Friday, May 3, 2013

“How’s the Book Doing?”

The always provocative Cory Doctorow has a piece on book marketing that’s been making the rounds.
Much of it is smart. I have a few trivial quibbles that aren’t worth detailing. I’m sure he’s right about many of the things he has direct experience with (blurb-request spam), but I think he’s occasionally on thin ice in generalizing about things he doesn’t have direct experience of (inner workings of multiple publishing houses and how sales data gets reported).

There is one paragraph that I think deserves a close look. At least, it made me think hard (for which I thank him):
[A] few lucky times, I was able to score a few free minutes for a meal or a conversation with friends, and the number-one-champion frequently-asked-question they asked me was, ‘‘How is the book doing?’’
The honest answer to this is, ‘‘We’ll know in two to six months.’’ I mean, yes, Homeland was on the NYT bestseller list for four weeks, on the Indiebound bestseller list for three, and still carries a satisfyingly high Amazon sales rank, but none of this tells you anything particularly useful. Indiebound and BookSense tell publishers a bit about where books are selling, but compared to Internet businesses, publishers are almost entirely in the dark about their books. Even e-book reporting is frustratingly opaque: e-book retailers know which sites refer customers to their purchase pages, know those readers’ demographics and other purchases, understand which search terms direct the most traffic, and which subset of those terms generates the most sales. Publishers get little to none of this data. If I was negotiating with Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo, my top request would be realtime access to anonymized aggregate data from these services.
First, let us be thankful that publishers have bungled their negotiations with Amazon, otherwise Cory’s dinner guests would have their small-talk questions met with a stream of “anonymized aggregate data.”

More seriously, though: I don’t begrudge him the right to be frustrated about the relative opacity of sales reporting to authors (he’s wrong about publishers being in the dark—Bookscan?--but I’ll allow that even if he saw what we do know, he might still want more). But let’s consider a world of “realtime access to anonymized aggregate data from these services” for a moment. What would an author do with that data that’s better than what he’s doing now? What should I, a publisher, do with that data that’s better than what I’m doing now?

Can we entertain for a moment the possibility that a world where the best things an author can do after she’s finished a book are
a) go be an interesting, engaging person (note I didn’t write “salesperson”) in real and virtual communities of book lovers and
b) write another damn novel
is actually not a half bad world?

And similarly, let’s consider that a world where the best things an editor can do after he’s published a book are
a) go be an interesting, engaging person (note I didn’t write “salesperson”) in real and virtual communities of book lovers and
b) edit another damn novel
is also a pretty fine place to live.

I think Cory Doctorow is smart person who’s worth listening to on these subjects. (I think he does a pretty good job of succeeding in the world I mentioned above too.)  And I also think data is good. I wouldn’t want to do my job without our many sales reporting tools (even the ones Doctorow seems to think I don’t have).  I’m not naïve about where my paycheck comes from.

But I’m also not inclined to dismiss the elements of mystery and imprecision in measuring “how the book’s doing” at a given moment as bugs to be purged from the system with a fire hose blast of data. I have a sneaking suspicion the bug, as they say, might actually be a feature.