Social Web Stands In for Metrics for Ebook Publishers

I spent a couple of years working in book publishing during my 20s. I learned a lot while I was there, but one of the things that surprised me most was that the book industry operates solely on the gut feelings of its editors and publishers. That was fine when book publishing was more a gentleman's hobby than a legitimate business, but these days, book publishers are integral parts of the money-making media empires of people such as Rupert Murdoch.

I can't think of another industry that operates this way-making big financial decisions based on one guy saying, "Hey, I like this-I think other people might too." This even surprised some of the people I knew back home. I remember having dinner with a friend and her parents one night, and her mother-a longtime marketer-asked, in utter shock, "You mean they don't do any market research?" Nope. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Ebooks promised to change all of this. Not only did more web-based purchasing mean you could see who was buying your book, but, in theory, you could see whether they actually finished the book and how long it took them to read it in comparison to other books they read. Were readers relentlessly turning the pages or did they lollygag their way through each chapter?

Those data dreams didn't quite come to fruition. As Richard Bellis at Digital Book World puts it, "As e-reading continues to spread, online reader communities to thrive and self-publishing and social reading platforms to develop, you'd think information about who's reading what and how would be easier to come by. You'd be wrong. The book business is notoriously short on freely available data about its consumers."

This doesn't seem to make much sense, does it? Most ebooks are sold through e-retailers such as Amazon and Apple, and those guys aren't giving up the goods-even though they have a stake in making sure as many ebooks as possible are sold. Meanwhile, Bellis writes, "Editors, marketers, distributors and everyone in between are under increasing pressure to base their decisions on hard data that isn't always there." Of course, the data is there; it's just that the right people don't seem to have access to it.

Change is inevitable, it seems-even in the archaic world of book publishing. "Amazon and a number of self-publishing platforms provide authors with metrics to gauge how well their titles perform," Bellis writes. "Just last month [March 2014], Vook bought the stats-running start-up Booklr and folded the latter's analytical toolkit into its ebook publishing platform."

For now, though, it seems that the book world is turning to ad hoc methods of putting together its own research and anecdotal data, thanks to the increasingly social web. Reading communities, online reviews, and book forums help authors, editors, and publishers get the kind of feedback from their readers they could not have dreamed of even a decade or two ago.

The reader in me is torn about this. I keep thinking about books I loved that I find it hard to believe would ever find a home at a publishing house if it was left up to metrics-or even user reviews on the web. So I immediately headed over to the Amazon listing for Ex Utero by Laurie Foos-an absurd bit of satire about a woman who loses her uterus while shoe shopping and launches a nationwide hunt for the misplaced organ. I adored this book as a teenager. I laughed uproariously at it. With just six user reviews and 3.5 stars on Amazon, do I think metrics would hurt or hinder a book such as Ex Utero? I don't really know. If publishers could see that people such as myself tore through its pages in just a matter of hours, would they be more likely to take a chance on another book similar to it? Or would its tepid reviews be its demise?

New writers already have a tough time breaking into the industry. If metrics start to show that the coveted demographics only want historical fiction written by middle-aged women from New Zealand, would the big publishing houses swing too far away from gut instinct and start publishing only what works according to the numbers? True magic happens when someone finds an unexpected hit in the slush pile and pulls an unknown writer from obscurity. Just ask J.K. Rowling and all the editors who passed on her manuscript.