Where are the readers?* and do we still call them readers?

authenticity-nm-graphic-cropAuthenticity in the age of big data
by Niamh Murray

Data, data everywhere – no time to stop and think.

If we’re living in the data age, where consumer metrics and engagements rule the roost, where readers are being called ‘users’* and where we’re constantly measuring performance, what numbers actually matter? And which can you trust?

Let’s take a look at 2016. It’s worth remembering that a data-led approach to human behaviour can be a risky business. At Profile we’re liberated from the tyranny of a data-focused approach by our publishing, which rarely sorts our books into silos of digestible genre-based chunks. But as for 2016: here are things that the numbers, for the most part, promised us would be impossible.

Data and data analysts failed to tell us that 2016 would bring about unholy upset in the form of …

… Trump
… Farage
… and Brexit

In an age of big data and big data fails, it’s worthwhile being skeptical. Readers – and yes, us folks at Profile Books still call them readers – are also humans. Irrational, unpredictable, like-Gilmore-Girls-while-also-loving-thrash-metal, change-their-minds-several-times-over-the-course-of-a-conversation, humans.

We’re living in an increasingly loud, busy, and overwhelming age. It’s no coincidence that mindfulness and colouring-in are two of the stories of our era. So, tweaking that newsletter subject line and repeatedly A-B testing to gain a 1.7% increase in open rate is one way to reach an audience; but, another approach is to remember that what makes us different, awkward and unpredictable will always be a factor, and it is to be celebrated.

We’re not one size fits all.

Things in 2016 which are not driven by (and if you ask me, not necessarily improved by) metrics:

  • Having a distinctive, engaging voice
  • Knowing your audience
  • Publishing brilliant books and making them look like beautiful objects
  • Concentrating on surprising and aweing readers
  • Realising that there’s no substitute for word of mouth. There is no metric that can show which books will achieve it.

It is okay to realise that not all of your books are for people who like contemporary fiction. Or even that all of your crime books are not just for people who like crime fiction. Or even that all of your Scandi crime books are not just for people who like Scandi crime fiction. And that’s okay.

There’ll always be another Girl-Gone-From-A-Train-In-An-Airport-Dead-In-A-Dark-Wood. (Aside: what is it with all these pesky girls and why do they keep dying?) Or even another Norwegian Wood – although that case is more interesting as an example of true oddness standing out and triumphing. You can even flog next year’s spotty teen trying out American snackfood or leisurewear from the luxury of their bedroom via YouTube. But then that savvy audience begins to realise it’s just a moment – and soon they see what is fake and sponsored and ultimately has nothing meaningful to say.

I think people will always search out authenticity. It’s that which makes Mary Beard so brilliant on the telly and forms queues of 2k fans around the block cheering her on when she takes on Boris Johnson (insert pantomime boos here), debating whether the Ancient Greeks or Romans did it better. It’s that which makes Sarah Perry the absolute superstar she is, both on the page and off. It’s that which lends itself to surprise and awe. Authenticity is that experience you can get from browsing in a well-stocked, beautiful bookshop. You can sometimes get it from a lively twitter conversation or emotive YouTube clip. Authenticity is what Lena Dunham delivers brilliantly via LennyLetter, what Melville House does so well, what I am yet to experience in any way from a corporate newsletter – and I’m not just talking about publishing here. Enough of the corporate cotton wool.

Authenticity is best served live – hence the resurgence in events – or in the author’s own voice. That’s why Chris Kraus’s I LOVE DICK found its niche. That’s why there is no substitute for a brilliant author who is willing to engage.

As for finding new audiences – which is not the same as new markets – you need to go low. Around knee height in fact – your new audiences are the same little people who start out with Booktrust’s bundles, sign up for their local libraries, embrace the Gruffalo and graduate to David Walliams, spend a few years in the dark wastelands of the YA novel and emerge on the other side as fully formed readers. If you want to start developing new audiences, look for more kids who aren’t white, middle class, and from north London. Look for the people who eventually grace the pages of books like Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. Look for the next incredible, ferociously smart, unapologetic Zadie Smith. Get them early. Treat them like the smart, irrational, creative, brilliant unpredictable humans they are and will become. Nurture their love of reading.

Because we’re people, not metrics. We like stories, and things that are real and personal to us and speak to us on a deep emotional level. We like stories that are real – because we’re real. And that might ultimately define what makes us readers*.

(*The question as to whether we still call our customers ‘readers’ nowadays was posed thoughtfully by James Spackman in a recent post on the Facebook hub of the Book Marketing Society.)

 

Niamh Murray is the Marketing Director of Serpent’s Tail (now part of Profile Books) driving marketing strategy and managing the marketing teams for both the fiction and non-fiction lists. Successful brand partnerships are a key part of her role as Profile publishes books by Wellcome Collection and The Economist.

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