Are you measuring your metrics?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2012, leading American novelist Scott Turow voiced his frustration at the publishing industry’s failure to study its customer base. He recalled saying to one of his publishers: “I’ve been publishing with you for a long time and you still don’t know who buys my books” and receiving the reply, “Well, nobody in publishing knows that.”

Book reading has long been a private pursuit from which the publisher is excluded—and has seemed content with that situation. Traditionally, publishers have gauged reader satisfaction largely by sales figures and book reviews (i.e., publication-level data). Some have also used such tools as focus groups and online surveys. But all these tools provide collective information. None say anything about the individual reader.

The advent of digital publishing, as well as triggering huge changes in the way people read books, has created the means to uncover, with little effort, a wealth of data about individual readers; data that can be used to shape production, marketing and retailing strategies. As noted in our March 2013 newsletter, access to these data is greatly enhanced when publishers sell direct to their readers and thereby own the relationship with those readers. Handing this relationship on a plate to the big online retailers, via affiliate links, denies publishers such access and takes them straight back to the situation that Turow found so frustrating.

It seems clear now that a data-driven understanding of reader behaviour will become central to the success of the book publishing industry. So we need to know what sort of data will contribute to this understanding. In other words, what metrics do you, as a publisher, need to measure?

Whether you’re building a new direct-to-consumer (D2C) website, or trying to increase traffic to your existing one, you need to put in place the metrics that in broad terms tell you:

  • the amount of activity on your website (e.g., bounce rate, page views, visitors, returning visitors)
  • the source of activity (e.g., referrers, social media promotion, search terms, keywords, languages)
  • the nature of that activity (e.g., entry pages, click-through rate, exit pages, browsers, platforms, average time per page)
  • the results of that activity (e.g., leads generated, conversion rate, downloads, sales)

Whereas the first two points—amount and source of activity—relate primarily to website performance, the nature and results of activity relate mainly to reader behaviour, and it is in this area that publishers need to be particularly focused and innovative.

They need to find ways to acquire basic reader data (e.g., age, gender, education level, language, genre preference) and to measure reader behaviour (e.g., buying habits, reading habits, sharing habits [via social media and other means], return visits). They should also, where possible, obtain data gathered by other groups (e.g., reading device owners) on reader behaviour. They might find useful, for example, Barnes & Noble’s report that book series tend to be read consecutively, non-fiction titles are read in bursts, and readers of science fiction, romance and crime fiction finish more books than readers of literary fiction.

Having captured the reader data, what do you do with this information? For more on metrics and their analysis, we suggest you look at, which gives a useful overview. We also recommend for web usage and population statistics and, a web analytics tool that includes a browser toolbar with features such as traffic rank and links enabling you to view previous versions of sites.

Digital publishing technologies have meant that publishers now need to start thinking of themselves not only as book producers, but also as book retailers in a world where value, sales and reader loyalty are paramount. And to get the retail right, they need to get the metrics right.


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