Reader Analytics: Not All Authors Want To Know

Image - iStockphoto: Tinors
Image – iStockphoto: Tinors

Your Soul Vs. Data?

When Jellybooks’ Andrew Rhomberg wrote at Digital Book World recently about publishers having a Fear of Data in an age of digital metrics, I thought that taking that issue to authors would be a worthwhile exercise. And I tried it out on some trusted colleagues by making it the “Provocations in Publishing” topic of my column last week at Writer Unboxed: Who’s Afraid of Reader Analytics?

Answer: a lot of readers are fearful of data, just as publishers are.

They may not want to say “afraid.” But skeptical? Hell, yes. And dismissive? Probably too much so, in many cases.

“Can it make us unhappy to hear that someone hated the sentence we thought clever or thinks our characters lack authenticity? Sure. But if the point is to grow, then this is valuable feedback.”
Therese Walsh, author, Writer Unboxed co-founder

We’re not in entirely uncharted territory here. We’ve had some idea for while, at least in broad strokes, of the Amazon Kindle system’s ability to track and register various parts of a reader’s experience — such as where in a book a reader may stop reading a book and which lines he or she highlights.

Andrew Rhomberg
Andrew Rhomberg

Rhomberg, whose start-up, Jellybooks, pivoted a while ago from its original book-discoverability storefront-window focus to reader analytics, wrote at Digital Book World:

A DJ will gauge response based on whether people are dancing or not, and a stage actor can measure what the audience thinks based on the applause.

Authors to date [have] only had monthly sales data as a similar barometer, which in many ways can be a very poor indicator. There are professional reviews, but those are the opinions of an elite few. Goodreads may give a broader measure, but those who review books are often at the extremes—people who love a book and people who hate it. The majority of readers never review books.

Reading data provides feedback on those 98 percent, and it can give that feedback before a book is even published by using advance reader copies with tracking software. The data therefore gives authors the opportunity to understand what the audience reaction might be. It might influence them to be even bolder, or it might make them realize they overstretched and pushed too far ahead of their audience.

He’s right, of course, that historically, both writers and their publishers have worked almost entirely on gut instinct. Hunches about which book might sell well and which might not are just that, even now: hunches. And those hunches are notoriously mixed in terms of how well they predict success.

As digital brings more and more capability for actual metrics into view, even artists — at least those who are emotionally secure in their work and not threatened by input — may begin to welcome some better views into what’s happening. And waiting until after the painting is sold, after the film ticket is bought, or after the book is downloaded can be disastrous.

[pullquote]”Reading data…might influence authors to be even bolder, or it might make them realize they overstretched and pushed too far ahead of their audience.”
Andrew Rhomberg, Jellybooks[/pullquote]

In 24-hour television news, it’s sometimes said that “you can’t land the plane” to work on things. Programming must continue nonstop, that’s the brand promise. And so tinkering with schedules, formats, on-air lineups, and so on, all must be done “in the air” while “on the air.” You can’t just turn off the lights, put up a “pardon our dust” sign, and fix things.

But the kind of analysis that Rhomberg’s service offers publishers is different. It can happen well in advance of sales efforts.

Publishers, he told us in a subsequent #FutureChat with The Bookseller’s The FutureBook, are engaging Jellybooks to test a book on a focus group of readers as much as 20 weeks ahead of launch. At that point, the plane is not flying yet and a publishing team has ample chances to assess what data an analytical program produces and apply it, if desired.

For example, if a book’s ending takes a beloved character over the cliff and that makes readers livid (anybody want to mention an HBO parallel in Jon Snow’s death in Game of Thrones?), then better to know it ahead.

That does not mean, by the way, that the ending must be changed. If it’s somehow artistically integral to the work, what the early warning device of this kind of reader analytics might provide is a chance for the marketing team to rethink those sunny posters and newspaper ads they’ve been working on. Perhaps there are ways to signal to the readership-to-come that things might get a little serious at the end. Blurbs can be written in such a way as to make dark doings a potential part of the read and road ahead.

As logical as all this might sound, however, in responses to the column at Writer Unboxed, resistance was not unusual.

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Mega-Wattpad Stardom: The Before And After Of Anna Todd

Originally published by Thought Catalog at




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