The Indie Author in the Data-Driven Digital Age
On my darker days, I wonder—and I imagine you do, too—whether I’m not just wasting my time with this writing gig, when I could be doing something that’s a lot less work and maybe a whole lot more fun. Hiking, strumming my guitars, playing games. Maybe even abusing substances to dull the pain that comes with the territory.
For most writers, and perhaps especially indies, we write because we want to be read. Money is nice, but I bet the vast majority of us are at least as interested in exploring characters and telling stories as we are in making some extra money; and though we might dream, the reality of making a decent living from our writing is, let’s be honest, likely to remain just that—a dream. And I’m okay with that.
But who’s reading?
As someone who was an adult before we even had pocket calculators, let alone smartphones and e-readers, I’m increasingly disgusted—let’s not mince words—at the time people spend poking away at their devices. Why? Because those people aren’t reading.
When I bring this up, people are quick to remind me that some of those people are reading on their phones; that some statistics show that people are actually reading more than they used to; that the success of books like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Gray has brought more people into the readership pool.
The most reliable data I can find, however, suggests quite the opposite. Statistics (see fig.1 below) from Gallup and Pew, both reliable sources, indicate that the percentage of Americans who didn’t read a book during the past year rose from 8% in 1978 to a whopping 23% in 2014—an almost threefold increase. Over the same period, the more prolific readers—those who get through more than 11 books a year—dropped from 42% to 28%.
This data alone is unnerving. Non-readers on the rise, and even hardcore readers declining steadily. Since the groups in between, those who read from one to ten books a year, remain almost unchanged and within the statistical margin of error, we can safely assume that a large number of former readers are simply not reading any more. (The actual dynamic is probably a downward migration across the range, but the net result is still a substantial drop-off).
At the same time, the number of books published each year has increased from somewhere around 45,000 titles in 1978 to between 700,000 and a million or more (numbers are hard to pin down) last year.
If you combine these facts, it becomes obvious that the likelihood of any one book (mine, say, or yours) being read is at least twenty times lower than it was in 1978 (the increase in published titles alone guarantees this).
Let’s also not forget that indie books don’t go out of print, so the competition at, say, Amazon grows all the time...by somewhere between a third of a million and half a million titles a year.
But back to the reader drop-off. What are those people doing instead of reading books? A generation ago, it would have been watching TV; today, it’s a good bet that they’re spending time on portable devices.
Whether you want to hear it or not, the truth is that for the vast majority of us, portable devices—your smartphone or phablet or iPad—are as addictive as crack. Every time someone comments on your FB page or pms you or tweets at you, you get a little burst of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable sensations and well-known for its role in addiction. And no, I’m not making this up—it’s fact, backed up by several studies (also see linked NYT article in “further reading”, below).
For every baby lamb rescued in Farmville, a book goes unread.
As a writer, when I see people poking at devices hour after hour, I want to cry. And I’m not talking about strangers: it’s everywhere, rampant among friends and family. The fact that I happen to have a very high resistance to this trend—I ditched my cellphone a few months ago and am happier for it—is meaningless: I’m an outlier. Most people, it seems, prefer passive pursuits like TV or playing games on their phone to the more active, imagination-engaging pursuit which is reading. Pass the crack pipe, please.
Now let’s consider the data released by Kobo last December on the percentages of readers actually finishing the book they bought (with wireless-enabled e-readers tracking your progress1, more and more about the habits of digital readers is now known). In the company’s own words, “with the onset of digital reading … it is now possible to know how a customer engages with the book itself—what books were left unopened, which were read to the very last word and how quickly.”
Among the interesting stats to emerge from the new field of “engagement analytics” are that:
- The industry standard finish rate for Mysteries is 62%
- At 74%, Italian readers of Romance had the highest finish rate reported in the study
- Romance and Mystery genres generally had the highest finish rates, averaging in the sixties and low seventies percent bracket
- Nonfiction titles scored worst, with an average finish rate in the 30% - 40% range
- It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour
- Twelve Years a Slave, ninth on Kobo’s British bestseller list, was completed by just 28.2% of British readers
On the face of it, these stats, coupled with my concerns over digital devices, ought to send me completely over the edge. Not only are my books less likely than ever to be read, but maybe 40% of those people who begin one won’t finish it!3
But the industry finish rate data concerns me less than declining readership: people have always abandoned books, and often read several books at once, so that it may be months before they return to finish it.
And another aspect of the finish rate data actually cheers me—here’s why:
The entire publishing industry, from publishers through to agents, is going to base more and more of its acquisition, editorial, and marketing decisions on Big Data (I call this The Hollywood Syndrome, and have written about it on my blog2). If, for instance, it turns out that books in which the villain has a cat enjoy a higher finish rate, trad pubbed authors are going to come under a lot of pressure to make their villains ailurophiles.
Since engagement analytics will inevitably lead to more and more formulaic writing and cookie-cutter books coming out of trad publishing (is that even possible? Just watch them!) good indie authors are likely to find themselves at something of a competitive advantage among more discerning readers. As in the heyday of indie films, indie authors will surprise and delight jaded readers with quirky characters, odd insights, strange plot turns, and all sorts of coolness lost to the generic, die-cut offerings that emerge from the data-obsessed mills of trad publishing
So the way I see it, it’s a mixed bag. I’ll keep writing because I have stories to tell and because I hope one day have a good readership, even a following. But on the whole, I confess that I struggle with the challenge of being a writer in the 21st century, and wish the damned transistor had never been invented.
How do you feel about all this? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of reading? Is Big Data a blessing or a curse? Should we abolish digital devices when the revolution comes? Above all, what keeps you positive and productive in spite of all this data?
1 Unless you keep your e-reader offline and only sideload ebooks, as I do, rather than download direct
3 It’s worth noting that Amazon refused to comment on or furnish figures on finish rates data. My suspicion is that they don’t want authors to know that free books (as per Kindle Select promos) are rarely read anymore: yup, free really is dead.
Further ReadingNearly One in Two Americans Read a Book Last Year
Your Ebook is Reading You
Ebooks Can Tell Which Novels You Didn’t Finish
Silicon Valley Worries About Addiction to Devices
Keeping Tabs on Best Seller Books and Reading Habits
Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor, and the founder of Panverse Publishing. His nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real "Mamma Mia!" island), was a UK travel bestseller in 2012 and has recently been published in Poland. His first novel, Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short Science Fiction work, was released in June 2014. He is currently working on his second novel, another thriller. Dario has also edited and copyedited over a dozen novels, as well as three critically-acclaimed novella anthologies. He lives with his wife in the Los Angeles Area.