Publish or Pass: Big Datas Role in Book Selling

Publishing a book is always a gamble. The writer, the editor, and the imprint that umbrellas any title can have their name tarnished or revived. Gauging what will sell and what won’t is no simple algorithm of taste, and determining the worth of the gamble is always a question riddled with confounding elements and scores of external factors. It isn’t merely enough to trust your gut, and publishers are looking to data companies for help. For many publishers, the accessibility to big data is spurring sales, but for others, it’s stirring anxiety about the future of publishing.

“Up to very recently we really didn’t have any insights into how readers were behaving with books in terms of their reading patterns or their reading of a specific book,” Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks told NPR in an interview earlier this week. “All of that was kind of missing.” Now, in the throes of insurmountable heaps of data, piles that amass into years of points and pie charts, utilizing the sea of information is a viable method to trace reader taste.

It begins with simple questions. Why did an esteemed author’s book reap sub-par sales? Why did sales fail to meet publishers expectations? Or simply, who’s reading this junk? Branching out from a single question are demographic statistics and probabilities that can coalesce into the lumpy shape of an answer. Data driven book companies, like Sourcebooks and Jellybooks, are capitalizing on this swell of information to deter certain publications or provide convincing evidence to push a book through.

“Data is better than your gut,” according to Raccah.

Other publishers are more wary. Alan Rinzler, a long time publisher, one who’s passed the work of Toni Morrison, Claude Brown and the likes from his hands to the print house, recalls many books that were received with a jeer or a cringe; ones that took a publisher falling in love with them to slip through the cracks to publication. Readers may have found Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes and its meditation on rape and incest unsettling, and “publishers might have said this will never sell,” but Rinzler’s attachment to Morrison’s book and determination to get it published surpassed the author’s (at that time) empty repertoire and co-workers’ suggestions that milder topics might fare better.

Morrison’s debut novel, along with a swath of other iconic reads originally dismissed by publishers, claim a case for the power of intuition.

The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison


“Editors fall in love with books. They see something in it that resonates for them personally and they become passionate about it. They really have no idea whether or not the book will sell. It’s strictly an intuition, an instinct.” – Rinzler

It’s a divided debate, but much like the once perilous argument of nature v. nurture – Darwin and his fleet of finches against Watson and his brigade of blank-slate babies – any firm binary of the sort demands some adolescent eye rolling. Both data and intuition have their place in the publishing world. Data, even if simple sales reports, have always aided publisher decisions. It’s presence is not new, just more transparent. But that does not mean it’s incompatible with instinct. Data can complement a publisher’s choice as an informant, not a sole decider.

An excessive dependence on data strips editors and publisher of the credit they deserve in bringing remarkable works to light, or a mild sense of responsibility for a flop. But then again, it’s safe to say we’re passed an era of the lone publisher sitting in a dark office deliberating by candlelight. It’s a collaborative snap decision that involves numerous individuals and can benefit from aid of an objective external source – in moderation. The fear that defaulting decisions to big data will produce cheapened commoditized literature shovelled to the masses is a valid concern, but granted all data be taken with a grain of salt, the threat it imposes on instinct and spontaneity should be too. 


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