No Longer Playing Games: The Significance of Analytics in Book Publishing
Until recently, book publishers and authors played a tiresome game of pin the tail on the donkey when it came to surmising how a book would perform on the market. Thanks to the growth of books in digital platforms, publishers and authors do not have to play that guessing game anymore. Instead, they now have access to measurable analytics obtained from e-reading devices that provide many insights into readers’ consumption of e-books. The knowledge gleaned from this data in turn enables publishers and authors to make better-informed decisions on what to publish. Of course, the matter is not all as simple as using this data solely for market research. Traditionally, publishers have ultimately controlled the shaping of content by selecting and publishing what they supposed readers would want to read—playing the role of the gatekeeper. Analytics, however, are rapidly changing the process in which content is shaped, because readers can now give both direct and indirect feedback on the success of a book. The effect that analytics has had overall, then, is that it has eliminated the static process of publishing books, and developed a new publishing model that is agile. From a social perspective, however, there are concerns that “just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list” (Johnson) and that “a data-driven approach could hinder the kinds of creative risks that produce great literature” (Alter). In other words, the social currency of books as cultural capital could become compromised due to analytics. However, should traditional publishers follow in the footsteps of data-driven book publishers, such as Kobo, Coliloquy and Sourcebooks, and embrace the use of the agile publishing model, not only will they thrive in the future but, in theory, they could use the analytics garnered from digital publishing platforms to successfully preserve the social currency of books.
To delve further into this idea, one must first look at the kinds of analytics that are available and how data-driven publishers are utilizing them. There are two sets of analytics available to publishers: indirect and direct. Indirect analytics are objective pieces of information collected through e-reading devices recording the habits of readers. These analytics are acquired the moment someone purchases an e-book and opens it up on their e-reader. Once this occurs, publishers can see in real time “how many times a book is opened, how many pages are read at one time, how long a book takes to finish, how far readers get into books before quitting (if they dislike it), what consumers read before and what they read next” (Richardson). By coupling analytics on reading habits with additional information about a reader’s age, gender, and the genres they are reading, publishers are now aware that books with a female protagonist are 40% more likely to become a bestseller; that the top genre men read is historical fiction, while the top genre women read is romance; that women are 50% more likely to finish a book than men; and that the average session length of readers under the age of 40 is twelve minutes, versus the twenty minutes of those over the age of 40. Direct analytics are subjective pieces of information that readers provide actively. This information is obtained when readers highlight certain passages, make comments about the content, or rate the book. With these two types of analytics available, publishers are able to fully ascertain how readers are engaging with their books and can no longer say they do not know their customer base.
When publishers employ analytics like these in their publishing programs, this is what is known as agile publishing, and there are three digital publishers that currently stand out with this initiative and that traditional publishers should take note of: Kobo, Coliloquy, and Sourcebooks. Kobo launched its self-publishing and self-service platform in 2012 called Kobo Writing Life (KWL) and the service’s strength lies more on the side of indirect analytics. KWL provides “a dashboard offering a variety of data that allow an author to track the sales performance of a book across multiple markets and track the impact of promotions and sales” (Reid). The main beneficial feature of KWL is its “live metrics that give you a sense of where your books are selling and how many, all in real time” (Kozlowski). The other notable feature of KWL is that it allows authors to set the price of their e-books; so, given the live data they receive, this frees authors to play with prices and learn the optimal price-points for their books. The advantage to receiving live analytics is that it gives flexibility in how to go about tweaking the sales strategy of a book once it has been published.
Coliloquy is a digital publisher that has its strength on the side of direct analytics. The company strives to actively integrate reader feedback in their publishing methods, and as they say “push the boundaries of how we think about narrative and storytelling.” What separates Coliloquy apart from other digital publishers is that they make all of their books into “active applications, rather than static files,” allowing their authors to create episodic, serial stories and use “engagement mechanics like choice and voting, branching story lines, re-reading loops, and personalized content.” Enabling readers to directly comment on a book and influence its development increases their engagement with both the author and the book itself. The nice thing about Coliloquy is that its use is not restricted to new titles alone. Traditional publishers could easily take advantage of Coliloquy’s analytics to revitalize backlist materials and receive feedback, since all that would need to be done is to create an active application. Thus, Coliloquy’s use of analytics in their books goes to show that analytics do not necessarily hinder the creative risks that produce great literature. If anything, they are opening the door for publishers, authors and readers to collaborate, and making the book an intersection for social engagement, unlike anything we have seen before.
As seen with Kobo and Coliloquy, the use of analytics can help enhance publishers and authors enhance digital book content in different ways. But how can analytics serve to help enhance print books? Sourcebooks is a good example of a publisher balancing between “both classically physical and dynamically digital” book formats. Of the three digital platforms outlined here, Sourcebooks is the one that traditional publishers and people worried about the decline of print books can look to to alleviate their fears. The company’s focus is on authorship in a culture of collaboration, and so Sourcebook also focuses on agile publishing. Rather than publish a print edition first and then release a digital edition, Sourcebook reversed the order and “began experimenting with a new model of serial, online publishing” (Alter). With the traditional publishing model, publishers do not have a grounded way of knowing how a book will do once it is released. What Sourcebooks has done is to release “early online editions for half a dozen titles, ranging from romance to young adult to nonfiction books, and has solicited questions and suggestions from readers (Alter). This is a clever way to incorporate customer feedback, and a much more practical way to publish print books. In this manner, publishers can improve a book and feel more confident about how the book will fare in the market. Publishers may also feel a little more comfortable with this method as well, because an author will have originated the content and the creative risk is still at the heart of the work. Receiving feedback from readers earlier on then is really not much different from how an editor queries an author during the manuscript phase. And much like how the expert knowledge of editors helps to strengthen the quality of a manuscript, so too would the use of direct analytics from readers help add to the social currency of the book.
Technology can be an intimidating thing for publishers who have grown accustomed to traditional publishing methods. However, there are some brave souls who have already started paving the way to making the publishing process dynamic. As these three data-driven publishers show, there are many reasons why publishers ought to implement analytics into their publishing programs with the main reason being that it opens up opportunities for creative collaborations. Analytics are simply tools that help publishers and authors “work to create better, more satisfying content” (Richardson).
 See the concept of the pre-artifact system in Craig Mod’s article “Designing Books in the Digital Age.”
 Sourcebooks has an excellent explanation of what agile publishing is: “The agile publishing model (APM) relies not only on the author for providing the content and overall direction of the book, but also on the community of readers to provide proactive reviews and feedback on the materials provided. Working together, the author and community will shape and change the content as the book moves from its initial stages as an interactive, digital platform to the final published product.”
 As defined by James Levy in his article “DNA of a Successful Book.”
 Statistics from Hiptype’s infographic on the DNA of a Successful Book: http://www.hiptype.com/infographic
 There are several more leading companies in this venture, such as Lean Publishing, Barnes and Noble’s Pubit, and Amazon’s KDP, but this paper intends to give a sampling of the different ways to benefit from data-driven book publishing platforms.
 Authors can even set the price to free.
Alter, Alexandra. “Your E-Book is Reading You.” 19 April 2012. [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304870304577490950051438304.html].
Coliloquy. “About.” [http://www.coliloquy.com/about/].
Hiptype. “The DNA of a Successful Book: Infographic.” [http://www.hiptype.com/infographic].
Johnson, Steven. “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write.” 20 April 2009. [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123980920727621353.html].
Kozlowski, Michael. “Kobo Writing Life to Be Launched Soon.” 8 July 2012. [http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/kobo-writing-life-to-be-launched-soon/].
Levy, James. “The DNA of a Successful Book.” 25 July 2012. [http://blog.hiptype.com/the-dna-of-a-successful-book-1].
Mod, Craig. “Designing Books in the Digital Age.” Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. Eds. McGuire and O’Leary. [http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/book-design-in-the-digital-age-craig-mod].
Reid, Calvin. “Kobo to Launch Kobo Writing Life Self-Publishing Portal.” 5 June 2012. [http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/52275-kobo-to-launch-kobo-writing-life-self-publishing-portal.html].
Richardson, Andy. “Ebook Analytics: Knowing Your Audience.” 24 August 2012. [http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/Editorial/Commentary/Ebook-Analytics-Knowing-Your-Audience-84556.htm].
Sourcebooks. “Why Sourcebooks.” [http://www.sourcebooks.com/company/why-sourcebooks.html].