"I can’t think of another industry that makes decisions in such a void": Rachel Botsman on books and trust

"I can’t think of another industry that makes decisions in such a void": Rachel Botsman on books and trust

Rachel Botsman is the author of Who Can You Trust?, published by Penguin Business. She is a lecturer at Said Business School and Oxford University, leading the world’s first MBA course on the ‘Collaborative Economy’ and a new course on ‘Trust in the Digital Age’. Her TED talks have over 3,5 million views, and was recently a speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

We sat down with Botsman to discuss how the book trade is benefitting from - and struggling to adapt to - a world of rapidly diminishing trust.

How might shifting trust patterns affect publishing, book sales and reading?

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the election of President Trump are the first wave of acute symptoms emerging from one of the biggest trust shifts in history: from the monolithic to the individualized. Trust and influence now lie more with ‘the people’ – families, friends, classmates, colleagues, even strangers – than with top-down elites, experts and authorities. It’s an age where individuals matter more than institutions and where customers are social influencers that define brands. We can see this trust shift playing out in the influence reputation systems and algorithms can have on book choices. We are already putting our faith in algorithms over humans in our daily lives, whether it’s trusting Amazon’s recommendations on what to read or selecting a book from an Instagram influencer’s reading list. But this is just the beginning in terms of how ‘friends’ and strangers will influence our daily decisions. 

We are also in era of skepticism and deep distrust, where, many people are feeling so overwhelmed by the pace of change and the sheer amount of knowledge now available at a swipe or keystroke that they are beating a retreat to media echo chambers that narrow down information and reinforce already held beliefs. My fear is that our information preferences will contract further, to the point where we simply do not see contrary views. Book recommendation channels from Radio 4’s Book of the Week to Amazon algorithms have an enormous responsibility to help pop our ‘filter bubbles’. To recommend the contrary, the unexpected.

Overall, I think shifting trust patterns are great news for the publishing industry. When we’re searching for deeper truths around big issues of our times such as such as the impacts of populism and technology many people turn to the detail and depths books can provide. We’re not only yearning for voices of authority but a stillness to make sense of our place in the world. Reading a book provides a special place for that to happen in our culture. The phenomenal growth of podcasts is fulfilling a similar hunger for a deeper engagement in information and voices that either comfort or challenge our views.  

Why do we appear to trust books more than other media (book sales have gone up since Trump and ‘fake news’)?

The astonishing success of challenging non-fiction books such as Sapiens by Yuval Harari or Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is indicative of a broader trend where many readers have a thirst for serious information and reliable facts that help us navigate unpredictable times.  It’s hard to find the mental immersion and clarity around really big questions of our times whilst skimming through a Twitter feed.

It may be, though, that the rise of book sales has something to do with a deeper yearning for a sense of community and unity that can happen around a popular book. At a time when the world feels more fragmented than ever, discussing say Sapiens or say Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race can provide a comforting sense of unity in trying to understand what on earth is going on in the world.

…and (why) do readers trust publisher brands?

In uncertain times where it becomes harder and harder to know whom to trust for the truth, it’s understandable that people turn to more established publishing and media brands to try to make sense of the world. Interestingly, whilst opinion polls conducted by the likes of Pew and Gallup have reported rapidly declining trust in social media outlets, we have seen a trust bump in traditional journalism.

Why do you think the publishing industry overall is slow to trust new innovations that are working in other fields? And how could publishers and booksellers make better use of the currency of trust in a wary digital world?

Most publishers have a data problem. I can’t think of another industry that makes decisions in such a void about what readers really want. Will people prefer the orange of blue cover? Should the latest edition contain a new chapter? What is the type of voice readers would like on the audiobook? Currently, many decisions are made on instinct and impulse…It’s even harder to get good data on the most basic question: who is buying the book? I could go on. Imagine if the publishing industry used data at the same level of sophistication as say Netflix.

We need to get to a place where authors and publishers share a real-time dashboard with data on how many books have sold in different markets and who their readers are. New tools such as Author Earnings and Bookstat are a start but publishing flies blind most of the time. It’s a massive opportunity.

When we try something new for the first time and take a leap of faith into the unknown, we take what I call a ‘trust leap.’ Publishing is full of trust leaps. The first time we downloaded an e-book or listened to a podcast, these are trust leaps. The industry gets there in the end but it’s painfully slow. When we resist change, it’s often because we think the system is too entrenched to change or there is deep-seated fear around a shift in power. In the case of publishing, it might be fears around authors being able to exert too much ownership over their relationship with readers. The big-picture opportunity is how we shift books from being a transactional product to a meaningful connection that does not end after the last word has been read.