Want to publish a book? First use data to figure out who’ll read it

There are better ways to give readers what they want.
There are better ways to give readers what they want.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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August is usually slow in the publishing world. Not this summer: Amazon and Overstock are in a race for readers’ purchases; two of the largest publishers, Random House and Penguin, are merging; publishers reached pricing settlements with the Department of Justice and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced plans to purchase the Washington Post.

Yet in spite of headlines about industry transformation, more needs to be done to assure the strength of the book publishing industry. After decades in book publishing—as the publisher at Harlequin, the CEO of Troll, and general manager of Marshall Editions—I have heard consistent complaints about the industry from authors, fellow publishers, retailers and readers.

Big data provides a path forward.

There are almost 350,000 books published in the English language every year. And self-publishing is adding to the total. Early in my career, I was told that the average person reads 750 books in a lifetime, half of which were written by dead people, narrowing the field for contemporary writers.

So what can authors and publishers do to stand out from the crowd? Each can start by using data to find people who would be interested in his or her content. Any good retail marketer tries to locate consumers who might be attracted to the goods because of lifestyle or previous purchasing behavior. Authors need to do the same.

At Northwestern University, where I am a professor, every year we graduate marketers who know how to find, locate, and activate potential purchasers for everything from toothpaste to cars. But the book industry lags in this pinpointing.

Why so late to the game?

One reason for this lack of data matching is that consumer goods can create their own brand, but publishing houses are fragmented by the sub brands of authors’ names. Book lovers may feel special, as well, and above the fray of “consumerism.” Books are art, they argue, not commodities.

As an author, there is also a pain point to simplifying years of hard work to match a single trait or target. That could mean first finding the people who like to cook and then selling them the latest Diane Mott Davidson or locating people who have bought rail tickets and selling them Paul Theroux.

There is such a database in place. When you ask people about the Amazon algorithm that finds what others like or provides more options for you based on purchasing, you will hear the complaint that a computer doesn’t know what was a gift and what was for you.

But you will also hear how much people like the data being used to help provide selections. Rarely does that happen in a store or even other e-environments. You could be receiving emails from Barnes & Noble based on loyalty card purchases or you could receive a notice from the airline that a great book based on your destination would be a lovely read en route.

Books are inexpensive. Some greeting cards cost more than a mass-market paperback. There is little margin in a book sale for additional opportunities to expand the audience. Books are sold on a return basis. No one in the trade wants that to change. An author’s book would be available in even fewer places without returns. But because of the costs of overprinting, book reps and wholesalers eat into the funds needed for marketing.

Certainly you could argue that electronics (e-books and digital publishing) take many of those costs out of the equation. Yet an electronic book still needs marketing, and prices of e-books don’t have much margin.

The famous authors will always get more sales. Look at the difference in sales recently for J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling once readers discovered her identity. Readers are afraid of risks and will buy the next book by a familiar author rather than take a chance on an unknown.

But the worst of the complaints about the death of publishing come from those who are not considering new approaches and new markets—young readers. To make book publishing viable, we must allow younger people to read what they like. You may shake your head asking who will read Herman Melville instead of John Grisham? The problem is that many students who start out as readers get turned off to reading.

Consider that if an 8-year-old boy loves sports and is replacing reading time with team practice, he may never come back to reading habitually. So help him find authors such as Matt Christopher, John Feinstein or simply Sports Illustrated, and keep him in the habit of reading.

There will always be readers regardless of what platform they use. Publishers need to use data to help people find narratives that match their interests. Every household signals its interests through magazine subscriptions, cable, as well as online and offline purchases—yet no one uses this information to market books.

The time has come: Big data includes books as well. Publishing needs to adapt and use data to keep the industry moving ahead.