Author Query – e-reading statistics

Last week I ran across an interesting post on a blog I follow for work. In it the author discussed an article published in the Wall Street Journal which reported on the statistics eReaders collect from the reader, which aren’t just on what and when, but how long, when they put the reader down and how long it takes for them to return to the book. He wondered about the usefulness of the data to market or even commission books, as these are only eReader stats and e-reading and paper reading still are two wholly different beasts. He looks at the question from a form and content angle and also addresses the privacy issues, especially as they concern libraries. However, one passage that truly caught my eye and had me wondering was the following:

I’m a bit concerned as to what the feedback will do to the writing process. If an author is told that a particular passage really resonated with readers, how will that change their ideas and approach to their stories and style? Will it take it in new directions? Will it encourage authors to write towards these safe and favorable areas rather than push the boundaries of their craft? Or could it move the reader and author into greater sync in terms of what people want and what the author can provide?

My gut reaction was no, it wouldn’t affect how writers write their books or what they write about. One of the first and most important writing advices I see given time and again, is write what you want to write and write what you love. However, perhaps it would affect how writers write, if only in a positive re-enforcement sense: good feedback leading to moving further in a similar direction. But, since I’m not an author and I really was curious as to the answer, I decided to ask some of the authors in my Twitter stream:

Chris F. Holm
My gut reaction is, tracking e-reader reading habits won’t directly impact the writing process. Writers are, by and large, too wild and woolly a bunch to write according to market analytics. But that doesn’t mean such analyses won’t hold sway. Many publishers will no doubt take heed of what the data’s telling them, and adjust their acquisitions accordingly. Since writers pay attention to what publishers are looking for, I suppose e-reader data mining could indirectly impact writing as it changes acquisition habits.

To be contrarian for a moment, though, I take exception to the idea that a passage that resonate with readers is definitionally “safe and favorable.” That sells short the visceral responses of the readers whose habits are being tracked. One could argue such passages may often wind up being challenging, resonant, and universal to the human experience. In that way, better understanding reading habits could conceivably sharpen, rather than blunt, an author’s work.
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Chris F. Holm is the author of Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye (forthcoming in October). You can visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

Elspeth Cooper
I’d be fibbing if I said I wasn’t curious how long people spent reading, and how long it took them to come back to my book after putting it down, but I don’t think writers should let themselves invest bald stats like that with too much significance. There’s no context; no way to know the circumstances under which the stats were generated. Did a six hour stint followed by a two week break mean the book hit a stodgy patch and the reader was reluctant to finish it, or did they simply begin reading on a long-haul flight at the start of a vacation but forgot to pack the device’s charger cable?

In general terms, reader feedback is important to me. I love knowing that a complete stranger has identified with a character I created, or found a particular passage meaningful or poignant enough to post a Kindle highlight or whatever. When you’re on the receiving end of your third snarky review in a row, a shot of warm-and-fuzzy like that is priceless.

But every reader is different, and just because some people found a particular scene affecting, doesn’t mean that all readers will, so it’s a poor basis on which to change your writing approach or style unless you have enough feedback to identify a trend. Of course, once you start analysing trends and writing to suit there’s a risk your books will lose their freshness and become formulaic or tired.

Besides, even if I had the time to engage in statistical analysis, it wouldn’t influence my writing at all: I’m not one of those authors who consciously plans what they’re going to write. I have a much more organic approach and tend to start from a single image that speaks so strongly to me I simply have to start writing in order to find out What Happens Next. At that point, my higher brain has very little input!
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Elspeth Cooper is the author of Songs of the Earth and the soon-to-be-released Trinity Rising. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter.

Myke Cole
I think this is a great question, and probably too complicated for a hard and fast answer. I won’t name names, but I know many writers who write with incredible confidence. They are excellent judges of their own work, effective self-editors and have no problem standing up to titans in the field (including powerful editors, famous writers and long established agents), refusing to accept editorial criticism they disagree with.

This may sound egotistical, and maybe it is. But the fact remains that the “high confidence” writers I know tend to produce really, REALLY good work. Great stories aren’t written by committee, and the ability to look at editorial criticism (and reader reviews are a brand of that, albeit crowdsourced) and not knuckle under to it is powerful and precious thing. Of course, this is provided that you aren’t ignoring *good* editorial criticism, which is different problem (*Cough* GEORGE LUCAS *Cough).

I am not such a writer. I am a poor judge of my work, and require a great deal of feedback. I do stand up to editorial criticism at times, but it carries much more weight with me and refusing to make changes my editor requests takes a lot of effort and will. Reader reviews work the same way, sometimes up to the point where I have to lay off reading them to avoid having my ego crushed so badly that it saps my ability to write at all and to avoid them influencing the direction I take in future work. 

And I know a lot of writers who are just like me, far more than the confident ones I described above.

So I’ll go out on a limb here and say that your gut feeling is a bit off base. If authors have regular access to specific, line-edit level comments (“this passage really worked for me!”) then it *will* color their writing moving forward. Though whether they admit to it or not is a horse of a different color :)
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Myke Cole is the author of Control Point and Fortress (forthcoming in 2013). You can find him on his website, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Anne Lyle
My gut reaction is “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Whilst I’m sure that publishers (and many writers) will be interested in the more commercially relevant facts, like how many readers immediately buy the next book in a series, when it comes to things like when and where a book was abandoned, or how quickly or slowly read, the figures are useless without qualitative data to back them up.

I know from Goodreads that the people who stop reading my book (or who don’t enjoy it) do so for the most part because they don’t connect with the characters. Is there anything I can or should do as a writer to change this? Absolutely not. For every “meh” review, there are several glowing ones from readers who turned the pages as fast as any potboiler thriller, simply because they loved my characters. No book is going to connect equally with all readers, and I’m not going to abandon my existing readership in favour of an approach designed purely to net more sales. If I could somehow do both, then sure :)

As I said in a recent blog post, I’m interested in reviews as market research, and ereader stats will provide a different angle on that, but that’s purely so I can fine-tune what I already do. I hope we writers don’t see pressure from publishers to do more than that in the misguided hope that it will lead to more sales. We need more variety in fiction, not less.
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Anne Lyle is the author of The Alchemist of Souls and The Merchant of Dreams (forthcoming in 2013). You can visit Anne’s website or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Jonathan Oliver
I think that critical feedback is invaluable for any writer. After all, it is how we learn and how we grow creatively. I’d imagine these stats gathered from e-readers won’t be used so much to guide what the writers write, as to how the books are sold and promoted. Of course, lying within this is a dystopic vision of the future where each writer is constantly changing their text on the whims of whatever electronic voting system is connected to their e-book. But I don’t think that this is likely. As a writer it’s important you write the right story for the right reasons. Writing to market isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make for some pretty soulless texts. The opportunity for wider ranging reader feedback facilitated by the devices is actually a good thing. It is up to the writer, however, and the writer alone to write the book they want to and the best book they can.
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Jonathan Oliver is Editor-in-Chief of Abaddon and Solaris, author of Twilight of Kerberos: The Wrath of Kerberos and Twilight of Kerberos: The Call of Kerberos and editor of The End of the Line and House of Fear. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

Helen Grant
I have to come clean and say that I don’t have an e-reader myself. This is not because I have anything against the idea, but I do much of my reading in the bath!!! Until there is a waterproof e-reader I’ll have to pass.

Therefore, I don’t know to what extent my e-reading habits would differ from print-reading habits HOWEVER I would expect that if I were reading an e-book I would be more inclined to go through the book from page 1 to the last page rather than peeping ahead or looking back. With a paperback you can simply flick backwards and forwards, and you have a feel for how much of the book you had read when you were on a specific bit. I can’t imagine being able to do that with an e-reader so my reading habits would be different. Therefore, I would not assume that e-reading information was accurate for ALL reading.

Ok, so that was my first point.

As regards whether I would change anything because of e-reading feedback I would say that I would listen to that feedback but whether I changed anything would depend very much on what I was writing and what were my priorities – to express myself creatively or to get as many royalties as possible, or to balance the two!

Currently, I write rather Gothic, literary thrillers. I have listened to feedback from readers of my first three books, and I have noticed that even the readers who didn’t like a particular book very much tend to enjoy the gruesome and dramatic finales. A teenager on the Penguin Spinebreakers site simply HATED Wish Me Dead but still said that the ending was “made of awesome.” This has definitely influenced me. I like writing those scenes too – so why not add more of them? In the case of the trilogy I am working on at present, each book opens with a chilling death. If I knew that readers were scurrying from one gruesome scene to the next without really reading the bits in between I might add even more gore!

On the other hand, I would draw a line at making very sweeping changes to the tone and style of my books. For example, if someone said to me, well, I loved The Vanishing of Katharina Linden but it would be much better if it were set in small-town America and the heroine was called Candy, I would say sorry, no. The book is about Germany and Anglo-German culture.

Generally as an author I am very open to listening to feedback and constructive criticism. For example, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden was not the title I suggested for the book. I wanted to call it Unshockable Hans. But I was prepared to listen to what the publisher said about that. However, there are some changes I would not want to make. The heroine of my new novel is called Veerle. It’s a beautiful Flemish name and suits her really well. I have had one or two discussions about this name because potentially it is difficult for UK readers to pronounce. But I don’t want to change it. She IS Veerle. She isn’t An or Els or Merel. She’s Veerle. Even if 3 million e-readers said it would be better if she were called Sherry, she would still be Veerle.

I think anyone who writes has to make a decision early on. What do I want out of this? Do I want to go for mass market appeal regardless of artistic considerations? Do I want to maintain complete artistic integrity but only sell 200 copies via a small publisher? Probably most people end up somewhere in between.
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Helen Grant is the author of The Vanishing of Katharina LindenThe Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead. Her next book will be out in 2013. You can visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you to Chris, Elspeth, Myke, Anne, Jon and Helen for being kind enough to be part of my first ever Author Query/interview sort of post. I found your answers very interesting and they shone a different light on the question for me! How about you, dear readers? What are your thoughts?

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