It is one of the cruel truisms of the book business that publishers rarely have much insight into how their products are actually used. This is not for lack of curiosity on a publisher’s part but because of the structure of the industry: books are almost never sold directly to end-users. They are sold to libraries and the wholesalers that service libraries; they are sold to your local bookshop; and they are sold to online vendors; but rarely is a book sold directly by a publisher to the person who reads it. (For a report on those exceptional D2C situations, click here.) Book publishing, in other words, is a game of intermediaries. Sitting upstream, publishers have little insight into what is happening downstream. This is an invitation to make bad business decisions based on unproven assumptions about how books are actually used, and as an industry, book publishers have accepted that invitation over the past few years and made a series of big mistakes. It may be hard to roll back these decisions, but if we don’t know what they are and how they came to be, we are likely to keep making more of the same.
This topic came to light with amusing effect a few months ago when Kobo, an international ebook retailer, began to release some information about how their readers actually read books. This caught the attention of the popular press (for a representative piece, see this one from the Guardian), which, in taunts reminiscent of high school, gleefully noted that only 46% of readers finished Donna Tartt’s bestselling The Goldfinch, a novel about an art heist that has been compared to the work of Dickens–though, I suspect, not by anyone who has read Dickens as an adult. But, wait! It gets better! The book that was most often completed (by UK readers) was, of all things, a self-published novel, One Cold Night, by Katia Lief ! Are we a pretentious species or what?
So what’s going on here? To begin with, we are working with ebooks, not print, which, in the age of Edward Snowden, means that they are endlessly trackable. Kobo itself has a huge readership around the world, second only to Amazon, which makes it possible to discern patterns in all the data it collects. But why would they release this information? Amazon notoriously is a very tight-lipped organization, but Kobo is headed the other way. Perhaps this is simple marketing–get out a good story about books and feature the Kobo name in it–but I suspect that Kobo is preparing to sell reports on that usage to publishers. Indeed, Kobo makes a good, if limited, case for how information on reader engagement could help a publisher acquire titles more effectively and market them better. So the sale of the data surrounding books could represent a new revenue stream, opening up the possibility that books could be sold at breakeven or even at a loss, with data sales comprising all of an online retailer’s profit. And here we have one of the fundamental truths of publishing in the twenty-first century: economic value is migrating from content to the metadata that surrounds that content.
What Kobo has zeroed in on is a new alternative metric, reader engagement. While we talk about altmetrics endlessly (immeasurably) in the journals world, for books we mostly talk about sales, measured in units: How many copies did you sell? Engagement is a different beast. I am an outlier for The Goldfinch, having completed a book that 54% of readers did not. I give it a “B.” But the number of books that I have actually finished in my lifetime is very small. I would be surprised if I have finished 10% of the books I’ve read. For nonfiction that percentage is barely discernible. My science fiction addiction fares little better: 50 pages and throw the book across the room. Not finishing a book is the norm for me. This is because there are so many good ones to choose from; why waste time with one that is not up to snuff or for which the argument becomes apparent before reaching the final page?
Is this business of not finishing books simply a comment about my own habits or does it say something about readers in general? This is where the Kobo data is so useful, as we now have unequivocal evidence that while some books are read, many are sampled. Obviously this is going to vary by reader, the specific book, subject area, and probably such things as the time of year (what if a bunch of great books all come out just as you started a different one?). We can only wonder at what Amazon knows about reader engagement for books of scholarly merit. Sometimes we can guess: Thomas Piketty made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but a book for specialists is a book for specialists. It looks great on the coffee table, though, and attests to one’s political bona fides.
This is where we have gotten into trouble. The apparent fixity of a book, the tendency to think of a book as something stuck inside an inflexible container, has led us to imagine that books are used the way they are written, or how we assume they are written–that is, from beginning to end. The prominence of the novel as a literary form over the past two centuries reinforces this. Who would want to break off in the middle of Tom Jones? The traditional novel is linear, which has created an expectation that all books are linear. That expectation is simply wrong, as Kobo and our own reading experience tell us.
If books are often just read in part, then it makes little sense economically to say that you don’t have to pay for a book unless you read the whole thing. I have been disappointed to see that some people, including judges, believe that up to 10% of a book, in some instances 20%, or a complete chapter is not enough to undermine the commercial interests of a publisher. This is pushing fair use too far. If the expectation is that a book to be worth anything has to be read all the way through, then the book industry would simply collapse. Some people would welcome that, I know, but I am not among them. But if the expectation is that books are tasted and not always swallowed whole, we would come up with a new set of guidelines for how books can be used before payment is required.
We would also assess the various demand-driven acquisitions (DDA) policies differently. Books put into DDA programs simply must be priced higher than books purchased in advance, and the fees for short-term rentals for parts of a book should be high as well. If Kobo had released their data even a few years earlier, it’s possible that the now ubiquitous DDA programs would never have gotten off the ground.
It is interesting to consider what other aspects of the book industry will change now that more and more end-user data is coming to light. How will this affect editors’ decisions? Will this provide ammunition for the idea of book “shorts”–texts of shorter length–or will the marketing challenges for such experiments prove to be insurmountable? Will we be able to measure the practical effect of promotional campaigns? Is data the new oil, as many contend? Whatever we learn from data, however, any actions we take have to be anchored in good economic sense. But there can be no doubt that the place to start is to get the data in the first place.