It's time to face the data

April 2020 found the publishing industry entering a period of unexpected change as bookshops closed and the focus turned to digital sales. The COVID-19 lockdown has forced writers to re-evaluate the future in this difficult time.

As a narrative psychologist and fiction writer, I am interested in resilience. I recently interviewed fellow writers for a book about resilience and as the coronavirus situation developed, I revisited the overriding concern about writing careers: "I just want to write. I didn’t realise there was so much else to it."

As digital publishing has no choice but to take the lead for a while, writers need to understand what drives digital sales. And it inevitably involves numbers.

But why do writers need to know about numbers?

I roll my eyes every time I see the "another day passed when I didn’t use algebra" meme. As a hybrid author I made my way into traditional publishing via the ‘scenic route’ - and I’ve never been more thankful for this. It involved a startling wake-up call when an Amazon imprint selected my crime fiction to publish. I embarked on a month-long intensive learning curve on life as an author in the digital world – and none of it was about writing.

With my maths and research background, I soon realised that the publishing industry is like an onion. As the layers peeled away, I saw that digital platforms run on algorithms and big data – based on maths and probability - and that to succeed, I needed to understand both.

All the major digital book sales platforms, such as Google and Amazon, run on algorithms. The Cambridge Dictionary defines an algorithm as ‘… a set of mathematical instructions or rules that, especially if given to a computer, will help to calculate an answer to the problem’. The problem solved by the Amazon A9 algorithm is how to sell, and how to rank those sales for visibility. It does this by gathering data - information about products and behaviours and working out probabilities. This huge amount of material is ‘big data’. This includes data on millions of books.

So how can writers use big data?

Big data keys directly into one of the most important tasks for a writer alongside writing: how to get your book seen by readers. As my writing career progressed and I met my lovely agent Judith Murray and became traditionally published, the benefits of my earlier crash-course in big data became clear.

My online profile made me part of the machine, and online relationships with book bloggers proved super-important. But the data itself presented opportunities too. Writers need to dig deep into search engine optimisation (SEO), e-book metadata and advertising keywords – but where to start?

There are three main layers that writers can use to understand big data. Simply following authors on Facebook and Twitter can help you to sense the right balance between sharing SEO-optimised posts about your books and sharing, well, life. @joannechocolate is a masterclass in this. And Kindlepreneur has lists of the best writing hashtags that are useful for entry level data manipulation to get you noticed.

Second level information for free that looks at metadata and advertising includes Craig Martelle’s excellent 20booksto50k Facebook group, that has modular information, as well as other authors’ experience. The Amazon KDP website also has a wealth of free articles on important areas to gen up on such as categories, advertising and metadata. The Alliance of Independent Authors blog is a great source of information and I used it to help build my mailing list on Mailchimp.

Third-level paid services, such as my own Story Psychologist programme and Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula Course delve deeper into tailored ways authors can plan to manipulate data longer term. Publisher Rocket is a fantastic resource to find keywords and categories reporting directly from Amazon searches.

There are lots of resources if you know where to look – and if you want to. Most of all, writers help each other. Especially in these difficult times, online writing groups are full to the brim with hints, tips, ideas and a willingness to share.

With this in mind, I returned to my resilience study to search my dataset. I found that some authors understand the numbers game while some were still struggling.

The challenges of big data

As the focus on digital sales increases, even if temporarily, now is the time to understand how advertising, algorithms and big data sell books. But what if you are not tech-savvy? Some authors I spoke to found it difficult to ‘put themselves out there’. And most writers just want to write. They want to create their stories and characters and plot. The main reasons for not using Big Data to their advantage are many:

-Fear – genuine fear of numbers

-Resistance – fear of change and adaptation

-Confidence – the uncomfortable feeling of digital exposure

-Knowledge – not understanding algorithms and Big Data

-Resource – lack of finance to run advertising or pay subscriptions

Despite this, the growing reality is that, especially in the current climate, everyone needs to be more digitally visible. And that means extending writing by numbers. Expanding knowledge and vocabulary to include cost-per-click, bids and probability, and even using and understanding Facebook and Twitter, proves that your schooldays maths and algebra were useful after all.

Peeling the onion and adding it all up…

The current digital focus is not good news for writers resistant to numbers. Algorithms can’t read stories. No matter how good your writing is, visibility is increasingly a mathematical calculation. And an increasing number of tech-savvy writers are in the game.

Even if numbers strike terror into the hearts of writers, they must become resilient and peel the publishing onion. They must examine the layers of the industry that allow them to promote themselves and their writing, pitching in alongside their publishing houses in this uncertain future. Storytelling and writing are the tools of the craft, but they are no longer the full publishing story.

Big data is here to stay and, even if the maths makes your eyes water, it is an increasingly large ingredient in the recipe for success. 

Spreadsheet, anyone?