The number one obstacle any author faces is that of discoverability. How do readers discover their books in a sea of self-published drivel, poorly edited or, worse, not edited at all? If that does not make things tough enough, add in the Kindle Unlimited service and others like it that pay the author by how much of the book the reader reads. Lose their attention by Chapter 2? Not only did you lose a potential reader for your future work, but you lost money. That $2.99 e-book turned into fifteen cents, of which you get five.
No wonder it is tough for writers to make a living. Of course, some try to cheat the system and get their accounts shut down, books pulled from sale, and at worst are banned from publishing on Amazon again. At the same time, publishers and smaller authors are looking for ways to get genuine exposure and readership.
This, of course, involves marketing. One of the cornerstones of marketing is to know your audience. In today’s world of technology and data sharing, audiences share this information wittingly or unwittingly, all the time. Marketers are just now grasping how to sort through and use all of this data. Authors as marketers and even their publishers are way behind.
Here’s the brief explanation. Big Data is a set of data too big for a normal computer to handle because there is just too much of it. You need a large server to store all the information, and a truly powerful database to sort through it and make relationships between parts of the data.
We share this data on social media all the time, and in many other ways, including wearable fitness tech, location-enabled apps on our cell phones, and through other permissions we allow by downloading apps onto all of our devices.
Think of big data like this: your doctor, hospital, and probably all of your health care providers have implemented Electronic Health Records (EHR), especially since the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act has made this mandatory. Not only does this mean there is a huge amount of personal data about you digitized, but EHR has the ability to obtain more, and in the future, it’s likely that the FitBit or other device you wear will share data real-time with your doctor electronically and automatically.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose you remotely in many cases based on your activities every day. This is both a cool development and frightening: medically this technology could save thousands of lives. At the same time, all of your activity will be recorded and reported.
Amazon Kindle Unlimited and other means of detecting how far you read in a book and how fast have similar implications. Not only are your reading preferences recorded by what books you buy, but also your reading habits, what part of a story turns you off and makes you want to stop reading, when your read, how fast you read certain parts of books, and even what device you read them on is all being shared and stored somewhere.
Does this data do authors any good?
Two words are buzzing around the hallways of marketing firms this year, location and relationship marketing. The first applies to authors and publishers in a general way: you should know where your readers are (geographically) and how that might influence their reading habits and even what they read. It also lets you know where you are not reaching readers, and should perhaps focus marketing efforts.
However, relationship marketing is a little tougher. Authors tend to send out announcements of book launches, and often feel as if, other than the few reviews that are posted online, it’s pretty difficult to get feedback from readers. After all, relationship implies a conversation and a conversation is a two-way street.
Fortunately, readers are sharing data all the time. You just have to access it, and then determine the million dollar question: will it affect how you write your next book?
Oyster and Scribd
Skepticism abounded as services started to pop up with comparisons such as “the Netflix of books”: for a set monthly fee, readers could access all the books they can read. While still only 2% of readers read more than 10 books a month, the services enough gained appeal for Amazon to enter the market with Kindle Unlimited, and quickly rocket into the lead in the category.
This is primarily because they have access to a lot more content than the rest, even though Smashwords, the second largest self-publishing platform and aggregator in the world, offers its authors the option of distributing their books to Scribd, one of the book subscription services.
The way authors get paid is simple. On Scribd, if the reader reads more than 10 percent but less than 50 percent, it counts for a tenth of a sale. Above 50 percent, it is a full sale. On another service, Oyster Books, now shut down, it was simpler: once a person read more than 10 percent of the book, it was officially considered “read.” After a book was considered read, it equaled a full sale for the publisher or author.
Enter Kindle, and an even more precise model. Amazon tracks the exact percentage of the book the reader finished. This gives an even fuller picture to authors: did 35% of readers stop after chapter two? Then maybe I should work on a stronger opening for my next book.
But how authors get paid through Kindle Unlimited is complicated. Author earnings are then determined by their share of total pages read in books in the KDP program. The fund is determined and set up monthly, and the funds are divided at the end of each month. Some authors will end up making pennies per page, while others will make much more. The Kindle Owners Lending Library works in a similar way, offering select titles for “check out.” The more of a book that gets read, the more money the author makes until the reader finishes the book, when they get paid full price.
Besides money, what does it mean?
This is the big question. Writers can easily look at your Kindle Unlimited or Scribd data and see how far readers are reading, where they stop, how fast they read your work (from 24 hours to months for some). But what should authors take away from it all?
Ultimately the creative process is fragile as it is. Should reader data just be another thing we add for authors to worry about? For many, it might shatter the process and paralyze them.
Should editors and publishers pay attention to this data? Use it to edit an author’s work, or decide what to accept and what to reject? How about agents? How much of this should they utilize to select manuscripts?
Creativity is delicate, and so is the current publishing economy. Only the strong survive, and even some of them struggle. Do we need to add another potential hurdle on the path to success?
Your reading habits, all of our reading habits, are already being tracked and becoming a part of Big Data. There is even talk of wearable devices tracking our reading habits just as they do our fitness.
Whether this data does authors and publishers any good is still up for debate, but it is clear that it affects the publishing economy, and that economy is already both fragile and evolving. What’s even more delicate is the creativity that feeds the act of writing. Whatever we do with this data, however we use it in the future, that’s one thing we can’t afford to break.