Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
Data-driven book publishing and the possible decline of risky writing
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the data mining of e-book reading habits. In Your E-Book Is Reading You they discuss, for example, what Barnes & Noble has learned from Nook data:
Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.
The article goes on to discuss how publishers are now using this kind of data to guide everything from the subject matter to the length of future publications. The whole thing makes me a little uncomfortable — I think I agree with Mr. Galassi here:
Others worry that a data-driven approach could hinder the kinds of creative risks that produce great literature. “The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn’t have anything to do with,” says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it.”
I realize there is a hint of hypocrisy in my feelings about data-driven book publishing. As a practitioner of user-centered design I am a big proponent of data-driven decisions (this presentation by Joshua Porter is a constant companion). But this feels different. I guess I’m worried that publishing books with the explicit purpose of satisfying some imaginary, averaged-out reader drone will pull us all towards a safe middle ground where no risk is allowed.
In my version of a nightmare scenario, my 2-year old daughter will be awash in Dora the Explorer books with no access to dangerous, crazy stories like Oh, The Places You’ll Go or Where The Wild Things Are. I don’t think a data-driven approach to publishing would have let those books see the light, and that would have been a tragedy.
Here’s to writers who take risks.