Another day another newspaper article that slyly (or not so slyly) questions the sanity of the publishing industry. Today’s entrant into this very crowded pantheon: the New York Times Business Section, who published a Sunday article (now the most e-mailed article on the NY Times website) about how the publishing industry sometimes has surprise successes and sometimes whiffs on big bets. (Just like, you know, ALL BUSINESSES.)
Among the many salvos is this one, that the publishing industry does not pay enough attention to reader input. The NY Times writes:
The answer is that no one really knows. “It’s an accidental profession, most of the time,” said William Strachan, editor in chief at Carroll & Graf Publishers. “If you had the key, you’d be very wealthy. Nobody has the key.”
The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.
A part of me wants to agree with the underlying argument. We should know our readers, it would be wonderful to inject as much science as possible into the art of selling books, and there have been wonderful advances in market research. As anyone who has watched the Apprentice knows, if you are going to try and sell some Domino’s pizzas on the street you had better interview people about what toppings they like.
But then, I tried thinking about what this would entail. This isn’t the movie industry, with a couple of hundred movies produced every year, nor is it even cable TV, which has a couple of hundred choices. I mean, on any given weekend a bunch of extremely smart people are estimating the grosses at the box office of a handful of movies, and they are fairly regularly caught off guard by the occasional sleeper like 300. Meanwhile, there are thousands upon thousands of books published every year, not to mention all of the books currently in print, not to mention all of the books that fill used bookstores and bookshelves. There are millions and millions of books out there. How could you begin to predict what kind of success a book will have in such a vast sea of choices?
So sure, some more market research would probably be nice — information is always good. Publishers might be able to respond more quickly to trends, and readers might have their tastes more accurately responded to. They might be able to more effectively focus marketing campaigns and take some of the guesswork out of which books get a big push.
But let’s not forget this is art we’re talking about. It’s subjective. An industry that markets a subjective product is always going to be based on hunches and guesses. Market research could tell you that people want a dog memoir, but it’s not going to give you MARLEY AND ME. It could tell you that people like fantasy, but it’s not going to give you HARRY POTTER. At the end of the day, science might make publishers more efficient, but the formula that makes a book a bestseller will always be a mystery.