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Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read

15 March 2016

From The New York Times:

Andrew Rhomberg wants to be the Billy Beane of the book world.

Mr. Beane used analytics to transform baseball, famously recounted in “Moneyball,” a book by Michael Lewis.

Now Mr. Rhomberg wants to use data about people’s reading habits to radically reshape how publishers acquire, edit and market books.

“We still know almost nothing about readers, especially in trade publishing,” said Mr. Rhomberg, the founder of Jellybooks, a reader analytics company based in London.

While e­books retailers like Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble can collect troves of data on their customers’ reading behavior, publishers and writers are still in the dark about what actually happens when readers pick up a book. Do most people devour it in a single sitting, or do half of readers give up after Chapter 2? Are women over 50 more likely to finish the book than young men? Which passages do they highlight, and which do they skip?

. . . .

Here is how it works: the company gives free e­books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e­book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e­reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.

. . . .

On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to

50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.

. . . .

Authors are understandably nervous about how new insights into reading behavior might shape publishers’ editorial decisions. Suppose you are writing a crime series, and readers gave up halfway through the latest installment. Publishers might not want to buy the next one. Or what if readers skip around in your nonfiction book, a common way to read nonfiction? An editor might want to cut the chapters people are skipping, potentially erasing useful context. And, of course, people who sign up for a free e­book service might not represent the kinds of readers who would seek and pay for a crime novel, or a nonfiction book on a subject that interests them. The sample sizes are relatively small. So the reader data might not represent the reactions of a general audience.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Lexi for the tip.

PG isn’t surprised that business books have surprisingly low completion rates. Once you get past the one or two interesting ideas, the rest often feels like filler.

Books in General

7 Comments to “Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read”

  1. I get ‘stories’ to ‘read’, ‘business/tech books’ are mainly for ‘reference’ — why wouldn’t I skip around (or maybe even discard it early) if/when I discover the writer/publisher didn’t know what they were talking about.

  2. Of course, this study assumes that the tracking software is (a) accurately reporting reader behavior (most avid readers I know use multiple devices and remember where they are, rather than relying on bookmarks… which means it looks to the software like incomplete reading); (b) where appropriate, transcode or otherwise change file formats for convenience, which will give inaccurate data on any report; (c) use reading software that does not report reading to any outsider under any circumstances, especially if reading anything either “sensitive” or “inconsistent with the day job” (e.g., the award-winning elementary school teacher who also reads porn-tinged manga, or the seminarian at a fundamentalist Baptist college who also reads extreme-left political tracts, or — guilty party here! — the lawyer or expert witness in copyright matters who reads utter tripe from cover to cover to prepare for potential litigation or an expert opinion).

    In short, this data set will reflect only the habits of the casual, “unsophisticated” (not a putdown, but a descriptor) reader… and conclusions drawn from it are valid if, and only if, that’s a statistically valid and inclusive description of the entire set of e-book readers, or more to the point of the marketplace-in-terms-of-actual-sales of e-book customers. I’ve got enough anecdotal data to at least call that into question.

  3. Did I miss the part where they matched books to reader preference?

  4. The glaring distortion factor in this study in terms of completion rates is that these are *free* e-books. These numbers can’t be applied to purchased books; that will require a different study. A second distortion factor is that these are self-selected test subjects and we don’t know how they compare to real customers.

  5. The value of the results depends on the quality of the analytics organization. If they choose their focus groups well, verify that their eReader supplies accurate data, and generally follow best practices for focus group studies, I don’t see any reason their analysis should not result in books that satisfy more readers.

    If Jellybooks does not do a good job, I imagine the market will sort it out. Focus groups are not new, and many industries continue to use them. You can question whether books that satisfy more readers are truly better books, but for myself, satisfying readers is fairly important.

    Personally, I expect the traditional publishers to resist the approach. They seem to judge books in an echo chamber rather than care much about satisfying readers. Indies seem more realistic.

  6. pubs already give free books and etc to readers pre pub and at book expos etc.

    I had to laugh… trying to game the system again [I know, what system? it’s in such disarray it seems] without understanding why people might stop on page one and think it is a fabulous book and never read more, or only read more ten years later.

    Too much shallow analyses in even trying to weight for all the millions of reasons people have for not reading ‘through.’

    In the case of a book in which I read the first page and no more for decades after… it was because the first page was so stunning and so filled with what I’d never heard put so eloquently, that it took years it seemed to try to understand that dense page. From Heschel.

    A book I’ve given as gifts to hundreds over the years.

    But then, it must be a bad book, for I did not read far into it… yet.

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