By Andrew Rhomberg, Founder, Jellybooks
Authors and publishers know the story in the book, but for the most part they don’t know the story behind the book. What story is that? It is the story of how readers engage with the book. Do they open the book? Do they finish the book? Do they read the book during their commute or do they read on weekends? Do they read the book fast, do they read it slow? Do they struggle in chapter 11? Is the reader who can’t put the book down a woman or a man, a millennial or a baby boomer? These engagements form the story of the book after it has been written and reader analytics is the tool that tells these stories. A start-up from London that I founded called Jellybooks has been at the forefront of telling these stories so publishers can better understand their audiences.
How are reader interactions with books captured? The answer to this question is that Jellybooks developed a smart piece of software called candy.js that is embedded inside ebooks – specifically those in ePub 3 format – and records the reader interactions across a range of 3rd party apps such as iBooks and Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). The data is captured and stored locally, no internet connection is required. This is how the tool differs from Google Analytics: it works entirely offline until the moment when the user goes online and establishes a connection. Once the reader is online, the data is uploaded with a single click by the user.
Now what use is such data? Some readers of this article might think “What do I care, if the book is read, as long it is bought and I make a buck?” Well marketing budgets in publishing are finite. Almost every trade publisher relies on the multiplier effect of influential reviews or the word-of-mouth effect from actual readers. It will come as no big surprise that a book, that few readers finish, does not generate the same kind of buzz compared to a book that readers simply can’t put down until they have read it cover to cover.
Strong engagement with a book is one of the pre-requisites for readers to be motivated to recommend it to others, post about it on social media or gush about it at the office water cooler. Thus measuring completion rates and reader engagement becomes a possible predictor for what title might create strong worth-of-mouth. A data-driven marketing and PR campaign would focus on those books with strong engagement where generating a critical mass of consumers who buy the book, read it and start recommending will create a virtuous cycle of more readers buying it, loving it and recommending it to their friends in turn.
This model off course implies that the data is available before the book is even published. This is perfectly feasible with the above methodology. The data can be collected pre-publication by embedding the tracking software into Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). These are then sent to select users (say a virtual focus group of 200-300 readers) but instead of being asked to write a review of the free ebook, the prospective readers are asked to share their reading data with the publisher. The ARCs are sent anywhere from 4 months to 4 weeks prior to publication date (this depends on the publisher’s publication process and flexibility of the marketing team) and the data collection is usually completed within 2-4 weeks (some folks read books in 2 days, some take a month to finish the same work).
The data can then show if a book has above average completion rates for its genre or scores well below. It can also show if people can literally not putt down the book, i.e. they start it at 9 p.m. and are still reading at 4 a.m. It can even show where users slow down in a book, make more frequent pauses or stop reading altogether. The graphic below shows a model example of what the data looked for books that were tested. One title (book 3) showed very strong engagement with 80% of readers completing the book. Another title (book 2) showed average engagement with 40% of readers finishing, while book 1 was only finished by 18% of readers with 80% dropping off within the first half of the book. In fact, we have seen in several cases that it is beginning of the book, usually the first 5-10 chapters, that very strongly influences, if a user will complete the read.
Jellybooks has also started to probe if completion rates differ by gender, age or geography, thus making it possible to better target marketing and PR efforts.
The technology can also be used post publication to understand the engagement for the first book in a series and gauge, if the author has been succeeding at building a strong platform of loyal readers who will go one to buy and read further titles in the series. Sometimes sales a of a debut novel a propelled by strong reviews or winning major accolades, but if readers do not actually engage with the book, there is no platform for the follow-on book. It happens all too often. Reader analytics now offers a tool to judge a book’s appeal not only by its sales numbers, but by actual reader engagement. In the future selling a book may not be enough, an author or publisher needs to focus on engaging the readers. Publishing is about entertaining and informing, not simply selling content.” Readers don’t care about “content.” They care about being entertained, about learning, about improving their lives.
Andrew Rhomberg is the founder of Jellybooks, a company focused on connecting readers with great books.