Small data, big world

At FutureBook 2012 last week we heard how data was driving the publishing business forward, particularly consumer data that could help inform publishing decisions or pricing models around particular titles. Lonely Planet's Dominic Rowell spoke specifically about how that company had used customer activity on its popular website to help its publishing plans, and then used what those customers told it to reinforce its image as a 'travel guide' as it moved beyond books. Osprey has similarly 'talked' to its customers, and developed publishing out of that, while Penguin's 'black Friday' promotions, are a data gathering operation writ large.

On FutureBook Random House's head of consumer insight Louise Vinter blogs about how getting close to consumers helps Random House understand how its "authors fit into their reading repertoire and their lives; which can help inform everything from cover design and copy to advertising and social media reach".

But deepening the relationships with the end-consumer to inform in-house publishing decisions is just one way of using this information. Another way would be to help answer some of the wider cross-industry decisions we are all grappling with. On a Book Machine blog that followed FutureBook 2012 Felice Howden talked about a lack of evidence to back up some of the statements made during the pricing panel. But actually the curious thing about a whole range of issues facing us, from Digital Rights Management, e-book bundling, to library e-book lending, is the absence of good data to help underpin the debate.

On DRM, for example, both Pottermore's Charlie Redmayne and Macmillan's Anthony Forbes Watson spoke about the impact on piracy of removing DRM on their e-book files, though their experiences are inevitably confined only to their books, giving their detractors an easy come-back. Similarly, around library e-book lending we have heard that access to free e-books may undermine the commercial model for paid e-books, and threaten bookshops, yet the evidence for or against this point of view seems lacking. Equally, Osprey's experiment around e-book bundling was seized upon by those who regard 'bundling' as the saviour of this, or that, yet beyond Osprey where is the data that could more widely indicate success or failure?

There is much talk about publishers having to become more experimental, but actually most publishers experiment everyday around individual titles, authors, and even business models. But mostly they experiment in isolation only slowly building up a picture that is more widely relevant, and only occasionally sharing this openly. In some cases they may not be able to, post Department of Justice all publishers need to be careful about what they share and what they do collaboratively.

Bridging these gaps in our knowledge is a task for many of us in 2013. But for the foreseeable future we may need to rely on small pockets of data to guide us in this big new world, and if that is the case we need to be doubly careful about not becoming dogmatic about one approach.

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