Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Nobody knows: Justin Ractliffe on using data to better understand reading habits

In this opinion piece, based on his Copyright Agency publisher fellowship report, Penguin Random House Australia publishing director Justin Ractliffe argues that while it’s difficult to predict consumers’ reading habits, data can help publishers move closer to shaping readers’ decision making.

In the concluding section of my catchily titled Copyright Agency publisher fellowship report Instinct, Input and Insight: Reader-centricity in publishing I quote the late, great screenwriter and author William Goldman. In his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade Goldman famously observes, ‘Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’ In one fell swoop he sums up the uncertainty of working in a creative industry. We might know a great deal about what has worked commercially in the past, but our ability to predict the commercial success of a new project is, at best, limited. Among his many other achievements Goldman also wrote The Princess Bride, so this is possibly only his second best line after, ‘Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.’ Or, ‘My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!’

But I digress. So iconic is Goldman’s quote that author Richard E Caves uses it in his book Creative Industries: Contracts between art and commerce to sum up one of the basic economic properties of creative activities. He calls it the nobody knows principle. In creative industries demand is uncertain—as Caves says, ‘There is great uncertainty about how consumers will value a newly produced creative product, short of actually producing the good and placing it before them.’ (As Mike Shatzkin comments in my report, ‘The market research—the R&D—is the publishing process itself.’) Consumer research and pre-testing are largely ineffective, according to Caves, because, ‘A creative product’s success can seldom be explained even ex post by the satisfaction of some pre-existing need.’ Books are ‘experience goods’ in that they are about meaning over functionality and not just a bundle of attributes and benefits. Readers don’t know what they’re getting until they’ve read and experienced the work. Readers read for all sorts of reasons and might resist profiling because through cultural consumption they are trying to reinvent and redefine themselves rather than just reproducing and reinforcing their identity. Authors too don’t know if their work will prove compelling to others, as Caves states:

The fact that the artist works outward to realise and reify an inner vision partly explains why nobody knows. The artist does not know and cannot pre-test whether her creative vision will prove equally compelling to others. Still worse, she cannot tell whether her conception has been successfully extracted from her inner vision and turned into an external creative product. The quality of the vision and the effectiveness of its realization are up for grabs.

And all that is before we even make it to Roland Barthes and his ‘The Death of the Author‘ essay, in which he posits that meaning is generated by the interpretation of the reader, that the author has no sovereignty over their own words, and that ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’. Let’s hope he meant only mostly dead. Because, as we all know, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

Nobody knows. No matter how much data we collect on readers and their needs, wants, habits and tastes it is always going to be difficult to understand why people choose to read what they do, the reaction they will have once they have read the book, the probability that they will buy another book, and what sparks them to buy the same book en masse. Zadie Smith sums it up brilliantly in her recent essay, ‘Fascinated to Presume: In defence of fiction‘:

Despite the confidence of the data harvesters, a self can never be known perfectly or in its entirety. The intimate meeting between a book and its reader can’t be predetermined. To put it another way, a book can try to modify your behaviour, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free. Between reader and book, there is only the continual risk of wrongness, word by word, sentence by sentence. The internet does not get to decide. Nor does the writer. Only the reader decides. So decide.

So decide. Data and consumer insight can help publishers help readers decide (help solve the discoverability ‘problem of getting noticed’ and help us match readers to books that might interest them). It can help us, the publishers, make better decisions, help us check our biases, prejudices and heuristics (inconceivable!). It can help make our guesses that bit more educated, our intuition that bit more informed. It can help us find new readers and expand our markets. Creative goods are consumed in a social context. Building our audience platforms and listening to our readers will help us build and transmit the word of mouth and buzz so crucial to a book’s success.

As an industry we should be thinking too about how we keep reading and books appealing, relevant and rewarding. We need to keep making sure that books have a place in people’s lives, so we need to understand what that place is and what the value is that they bring. And maybe, paradoxically, that value is the opposite of the self that the attention monster digital platforms serve up to us—known, passive, frictionless, commodified, algorithmified. The book does not say, ‘As you wish,’ but rather asks, ‘What is a wish?’ or, ‘Who are you?’ Nobody knows—but we can help our readers, and ourselves, get a little closer to finding out.