Data on Readers Still Scarce, Retailers Should Take Action

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

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. The proliferation of things to read and ways to read them has arguably made it even scarcer. And so far, ebook retailers haven’t proven too eager to change that.

Retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple hold most of the cards in this game. For the good of publishers and readers alike, they should be much more forthcoming about reader data.

Demand for such information seems to intensify in proportion to the ebook market’s growth. Editors, marketers, distributors and everyone in between are under increasing pressure to base their decisions on hard data that isn’t always there. Publishers’ fixation on data led one executive earlier this year to compare it jokingly to “teenagers talking about how many girlfriends they have.” The stir self-published author Hugh Howey caused in February when he released a highly contested set of figures about what authors earn from ebook sales highlighted, among much else, just how little anyone knows for certain about ebook sales.

Some of that is already changing. Amazon and a number of self-publishing platforms provide authors with metrics to gauge how well their titles perform. Just last month, Vook bought the stats-running start-up Booklr and folded the latter’s analytical toolkit into its ebook publishing platform.

Meanwhile, Digital Book World’s own ebook best-seller list remains one of the few comprehensive measures of ebook sales week-to-week, and it’s continually adjusted to fit best-guess changes in retailers’ relative market shares.

Until more of that information becomes available, many in the publishing world are left to rely on precedent, strategic gambles and gut instincts. Those aren’t bad methods in their own rights, but it can be frustrating if they’re among the only ones to live or die by.

One area it can be helpful to turn to for snapshots of readers’ interests is the range of web destinations and communities that have sprung up in recent years. From authors’ Facebook pages to user-driven forums to popular book blogs, readers now have more meeting places than ever before to talk about what they’re reading, engage with authors and register their likes and dislikes.

That’s one reason Digital Book World is teaming up with The Huffington Post Books for a webcast on April 30th to investigate what ebook readers are reading. HuffPo’s Maddie Crum will be joined by fellow book blog editors Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot and Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed to offer insights on what the readers in their respective audiences are excited about, how they engage online and what could be driving any changes ahead. Digital Book World’s editorial director Jeremy Greenfield will moderate the hour-long discussion, weighing DBW’s best-seller data with the panelists’ observations.

It should offer an all-too-rare opportunity to probe increasingly critical questions for authors, editors, agents and publishers alike. Until retailers decide it’s in their interest, too, to share more data with the other players concerned, informal investigations like this will have to suffice. At least that’s something many in the book world are already accustomed to.


Click here to register for the webcast “What Are Ebook Readers Reading? Current Market Trends for Authors, Agents and Publishers” on April 30th, 12-1pm EST.

3 thoughts on “Data on Readers Still Scarce, Retailers Should Take Action

  1. William Ash

    I guess the problem with the hypothesis that data would lead to better products is that usually it results in mediocre products. The Hollywood formula movies that come after a hit are examples. The other problem is that consumer behavior does not actually tell why a book is successful.

    As far as self publishers, they want to make certain kinds of books. The data showing that other kinds of books are more successful is irrelevant.

    Then, on the other side of the coin, do readers get some privacy? Should even the distributors be prying? Everyone is freaking out about the NSA, but Google et al are scarier to me as they have no controls.

    I know data is the new black, but data is just that, data. There are just so many answers that it can answer. And it would be nice for companies to stop using me for their business after I buy a product.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    Why bother to appeal to the good will of retailers when there are quite well-justified reasons why digital retailers–including ebooks–should be require by law to provide detailed sales data. It’s based on something that is distinctive about digital products.

    To understand why, step back to traditional printing. It was virtually impossible for a book retailer to cheat by selling 100 copies but claiming to have sold only 50. Why? Because publishers literally supplied the books, so coming up with a way to bootleg 50 counterfeit copies would cost more than they were worth.

    POD changed that a bit. Copies were printed one at a time in ways that weren’t under a publisher’s control. That said, there was a chain of custody that made cheating messy. True, Lightning Source might print 100 copies of that book but only pay for 50. But that meant that an entire chain of transfers to other business entities, perhaps to Ingram or Amazon, also had to be kept off the books too. Again, with perhaps the exception of Amazon’s in-house Creative Cloud, those third party transfers made cheating more trouble than it was worth.

    Not so with digital books. They only come into existence at the moment of sale and the retailer is also the creator of that downloaded file. It’d be trivial for a major ebook retailer to sell 100 copies but pay the author or publisher for only 50. Or if that retailer wanted to be a bit more subtle, software could be set up so that every dozen or so sales, one passes through for free. The large royalties that retailers pay for ebooks, 70% in some cases, creates a serious incentive to cheat. Slipping in a freebie $9.99 ebook would earn that retailer $7.00 in pure profit. And given the secrecy that veils ebook sales, who is to know?

    But there’s actually an easy fix. It’d work like this.

    1. Each ebook retailer would be required to supply an author/publisher with specific details about each sale on a regular basis that’s not less often than once a month.

    2. No names and addresses would be supplied, but the data would include the title and quantity, the date and time the sale closed, and the city, state and zip of the purchaser.

    3. Authors and publishers could create test sales, perhaps with the assistance of either of fans or of third parties. That’d generate sales receipt data that could be compared to actual sales data coming from retailers.

    4. If the sales receipt supplied to the customer didn’t match the retail sales data sent to the author/publisher, meaning that was a purchase without a corresponding royalty payment, the author could demand an immediate audit be done at the retailers expense. Remember, what we’re talking about here is a serious data mismatch that indicates either deliberate fraud or badly managed sales compensation. The mistake is the retailer’s, so the retailer should have to cover the cost of determining why.

    That’d keep retailers honest and as, as a happy side effect, provide regular, useful sales data to authors and publishers. An author who makes a guest appearance on a Chicago radio station, for instance, could see if there’s a rise in sales in the Chicago area. It would not be as good as having the names and addresses of all purchasers, but it’d be a major improvement over schemes that try to extract sales data from Amazon rankings.

    I’d actually add one more feature to that law. Authors and publishers would be under no restrictions as to how they use their sales data. They could, if they wanted, supply a copy of that data to an organization such as Digital Book World that could create industry-wide ebook sales figures. Those in publishing wouldn’t have to live in the dark, trying to extract meaning from mere monthly sales figures.

    I’d say that’s an idea whose time has come. The only issue might be finding a way to get Congress to pay attention to this. We’ve been waiting over thirty years for them to revise copyright law to take into account our digital age. Left to their own devices, they don’t seem to hear anything that isn’t being championed by well-heeled K Street lobbyists.

  3. Joey Ebach

    Good article Rich, and I’m glad to see that DBW is working to bring this reading data to light. I’m with, a subscription based e-reading site that launched last Friday. One of our main goals is to provide complete transparency with author royalties and what our users are reading. We provide free statistics on what book pages we’re selected, which books we’re opened, and how long the user remained on the book. We believe this data should be readily available to our authors, who are the foundation of Inkbok. If you get a chance, take a look at our How it Works page, and let me know your thoughts. We’re currently working with about 80 publishers and over a thousand authors.




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