KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Publishing is a notoriously risky business. A publishing house might give a first-time author a six-figure deal, and then the book flops. It's always been hard to predict what will sell. But publishers are now getting some help from data that tells them how readers read. NPR's Lynn Neary reports it's a development that makes some people nervous.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Alan Rinzler has a long history in publishing. Starting as an editor in 1962, he worked with some greats, including Toni Morrison, and ushered in some of that era's classics - "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" and "Manchild In The Promised Land." Now a freelance editor, Rinzler says publishing a book is not just a business decision. It's an act of love.
ALAN RINZLER: It really is. Editors fall in love with books. They see something in it that resonates for them personally, and they become passionate about it. They really have no idea whether or not the book will sell. It's strictly an intuition, an instinct.
NEARY: Of course most books don't make any money. It's the 20-80 rule, says Rinzler. Profits from 20, maybe even 10, percent of books support the 80 or 90 percent that don't sell. So some publishers think relying solely on instinct is just not enough.
DOMINIQUE RACCAH: Data is better than your gut. Yes, I have said that.
NEARY: Dominique Raccah is publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, a company that's been described as data-driven, a description Raccah does not dispute. Raccah says sales data has been available for a while, but now she has access to a different kind of information.
RACCAH: Up to very recently, we really didn't have any insights into how readers were behaving with books in terms of their reading patterns or their reading of a specific book. All of that was kind of missing.
NEARY: Digital books made it possible to track the way people read, and companies like Amazon and Apple could gather that data but didn't share it with publishers. Now a number of businesses have sprung up that specialize in reader analytics, and they are sharing their findings. Andrew Rhomberg is the founder of Jellybooks, a London-based company which began gathering reader data to help publishers with marketing decisions.
ANDREW RHOMBERG: But since then, publishers have discovered they can use it for all sorts of other reasons like, why did a book that we launched not really sell despite having big expectations for it? Or if it's a first-time author who seems to be selling well, are people really reading that author? And they will buy the second book.
NEARY: To figure that out, Jellybooks recruits readers by offering free e-books in exchange for allowing the company to collect reading data. It tracks whether or not the reader finishes the book. Most don't get halfway through. Jellybooks also measures how long it takes to read a book and asks those who do finish it if they would recommend it. Sometimes, Rhomberg says, the results are surprising.
RHOMBERG: Once you have the data that says 90 percent of readers gave up after three chapters, it's pretty clear. On the other hand, there are books where the editor said, this is a lovely, lovely book, and she couldn't convince anybody in house. Then it turns out readers just devour it.
NEARY: Rhomberg says no publisher has cancelled a book based on Jellybook's data, but Alan Rinzler is wary. He points to Toni Morrison's first book, "The Bluest Eye," which he edited. A lot of people found the subject matter - rape and incest - offensive.
RINZLER: I think people given that book under reader analytics would have put it down pretty quick, and publishers might have said, this will never sell.
NEARY: Rinzler says little is known about the readers recruited by Jellybooks books, their personal tastes or their reading preferences.
RINZLER: They're identified as female 51 or male 39. If I was publishing the book or if I was the author, I wouldn't really care much what those people thought.
RACCAH: There isn't a lot to fear here. This is a data point.
NEARY: Publisher Dominique Raccah...
RACCAH: I think that's one of the big distinctions that one needs to make in this space - is whether you think that data is actually the decider or whether you actually are simply using data as one of the forms of information that you use.
NEARY: Raccah says publishers regularly have conversations with authors about works in progress or their sales numbers, and this new data is just one more thing to add to the mix. But it's essential, she says, to respect the writer's point of view.
RACCAH: They are the fundamental creator of the work, and for me, data is a methodology to help inform creativity, not a methodology for stifling it or for creating something other.
NEARY: Publishing a book will always be a gamble, says Raccah, and gut instinct will always play a role in choosing what books to publish. But now that it's possible to collect real data on the way people read, that will become part of the process as well. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.