Reader analytics doesn’t sound like something we’d want to have to pay attention to, but of course more and more data about how readers like/don’t like our books is potentially available these days, and ignoring it isn’t really an option. Notoriously Amazon stores masses of this sort of data though they are reluctant to share it. But they aren’t the only source. Knowing how a person reads a book; how quickly compared to other books; how far they got; how often they looked up definitions; how they rated the book; whether and how they reviewed it, etc., etc., all tells you something. Andrew Rhomberg, founder of Jellybooks, discusses the use of reader data at Digital Book World, and concludes that fear of them is dictated by a fear of machines. (He promises to report of Jellybooks’ current non-fiction reader analytics study in a June blog post.)
I’d rather think the worry about reader data was not the machine collecting the response, but the personality traits driving the selection of respondents. In crude terms opinionated narcissists might be expected to be more likely to want to tell the world (well, a machine actually) what they think about a particular book. One might expect more modest reflective types to want to keep quiet, holding that their opinions are nothing more than that, and in any case are liable to change with further reflection. So my concern with publishers making decisions based upon reader analytics would be that they’d be risking following the opinions of a bunch of loudmouths. Of course if reader analytics is going to be used to drive your decision making, maybe a bunch of loudmouths is exactly what you want. They can be relied upon to talk up the next book you do, which you’ve managed to get the author to tailor to their wants. Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me that if I was writing a novel, the knowledge that a plurality of readers would prefer that the hero kill himself with poison rather than a gun would be unlikely to drive my plot choices. Old elitists like me tend to think that books are written because authors need to tell a story, rather than to fill a gap in the market: but of course trade publishing is trade publishing, and non-fiction is a different story altogether.
Sorry to be so cynical. In theory at least knowing stuff can never be bad, but gathering Jellybooks’-type information will cost you — from £500 a title — so you have to be getting some really good information in return. And that information has to, when acted upon, drive a lot of extra sales. If you pay to have people comment on a galley but then fail to act fully upon what they say, you’ve just made making a profit even harder.