Monday, 23 March 2015

The next big thing isn't going to leap out of an algorithm

The publishing industry is one that's dear to my heart and my alter ego as a children's author. Interestingly, publishing is one of the world's oldest industries, which proves a certain amount of resilience to the slings and arrows, but it's also one of the most panicky and paranoid sectors and one of the slowest to catch up with modern technology and marketing.

I recently read an article in the Journal of the Society of Authors by Michael Bhaskar of the digital publisher Canelo and author of The Content Machine. The article is entitled "Big Data is watching you", which of course feeds directly into the publisher panic and paranoia.

Bhaskar relates how publishers have looked at amazon's winning ways with data, such as the data-driven recommendations and have established 'consumer insight' teams:

"These executives, sometimes drafted in from Wall Street or big retailers, crunch numbers on a grand scale. They aim to better understand their audiences and sales patterns, and to ensure that publishing  is tightly targeted at specific demographics... their clout is growing by the day...More than ever sales and marketing departments will require editors to back up their acquisitions with hard data."

Maybe it's no wonder that the publishers are paranoid.

But there is a flaw in all this, and it's something that industries with more sophisticated marketing departments can tell you. It's true that we can potentially learn far more from data these days. But this data only informs on the past and perhaps the present, if it's real-time.

Data can't tell you anything, as I have written here before. And people can rarely tell you what they want or desire in the future. Bhaskar acknowledges this in his article: "looking at past bestsellers is no guide to what will come next; nothing about 'The Hunger Games' suggested it would give way to erotica in the bestseller lists."

The point is that publishers have something that amazon don't have. Amazon is a retailer, simple as that. What publishers have is a nose for literature, intuition and empathy for human beings, for what makes them tick. And they have a duty to innovate, to seek out the new, to be bold, to take chances and to have an impact on culture and society long-term.

Which is all a more satisfying calling than crunching spreadsheets.


No comments: