Changing conceptions of 'the Reader' in trade publishing, or, the more things change, the more they stay the same
12 February 2017
The Reader has been imagined in many ways over the centuries by the varied players with a stake in understanding her – publishers, literary and cultural theorists, national policy makers, and so on. However, one discipline has increasingly come to dominate conceptions of the Reader, at least within the arena of trade publishing: marketing.
Although publishers have sought to advertise and promote their books for as long as they have been producing them, the contemporary concept of marketing is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. It was during this period – and especially from the 1950s – that marketing emerged as a professional discipline (McGee and Spiro 1988). However, the field seems to have penetrated trade publishing in a more systematic way from the 1980s – at least, if the litany of complaints during this era about the growing influence of marketing considerations on the acquisition process and editorial role are anything to go by (see Gross 1985).
While there is often a degree of nostalgia for a largely mythical past in which ‘ivory tower’ editors operated beyond the pedestrian considerations of selling and business (Gross 1985, xv), marketing philosophies and practices have, to some degree, transformed the kind of content that is acquired by trade publishers, and how it is packaged, promoted and distributed. Today, the Reader is treated as a variant of the Consumer, and it is the field of marketing that largely dictates the way we know her. For this reason, those connected with publishing should be interested in subjecting these frameworks to sustained scrutiny. This is my goal in what follows, where I aim to explore exactly how the Reader is understood in contemporary marketing-based models and the assumptions underpinning them.
Arguably, the Reader is instantiated in two primary ways within the field of marketing: via the imaginative act of constructing a future reader and via the reconstructive act of analyzing the data readers produce as they consume books. The former approach is perhaps best exemplified in the marketing ‘persona’. Described by the marketer Kevan Lee as a “combination of raw data and educated guesses” (Lee 2015), the persona is an inventive account in which an ideal reader is constructed. More plainly put, “A persona is a kind of mental model – an imaginary person with a name, history, and story who has a way of doing things” (Heaton 2016).
Often these accounts are highly detailed, outlining the work history, hobbies and reading habits of the persona (e.g. “Sally is a 26-year-old accountant and grip-lit fan who purchases books at Chapters during her lunch hour”). The goal is to construct a persona that feels like a real person, which is why Lee insists on the importance of naming it. “Give the persona a name”, he advises; “make it a real name so the persona feels like a real person”. Although personas are made up (albeit with the aid of psychographic data), marketers generally take them quite seriously. For example, in his article titled “Customer Personas: What Sally Can Show You”, ‘Sally’ (an opinionated, albeit imaginary, customer) is invoked at every turn; for example, the article begins, “So you think you had a great idea? Sally here says you didn’t” (Heaton 2016).
The latter approach to the Reader, with its emphasis on reconstructing her based on her past actions, has, until recently, focused primarily on book sales, and, to a lesser extent, survey data about readers’ engagements with the books they purchase. For example, via Booknet Canada, publishers and book sellers are furnished with up-to-date data about which books have been purchased in the country. The organization also conducts surveys about readers’ previous consumption of books, using a three-stage model to assess these patterns: awareness – how buyers found out about the books they have purchased; decision – how they decided to make a purchase; and action – where they have purchased books and why (Booknet Canada Staff 2016).
That said, the emphasis is increasingly on more fine-grained data about how the Reader engages with the books she purchases. The rise of digital reading technologies has made data on when and how people read more readily available – at least to e-tailers themselves, although reader analytics companies like Jellybooks now make the same sort of data available to traditional publishers (for a price, of course). According to Andrew Rhomberg, the founder of Jellybooks, “Buying a book is not the same as reading it, and only actual reading tells us how well a book resonates with the reader” (Rhomberg 2016a). To prove his point, he reels off a variety of ‘surprising’ statistics such as: “most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters” and “business books have surprisingly low completion rates” (Alter and Russell 2016).
In light of such data, the distinction between book purchasers and book readers has become increasingly salient to the publishing industry and has seen a variety of new metrics (and acronyms) introduced: completion rate, or ‘CR’ – what percentage of readers complete a given book; high velocity titles, or ‘HVT’ – books read quickly that evidence a high degree of reader engagement; net promoter score, or ‘NPS’ – the likelihood of readers recommending the book to someone else, and so on (see Rhomberg 2016a, 2016c). These metrics, Rhomberg (2016a) claims, allow us to “observe” the Reader in her “natural habitat” – a view echoed by Kobo. According to the e-tailer’s recent white paper on the subject, “The great leap forward that digital affords is a precise understanding of how readers read… aggregated reading data has given us tremendous insight into who the best readers are and what they seem to want” (Kobo 2016, 3).
These accounts suggest that prior ways of knowing the Reader are fundamentally wrong – in Rhomberg’s words, “we still know almost nothing about readers, especially in trade publishing” (Alter and Russell 2016). This framing relies on (and asserts) a series of oppositions between itself and the models that have preceded it: modern vs. traditional; digital vs. analogue; science vs. superstition; and, most importantly, data vs. instinct (see Rhomberg 2016b, 2016c). Marketing mainstays (the persona, reader surveys, book sales data, etc.), in effect become outmoded proxies that are based on a series of faulty assumptions – assumptions (or ‘instincts’) that can be laid to rest as the Reader, like a species featured on the Discovery channel, is studied in the wild.
All this would suggest the emergence of a new model of the Reader, but how exactly does it differ from the prevailing one? What ‘traditional’ (i.e. analogue) marketing models of the reader/consumer share, whether imaginative or reconstructive, is an emphasis on the Reader as an autonomous entity. We can see this in Booknet’s reader surveys, which are based on a tripartite model of the Reader based on awareness - decision - action (Booknet Canada Staff 2016). Booknet’s framework is a variant of the ‘AIDA’ model (attention - interest - desire - action), which was developed in the late nineteenth century and is typically identified as the first formal advertising model (e.g. Vakratsas and Ambler 1999). This framework, and the numerous intellectual offshoots it has produced, remains influential today and posits three linear stages in consumer decision making: think - feel - do (or, in some versions, feel - think - do) (Vakratsas and Ambler 1999).
Here we see an invocation of the Reader as an autonomous choosing subject, a view readily echoed in the marketing persona itself (e.g. ‘grip-lit Sally’, who buys books on her lunch hour). In this framework, there is a linear path to purchase (a.k.a. ‘the funnel’) as the consumer moves through a predictable sequence of events that involve decision-making followed by action. However, although this model of the rational, autonomous subject seems to reach its apotheosis in the field of marketing, it is by no means unique to the discipline. A legacy of the European Enlightenment, “nearly every facet of life in the west presumes – and relies on – the fiction of this modern, rational, autonomous subject: our legal and judicial systems, so-called ‘free market’ capitalism, democracy, and education, to name just a few” (Murray and Holmes 2009, 5). The problem is that it represents an extremely limited way of grasping the human condition. As Lorraine Code (2001, 263) notes, “the self of the liberal tradition (the autonomous bearer of rights, the rational self-conscious agent…) has only ever existed in narrowly conceived theoretical spaces, abstracted from the exigencies of human lives”.
Clearly, the rise of digital data mining has seen a move away from this view of the Reader. Reading the Reader has, to some extent, dissolved her as a stable entity by breaking her down into a series of discrete variables or ‘data points’. In other words, the Reader has been replaced by reading behaviours. To quote Kobo’s white paper: “We know that there is no one reader… we try to understand them as best we can, given all the tools we have at our disposal. We segment and study readers across a number of data points to glean who they are, how old they are, how they decide to buy and what motivates them” (Kobo 2016, 3).
Read in this way – as a constellation of data points – the reader is not so much a rational, autonomous human but a passive, instinct-driven one. This reader purchases books but doesn’t read them, starts books but doesn’t finish them, and behaves in a generally irrational fashion. But this reader can also be unwittingly ‘nudged’ via external cues (packaging, positioning, etc.) in the direction desired by canny publishers (Rhomberg 2016a, 2016b). This is very much the Netflix model, a company well known for its use of data mining for marketing purposes. For example, in an article titled “Big data lessons from Netflix”, the author describes the ways in which the company compares the hues of film and TV series covers to determine which are the most attractive to viewers based on their prior viewing habits, and then updates the artwork accordingly (Simon 2013).
This view of the Reader (readers) thus disrupts the linear path-to-purchase model. To quote one marketing blog, “the idea of a marketing nudge is that every activity can provide a gentle push towards a defined business goal – an activity that isn’t fundamentally dependent on what comes before or after in the ‘journey’, and always works to affect behaviour rather than attitudes” (Valiquette and Crowley 2015). In a sense, marketers become ‘puppeteers’ (Leonard 2013), able to entirely bypass cognition to influence users’ actions.
But is this view of the consumer all that new – the result of observing readers (and viewers) in the wild? In point of fact, such conceptions are indebted to the emergence of behaviourism in the early part of the twentieth century. As formulated in the work of John Watson (the psychologist, not the fictional doctor of Sherlock Holmes fame) and, later, B.F. Skinner, behaviourism postulated that it was possible to understand human actions without recourse to introspection. To quote Watson, “The behaviorist asks: Why don’t we make what we can observe the real field of psychology? Let us limit ourselves to things that can be observed, and formulate laws concerning only those things. Now what can we observe? Well, we can observe behavior – what the organism does or says” (Watson 2009 , 6, emphasis in original).
A reaction to psychoanalysis and the ‘fiction’ of consciousness it had promoted, proponents of behaviourism saw it as “a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics” (Watson cited in Willis and Giles 1978, 17). Sound familiar? Replace ‘science’ with ‘publishing’ and ‘introspection’ with ‘instinct’ and the claims don’t sound all that different from those made today by Big Data proponents like Jellybooks. The problem is that, like behaviourism itself, this new data-driven model is based on numerous assumptions about the particular behaviours being tracked and what they mean. For example, it’s only surprising that business books have a low completion rate if one assumes that all books should be read from start to finish. Treating velocity as a meaningful measure only makes sense if one assumes that reading engagement is based on speed. Treating e-books as a proxy for analogue books assumes they are read in the same way, and so on.
The other problem is that we don’t have good evidence that this view of the individual as a passive responder to external cues is accurate, which is precisely why behaviourism fell out of favour in the 1970s. To quote one scathing critic: “Skinnerian methods work best with lower animals, the very young, and the psychologically defective – and less well or not at all with the mature, the competent, and those who have attained high levels of control” (Thorne cited in Willis and Giles 1978, 16). Indeed, despite Netflix’s manipulations of TV covers, for every House of Cards there is a Jean-Luc Picard’s (sorry, Patrick Stewart’s) Macbeth – similarly packaged to increase its appeal (Simon 2013), but largely ignored by viewers.
In fact, this version of the individual goes back much further than the twentieth century – and shares a lineage with the rational, autonomous subject itself. As the historian and sociologist of science Steven Shapin notes, equally part of the Enlightenment Vision is the assumption that: “human beings are intellectually imperfect and limited; they are subject to tidal currents of passion and interest. These currents flow against their rational faculties and hinder or distort the operation of rationality” (2010, 47–48). Thus, in many respects, the rational reader and the instinct-driven one are two faces of the same coin – both provide alluringly simple, and equally limited, models of how humans (‘consumers’) think and act.
In conclusion, although the models of the Reader that dominate marketing aim to be descriptive accounts of how readers think and act, they are actually productive – i.e. they produce the phenomenon they claim to describe. Whether imaginative (forward-looking) or reconstructive (backward-focused), these models are based on a set of assumptions about the human condition that have been with us since the Enlightenment, with human beings treated as simultaneously rational and instinct-driven. Indeed, the current discussions about instinct- vs. data-driven publishing are, in many respects, merely the latest incarnation of this old (and rather tired) debate, except that it is the Publisher, rather than the Reader, that is their focus. But as publishers (trade or otherwise) well know, the publishing industry is neither straightforward nor simple. Given that the same is equally true of readers themselves, wouldn’t it be better if its models of the Reader reflected this?
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