventory systems designed in 1968 and warehouses full of crap.’ Publishers kept no data on customers, making their bets on books a matter of instinct rather than metrics
(Packer, New Yorker)

Today publishers have more instincts at their disposal, they have data, but with great data comes great responsibility (Uncle Ben, Spiderman). In Huffington Post’s article “How to Write and Publish the (almost) Perfect Book”, Penny Sansevieri outlines 11 important points that publishers must consider with every book. Out of these 11, five rely solely on data. These points include identifying the market, knowing the list of competing titles, understanding target audience and how they can be reached, planning sales strategy, identifying the best places to sell the book, and choosing an appropriate launch date (Sansevieri, Huffington Post).  Data is so valuable to the business of publishing and publishing companies have neglected to gather and use it for so long that now they are playing a game of catch up.

“As an industry we lag behind most major consumer industries, including the music, TV, and film industries, in using data to make informed decisions about our content and audience. We have been super-resistant to this idea that we should let audience insights drive content development, to the point that when asked, most folks in the editorial and content production areas of mainstream publishers are unable to give even the most basic metrics on who their actual customers are, and how much it costs the company to get and retain that customer.”
(Kristen McLean as qtd. in Publishing Perspectives)

Thankfully this is starting to change. Using tools like Booknet Canada, founded in 2002, publishers can track book sales over time and using Booknet’s initiative on gathering information from consumers, publishers can also understand needs in the market (Theriault, Publishing SFU). Booknet’s newest research data includes analysis on audiobooks, effects of the Canada Reads competition on book sales, and infographics on cookbook buyers (BNC Blog). For many publishers, Booknet was the first source of data they had available to them.

“It’s funny to think now how little info we had before BookNet. None of us really knew what was selling out there, except anecdotally. You had reps calling every week with a list of titles to ask how many we’d sold in the last week. That was the ‘market research,’ so not very sophisticated or accurate. A lot of companies just used the ‘Oh, well it’s selling well out there!’ model. Okay, but how do you define ‘well’? We had no idea what stock levels were, what returns levels were likely to be, or what reprints would be needed until it had reached a panicked state and reprints of books for Christmas were delivered in January, which was no use to anybody. It was very unprofessional, with a lot of ‘by guess and by golly.'”
(Peter Waldock as qtd. in “First, Do No Harm”: Five Years of Book-Industry Data Sharing With BookNet Canada SalesData)

Since Booknet and other data-driven strategies have emerged there are two major problems that if not dealt with effectively could mean that Canadian publishing will be in a bigger mess than they were before. The first is an inability to effectively read and sort data due to the lack of skills in individuals working in publishing, and the time crunch to catch up to other industries. The foundations of publishing are “creative, not analytical”, and it would be impossible to expect publishers to make this change quickly, “We’re talking about an evolutionary change in our DNA. It won’t happen overnight, and we won’t go from being one type of organism to a completely different type of organism in one jump.” (McLean as qtd in Publishing Perspectives)

Data will do nothing for publishers unless they know how to use it, and not many in publishing do. Some publishers like Harper Collins, have made efforts to maximize their potential and have a digital division filled with employees who are comfortable working with data, but even they’re having a difficult time. The Chief Digital Officer of HarperCollins, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, says;

“Sifting through the data is a lot. We’re really trying to find what buckets of data we should combine and aggregate. There’s a lot of talk, for example, about social listening. What parts of that do we bring closer to, say, the sales information and how do we bring them together in a way that is visual enough? There’s a lot of noise there because there are other marketing activities that might take place at the same time. We’re really early days to at least try to bring some of the data sets together—even deciding which ones, rather than trying to do it all. We could be here doing the monster of all projects.” (Restivo-Alessi as qtd. in Fast Company)

Top publishers who have the funds and resources have not yet been able to smoothly work with data, which puts mid range and small publishers at an even greater risk. As a creative industry, publishing employs creative people, and “have rarely been known for attracting big data types” (Davenport, Harvard Business Reviews). This changes the entire operating system of a publishing company. Everything from what books are chosen, to how they’re designed, and later sold and marketed all involve instinct, and intuition. Asking publishers to become data-friendly companies is like asking publishers to forget everything they know and start over (Davenport, Harvard Business Reviews).

If all books were published solely relying on information gathered from data, all the books and authors that sit under top categories would drop out. Using Booknet Canada’s report titled “The Canadian Book Consumer 2013” publishers can see that Canadian book buyers are more likely to be female (57%), more likely to buy print books (79%) than ebooks (17%), and that Mystery is the most popular genre fiction (9%) (Booknet Canada). While this is useful to paint a picture of a Canadian market, choosing to publish only women’s mystery novels in paperback in order to maximize sales leaves out every reader and author outside of these categories. Worse still, is what would happen if multiple publishers made similar decisions based on the same data. The books that do not appear to make money will be replaced by books that are shown to, and as multiple publishing companies have the same data and information from Booknet, it is possible for an overwhelming number of books to pour into these “hot” categories, while the rest fade out (The Economist).

Publishers are not just literary gate keepers, they are also businesses who need to be profitable in order to survive. However, by abandoning risky acquisitions and mid-list authors they are altering an integral part of their foundation. There needs to be a careful balance between the two as there are also self-publishers who are ready and waiting to take over the risky mid-list. Once they take it it is possible publishers will not be able to take it back.

“Where publishers used to be able to justify nurturing a writer’s career over several books in the hope that he might gain an audience, disappointing sales may strangle a potentially promising career in its crib. In a world where we know what sells, it’s hard for businesses to justify producing a demonstrably unpopular product.” (Warner, Chicago Tribune)

Self-publishers however, aren’t as concerned with profits as publishers are, and according to “The Economist” “they are doing it to leave a mark, if only a digital one” (The Economist). Self-published books cover a wide variety of genre-specific literature, as well as non-fiction. They offer a place for dropped mid-list authors to further develop themselves (Warner, Chicago Tribune). If publishers drop this market, the group of minority readers will go elsewhere to find their books, abandoning the publisher.

There are six more points in Penny Sansevieri’s article “How to Write and Publish the (almost) Perfect Book”. Choosing the right title, being open to all ideas, chose the right look for the book, find and understand the key message of the book, and manage the relationship between feeling passionately for a book, while being able to step back and see it objectively (Sansvieri, Huffington Post). These are strengths of the people who work in publishing, and they are just as important as data. Embracing data is vital to the publishing industry as a whole. It can help alleviate much of the risk, better inform future prospects and decisions, and help publishers understand their readers better than ever before. However, they need to understand the data before they can toss it around.

“Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc., to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.” (Rotella, Forbes)

Publishers must sift through troves of data and understand the whole picture the data is showing them, as well as what data is and is not relevant to them. If they are able to understand data language, and be able to use it in conjunction with their instincts and intuition, it would prevent them from abandoning millions of minority readers and authors.

“I’ve worked almost my entire life—with the exception of a small blip in banking—in creative businesses. I have a lot respect for what creative people can really bring. It’s something that’s mysterious. If everyone could do it, everyone would be a billionaire. Identifying the hits and working with the talent is a really hard job. You have to respect the intuition as much as you respect the data.
(Restivo-Alessi as qtd. in Fast Company).



“From Papyrus to Pixels: The Digital Transformation has only just begun” Essays. The Economist, 10 October 2014.

“The Canadian Book Consumer 2013” BNC Research Reports. Book Net Canada, December 2014.

“The BNC Blog” BNC Research Reports. Book Net Canada, 2015.

Anderson, Porter. “Publishing is Now a ‘Data Game’” Publishing Perspectives; Digital. Publishing Perspectives, 17 Sept 2013.

Davenport, Tom. “Book Publishing’s Big Data Future” HBR: Customers. Harvard Business Review, 3 Mar 2014.

Greenfield, Rebecca. “How HarperCollin’s Chief Digital Officer Uses Big Data to make Publishing more” Most Creative People. Fast Company, 23 Jan 2014.

Packer, George. “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” A Reporter at Large. The New Yorker, 17 Feb 2014.

Rotella, Perry. “Is Data The New Oil?” Tech. Forbes, 2 April 2012.

Sansevieri, Penny. “How to Write and Publish the (almost) Perfect Book” Huff Post Books. Huffington Post, 28 May 2011.

Theriault, Chelsea. “‘First, Do No Harm’ Five years of Book-Industry Data Sharing with Booknet Canada Salesdata” Publishing SFU: Project Reports. Simon Fraser University, 2010

Warner, John. “The Biblioracle: Stuck in the mid-list with you” Features. Chicago Tribune, 24 Jan 2014.

One Reply to “Publishers are from Venus, Data is from Mars: Can they play together nicely?”

  1. This essay draws attention to some of the ways in which data could, should, and is being used by publishers today. However, its argument is based on a false premise that publishers would only pursue producing books that have the largest marketshare and demonstrate their sales. Data can be used for all sort of things, including identifying the smallest viable market segments. There is something, however, to the aspect of the essay that talks about the class of culture between data driven decision making and the view that publishers have of themselves as part of a creative industry that should be making decisions based on “instinct”

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