Big Publishers, Big Books, Little Data

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Is Big Data the Key for Publishers Long-Term Success?

Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google is fond of stating, “Did you know that every two days as much data is created as was created since the dawn of civilization until 2003?”

Most of the publishers I speak with each week are astounded when they hear this. They immediately stop and think about how big these numbers really are. Then, just as quickly, they forget about it. They dismiss the implications for their businesses – and get back to their daily to do lists.

This is a serious mistake.

Big data has been a topic of conversation in the news and web publishing arenas for quite some time. In fact, it’s recently even become part of the public conscience with the incredible success of Splunk’s IPO. From this big data comes numerous new products and, most importantly new revenue streams for news and web publishers.

However, when it comes to ebooks, big data continues to be an extremely quiet topic. While most people covering the industry prefer to debate the merits of DRM or decry its very existence, very few are asking what I feel is the most pivotal question:

How does big data apply to ebooks when the primary sources of the data (the reading apps) are typically unwilling and uninterested in sharing it? 

This is absolutely a loaded question – but it is one that must be asked.

Publishers and authors have long given control of their readers away to distributors and retailers. They have done so without giving much thought to the long-term implications of a lack of direct-customer relationships and – most importantly – the data those relationships deliver.

Google, Facebook, Apple, Zynga and many others have realized incredible success (and valuations) based upon their abilities to develop direct, meaningful relationships with their customers. These relationships are the result of one thing and one thing only – big data. They know everything about their customer’s preferences and stop at nothing to use this information to improve their offerings and retain their strong positions of customer engagement.

When it comes to ebooks, however, the reader’s data is locked in the completely closed ecosystems of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Google and others. These companies continue to extend their leads in the ebook arena while others struggle. This isn’t a coincidence.

Big data is an incredibly complex issue – one that is far beyond the reach of a single byline.

Yet, it can begin to be understood via a series of simple questions publishers and authors must begin asking themselves:

  1. What time of day do my readers enjoy reading my book(s) and on what device(s) do they enjoying reading at those times?
  2. What type(s) of books do they enjoy reading at these times? Is fiction and AM or PM hit? What about non-fiction, or romance?
  3. How long do they spend reading each time they pick up the book and how does this vary by genre?
  4. How often (and at what point in the story) do readers abandon a book, never to return? If they do return, how long is the lag between reading sessions?
  5. How often (and at what times of day) do readers highlight or note parts of the book? How does this vary by genre?

For publishers and authors to be successful they are going to have to intimately understand what, when and how their audience wants to read – and have full control and ownership of this data.

Knowing whether or not a reader enjoys reading at 6a or 4p, and for how long they enjoy reading at those times is critical for the development and sourcing of new titles. If reading behaviors show that engagement is sub 30 minutes at 4p, what steps would you, an author or publisher, take to deliver a product that meets that need? What would you create that engages at a deep and meaningful level in a well defined window of time?

As reader’s behaviors continue to be shaped by the proliferation of mobile optimized experiences and content, the very nature of reading is going to continue to change. This is a tremendous benefit for authors and publishers as the ability to control the reader relationship (and reading experiences) has never been easier. Whether it’s custom developed apps, apps developed via off-the-shelf frameworks or highly optimized websites, the controls to engage readers in a meaningful way are literally at everyone’s fingertips. With this accessibility comes the opportunity to capture reader usage data and the ability to apply this data to your own success – not the success of others.

The publishers and authors who grab hold of this opportunity and create frameworks to capture and maintain this data will be setting themselves up for serious long-term success. Those who rely on third parties to (maybe?) provide it, or pass altogether, may very well perish.

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