Publishers must embrace big data, it really is as simple as that. The strongest indicator yet appeared last week, when Amazon revealed that since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks. Amazon says the figures include sales of printed books which did not have Kindle editions, but excluded downloads of free ebooks.
It's a watershed moment for the publishing industry. With the real acceptance of digital e-reading and downloadable content, publishers have been handed a unique opportunity. As the sales figures and data pour in publishers can get to know their readers like never before.
Unlike the traditional retail process for physical books -- which offers publishers only a marginal measure of the success of a book in terms of numbers of books bought and a rough sense of its reception gauged through reviews -- ebook publishing opens up the possibility of gaining a real and evolving picture of a book's reception, readership, and the reading (and spending habits) of consumers.
Ebooks and e-readers transform booklovers into a measurable demographic. They record 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. Crucially, when sifting through this data (however time consuming and challenging that might be) publishers can gain an insight into consumer engagement with the product. And it couldn't come a moment too soon; the publishing industry is decidedly backward when it comes to measuring consumer habits. Unlike the rounds of beta testing, focus groups, pilot runs, software updates and post production editing that the rest of the entertainment industry is relentlessly subjected too, publishers have historically relied on post-purchase information, through which they can guess sequel success or increase print runs, but cannot future-gaze with any real security.
Economically speaking, utilizing big data is a commercial imperative, if only to keep up with the competition. Apple, Amazon, and Google are all exploring and exploiting big data, and publishers will need to follow suit to maintain their level of consumer insight. Offered the chance to increase their engagement in different digital distribution channels - web, apps and smartphones - publishers will only keep up by finding ways and means of tracking as many individual interactions between their consumers and their content as possible.
As with anything financially lucrative and technologically challenging, publishers need to embrace big data sooner rather than later in order to avoid being elbowed out of the market. Digital software services are cashing in, building increasingly sophisticated reader tracking software, with ever-expanding premium price tags attached. Publishers must also engage wholeheartedly in order to remain vigilantly secure of copyright and data protection laws which are increasingly an issue within this sector. Without an active commitment to security, publishers are putting their relationships with investors and consumers at risk.
As technologically baffling as big data sounds, it also opens up the possibility of some really creative thinking within the publishing sector. By understanding where the drop off points are in a book, publishers and editors can work to create better, more satisfying content, or by testing digital books before bringing out a print edition, publishers can make use of reader feedback. Similarly, some companies are working on formats that allow readers to customize game-adventure books and plot lines, a kind of reader-response writing. By analyzing the point where readers either commit or cast off a book, publishers can even consider the option of new pricing models based on trialling - downloading and reading the first twenty pages of a book for a nominal fee or even for free, and then paying the price of the ebook once they are hooked -more adequately replicating purchasing behaviour in physical book shops.
Yet, as Publishers Weekly observed only a few months ago, book publishers aren't generally on board, or don't know enough about big data to use it efficiently. Some are even scared that data-driven analytics will obstruct the creative risk-taking that nurtures truly great literature. It's an unlikely prospect given that this data will always be in the hands of capable professionals - a tool to provide possible assistance, disregarded or utilized at will. Running scared is running stupid, reader driven data creates a much-needed feedback loop. Increased knowledge means increased choice - for the author, publisher and reader. To meet the reader, his quirks and habits, is a tantalizing opportunity, and one that publishers cannot afford to miss.
("Ebook" courtesy of Shutterstock.)