WHITHER LIBRARIES? Publishing, Data, and the New Literary Arts

By Johnson, Ben | Computers in Libraries, December 2014 | Go to article overview

WHITHER LIBRARIES? Publishing, Data, and the New Literary Arts


Johnson, Ben, Computers in Libraries


To remain relevant in the long term, libraries will need to leverage the power of data.

Have you ever wondered why you are so addicted to that game on your smartphone? Or why you can't stop binge-watching every episode of that Netflix show? Those addictive qualities are not accidents. They are engineered.

Before that media ever crosses your screen, it is rigorously tested and tweaked. If you are helplessly addicted, it is because the entertainment industry is quite adept at crafting hooking media. Movies are screened by test audiences, and scenes are edited or rewritten based on feedback. Data from video game controls is analyzed-every button pressed and every candy crushed-and used to cultivate those addictive qualities that keep you playing a few seconds longer.

But for the publishing industry, the only measures of effectiveness and reader satisfaction are sales and reviews. Both of these are lagging indicators, generated after a book has been released. Neither metric can help shape nor forecast the next big book-they are tools of dissection, not generation. As Scholastic's publisher David Levithan points out, "With a printed book, there's no such thing as an analytic."

Electronic reading, on the other hand, is Big Data-which is a big deal, and it keeps getting bigger. Yes, we are in the midst of something big, some would say a revolution. But as big as it is, quantity is not the revolutionary part of the Big Data revolution. The truly big deal is that we are finding ways to do things with this data, and in the process, this data is transforming countless professions and industries-everything from science to baseball.

But what about the stodgy old business of publishing books? What about (and this is bordering on blasphemy) that delicate and creative art of writing? Why did Apple spend possibly $15 million to buy the startup BookLamp? Surely literature is the product of an artist, which is outside the purview of data mining, focus groups, and deep analytics.

With the advent and rise of electronic reading, I can tell you that 9,260 Kindle users highlighted the same line in Pride and Prejudice, only 8.2% of The Da Vinci Code is about art and art galleries, people who read The Hunger Games do so at an average rate of 57 pages per hour, and only 6.4% of readers who bought Infinite Jest read it to the end.

Players That No One Else Can See

There is a scene in the film Moneyball where Peter, a young graduate of Yale University's department of economics, argues that winning baseball games is "about getting things down to one number." He also argues that with better data analysis, a team can "find value in players that no one else can see." Sure, the Yankees had the same data as Peter, but its staff lacked the tools for parsing and analyzing the data for meaningful patterns.

While there are 30 professional teams in Major League Baseball, there are only five major players in publishing. But just as a 40-man roster playing 162 games of baseball can generate gobs of statistics, a single publisher-supporting hundreds of authors and thousands of books across multiple formats in different markets-can quickly find itself overwhelmed by data.

Historically, the book business has been fairly opaque. Publishers looked at their own sales figures and numbers from sources such as Nielsen BookScan. However, that data wasn't generally shared with the authors or the public. In 2012, this began to change when Amazon started sharing sales data with authors, and the big publishers followed suit.

The idea was simple: By providing authors with sales data, publishers would empower authors to better focus their brands and target their messages. Whereas marketing had been an afterthought, it would now permeate the entire process from inception to book tour. Like Peter, the fictionalized assistant general manager of the Oakland Athletics in Moneyboll, publishers were trying to arrive at a magic number-that elusive variable that would unlock the secret to success. …

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