Writing is not something done in a vacuum. Writing, it has often been said, is a conversation, so critiques are essential to the process. This is both the lore and the law of writing.
Right now there are countless writing courses and writing groups providing feedback on written pieces. It is, for most people, an organic process. Many writers will start with a word processor and let it correct the odd spelling mistake or grammar error, but from that point on crafting advice is taken from other people. Once finished with the workshopping group/class, the piece will find its way to a reader and, possibly, an editor. And that isn’t even the final round. The bound-up publication will end with a reading public, and the reviews will let you know the rest.
That’s the long lifecycle of a written word.
If you write a blog, your turnaround time is going to be a lot quicker. Bloggers and others who share their writing online often use analytics systems, like Google Analytics, to view the number of people who read their posts, how long they spend on that post, where they came from and where they went after they read that particular post. It’s easy to see how they read your website and, based on how long they spend there, whether they found your writing of interest or not. Comments can give the blogger concrete feedback, clarifying or arguing points. Nowadays, the ways in which a writer can get responses to their writing is only limited to the imaginations of people building the technology platforms and data logging systems.
Online workshopping platforms allow writers to share their writing and receive critiques. Other systems allow people to vote directly on your writing. Varytale, an interactive book system, claims:
“Our tools show you exactly what readers are reading and enjoying about your book. You can start with a short story, and see how successful it is within a matter of days, adding and expanding content as readers demand it.”
In a recent blog post on using Varytale to write the interactive story Bee, Emily Short described the experience of getting feedback on each story fragment. Readers vote and leave a comment on each individual scene within the work. Short noted that readers voted the culmination scenes higher than the build-up remarking, ‘the build-up isn’t as inherently punchy and memorable, but that’s because it has a different job to do! That doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in the story’.
While the scene level of analytics is still a novelty, it is close to what is already collected for published works. In Australia the Nielsen BookScan Australia collects bookstore sales data. In their dynamic banner, they state that they provide ‘online actionable sales information’. (Presumably so that publishers can ‘take action’.) Most books purchased from booksellers go into their database and from that, BookScan compiles the bestseller lists and various other data collections. But once the book buyer leaves the store with the book that’s where the data collection ends.
Ebook reader retailers, however, can collect reading data much more precisely – down to specific pages read and assorted usage statistics. With ebook sales increasing and looking a likely adoption for both readers and publishers, those statistics are going to play more of a vital role. (For a chart on privacy and ereaders see the EFF’s guide; it’s a little old but still worthwhile).
I read almost all my ebooks through Amazon. Recently my purchases have been nonfiction books. Every few page turns (clicks), I’m greeted by underlined passages with statements such as: 9 highlighters! At first it reminded me of the usefully annotated library books I’ve borrowed – until I reflected on the horror of all that shared reading data.
In publishing there exists a tendency to confuse book sales with worth and any response as quality response. In general, participation rates online are lower than expected, so book commentary is rarely representative. And sales data may not be the healthiest feedback for authors to obsess over. When Amazon, through Author Central, released the Nielsen Bookscan print sales to authors some joked that this would provide yet another site for authors to constantly click refresh on. Although Emily Short wrote that in the end she found the feedback useful, I think there will always be a difference between what authors and publishers find useful in data analytics. Of course there may be overlap, but an author could, for instance, be writing for a very small audience, while a publisher wants the book to sell as widely as possible.
So what will a publisher do with chapter-by-chapter and page-by-page purchasing and reading statistics? Like the ominous ‘actionable sales information’, it implies that some action be taken – perhaps less literary fiction and more cookbooks? More celebrity biographies? What if readers only read the chapters concerning the scandals and not the boring build-up? Publishers could inform their authors where readers stopped reading or which chapters were skipped (I actually know someone who skips chapters), so that the author’s next book could be all action.
Or maybe, each year in time for Christmas, we’ll see anthologies such as The year’s highest-rated chapters or, even worse, The year’s highest-rated pages.