Publishing’s Leap of Faith

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Editorial by Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka

Last year, while the Frankfurt Book Fair took place, daredevil Felix Baumgartner sailed a hot air balloon 24 miles up into the air and jumped out of it. No one knew quite what would happen. Was he going to burn up? Disintegrate? Black out? Would his parachute or oxygen fail? Would he die?

Not knowing what’s going to happen is also an integral part of the book business. Will the book sell? Your guess is as good as mine.

But all that is changing. When “Fearless Felix” took his leap of faith from the edge of space, he did so having calculated the risks. The judicious application of data—gleaned from decades of research into aerodynamics, biomechanics, physics, and more—helped make what seemed impossible possible.

Data and a hell of a lot of guts.

Data too is changing the book business. Spanish publishing consultant Javier Celaya of Docedose calls data the “oil” of the book business, both the fuel and lubricant that helps make the engine run. For all of the consternation the introduction of digital publishing has incurred, it’s undeniable that publishers are now equipped to make better decisions. Digitization, and the data it delivers, has helped open the eyes of publishers, many of whom had been happily relying on hunches, instinct and guesswork informed by experience.

To take but one example, for many years I watched week after week as an exasperated septuagenarian editor tallied up page after page of handwritten sales numbers faxed in from bookstores to compile a list of weekly bestsellers, resulting in an unreliable and improvised gauge of the book business; today, we have Nielsen BookScan. And who can argue that a handwritten double-entry ledger is better than an excel spreadsheet for helping compile the all-important, dreaded P&Ls?

But does a surfeit of data have a potential downside as well? A real-time stream of point-of-sale data from online retailers can send your heartbeat racing when you’ve committed the bulk of your marketing money on a first-day lay down and the book just doesn’t seem to be getting traction. And sometimes, just looking at the anemic sales of your favorite literary novel—a book you know a writer committed years of his life to writing—can be truly sobering.

But the fact is that data can tell you “what” something is, but not necessarily the “why” of something.

“Fearless Felix” may have known the risks of what he was doing—and he jumped anyway. Why? Well, why not? It was something extreme and awe-inspiring that no human in history had ever done. Publishing is a bit like that. We do what we do without knowing the end result and each book is its own unique adventure.

Sometimes, despite knowing the data, you’ve just got to close your eyes and jump.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.