Readership reach in publishing’s brave new world

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The publishing industry has evolved over the centuries.  Now the evolution continues with technology radically changing the publishing landscape allowing authors and content creators to reach out directly to their readers. Dan Kieran, co-founder & CEO, Unbound discusses social media’s impact on the industry

Until now publishers have used historical sales data to decide which books should be made. Today, authors and online content creators can ‘prove’ their audience exists via social media. Improved methods for making sense of the vast amount of data, mean a tech-enabled evolution of the publishing industry is inevitable. This will democratise the industry in favour of authors and readers and create new opportunities for publishers.

Here are 4 ways I think the publishing industry will change soon:

More award-winning books from smaller publishers

While large publishing groups continue to use the same formula, they’ll keep overlooking potentially game-changing/award-winning books. This may well include titles connecting with underserved audiences that smaller publishers are agile enough to capture.

This year The Milkman by Anna Burns, published by Faber & Faber, won the ManBooker Prize. Faber is a big independent publisher, but they haven’t lost their ability to find and define the public’s tastes. But going direct to readers is also becoming a key indicator for this evolution. Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus won The Rathbones Folio Prize this year. This was published by Penned In The Margins who combine publishing, performance and events. The runner–up, Mary Anne Sate Imbecile by Alice Jolly, was published by Unbound the crowdfunding publisher that gives readers the power to choose which books should be made (full disclosure: I run Unbound). The Indies are on the rise.

Using data to make publishing decisions

The advancement of machine learning and data science means it’s easier to generate insights into human behaviour. This extends to the books we want to read. It’s already possible to use social media data to spot trends. By developing the right tools, publishers will be able to use this data in real time to spot new ideas gaining traction and commission books capturing the zeitgeist.

Crowdfunding enables the direct-to-consumer monetisation of virality that’s inherently stored within an author or content creator’s online fanbase far more efficiently than the traditional model relying on retailers. For one thing; you can sell more than a book. Going direct opens up higher price points than are available in a bookshop.

At Unbound we have used more than seven years’ of transactional data to build a machine learning tool. It can be used to identify authors and potential authors with ideas that could be turned into high value books. For example, a video games content creator we identified raised £300k on Unbound to fund the launch of his new book. £100k came in a single day. We can also let authors know how much their book is likely to raise through our crowdfunding model in advance of it launching.

All publishers are looking for the same thing; books that audiences will love to read. Data science can’t write great books, but it can show you where they’re hiding.

Democratisation – the benefits

By changing the way books are chosen, and with new data analysis de-risking new authors by proving the audience exists online, even if there is no precedent in the historic sales data, a much more diverse range of voices will be heard.

The finances will change too. Authors earnings have been falling dramatically for years. Unbound already gives our authors a 50/50 profit split, but I think a more equal relationship between traditional publishers and authors is now inevitable. Authors and content creators can point to their online fanbases, that they’ve worked hard to build, as the key to the value they’ve created.

Focusing on engaging reader communities

Many of the traditional marketing and advertising formats used by publishers are disappearing or becoming less effective. With bookstores shutting, publishers have fewer opportunities to physically market their books.

With declining newspaper readership, print media ads are catering to a diminishing audience, and certainly not a young one. The book reviews are also reducing. Publishers will tell you anecdotally that even good reviews don’t guarantee increased sales as they once did.

Marketing via other media platforms has difficulties. Authors are frequently overlooked by broadcast media in favour of actors and musicians. Younger generations tend to value opinions of friends, and their online communities, over the efforts of brands.

For these reasons, publishers will need to build communities of readers; engaging them, listening to them, and implementing some of their ideas. Such a community means that each book will have more traction, as readers will treat new publications as recommendations rather than advertising.

The evolution of the publishing industry will bring benefits to all the stakeholders. We can look forward to reading many more books from a wide range of authors on diverse subjects.