What About Market Research?

I’ve been asked this question several times by various people outside the publishing industry:

Why don’t publishing houses do more market research? Most industries that sell to the public invest heavily in things like focus groups, surveys, and product testing. This is even done with TV shows and feature films. But it doesn’t seem the publishing industry engages in much market research. Why not?

While many publishers do limited market research when they need an answer to a specific question, it’s not an area of huge investment nor does it drive publishing decisions in general. There are good reasons for this – it’s not an oversight or an accident. Here are my thoughts:

→ Primary market research is suited to a specific product, which wouldn’t be helpful to publishers, who are putting out dozens or hundreds of products each year.

→ It’s difficult to pin down readers with questions of what they like to read. Often they don’t know they like something until they try it. Market research would turn up information that’s inaccurate and irrelevant.

→ The economics of publishing are different from other large industries that spend significant money on market research. Publishers produce more unique products each year than many industries, at smaller margins. It’s probably cheaper just to publish a book and try to sell it than to go through the expense of pre-publication market testing.

→ There are integrity issues with publishing that may not apply to other businesses. Market research implies the author/publisher would change the product to suit the whims of the consumer, something that goes against the grain of writers and publishers.

→ The way publishers conduct “market research” is to keep their fingers on the pulse of the culture, watch the news, stay in touch with trends, and pay attention to the emerging interests of our society. This is more effective than paying for focus groups or surveys.

I asked Michael Hyatt about this and he sent me a link to a terrific blog post from Mark Cuban: Why You Should NEVER Listen to Your Customers. Mark says, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Does this explanation make sense to you? Can you think of circumstances in which market research might be appropriate in publishing?
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Anne Lang Bundy

    >This makes perfect sense. And fiction writers in particular should find it liberating. Instead of trying to anticipate a fickle market, we can write what we know, what we're passionate about, in the manner we do with most excellence. Even if it's rejected (whether by agent, editor, buyer), we will have been true to ourselves and our art.

  • Aimee LS

    >Yes, this makes total sense. But I used to work for one of the most forward-thinking branding specialists in the world…

    Don't invent the future: create it.

  • Creepy Query Girl

    >Perhaps not in publishing. But I think where book stores are concerned, some sort of market analysis should happen so that a supply and demande strategy can be put in place and maybe get rid of the outdated return system.

  • Barbara

    >I work in publishing (mags and newspapers). We do a lot of research. In fact, this is the area I find most fascinating about publishing, so I read your post with a lot of interest.

    Blog Maverick is wrong: EVERY company should ask their customers what they want. But market research is no crystal ball. Developers should not try and delegate the creative process of coming up with enhanced or new products to the customer. In effect, research BEFORE the product is at a dummy stage is absolutely useless. People wish for what they already know – only better and cheaper. That's a no-brainer, from a researcher's point of view. No professional company would undertake such research.

    Once you have a nearly-finished product, though, you better listen closely to what people are saying. Sometimes what people want to tell you (customers really, truely want to help. Most people are thrilled to be asked their opinion) can make all the difference to the success or failure of a product. I remember focus groups once where people went on and on about WHERE they read their newspapers: on the sofa. It took hours before it came to us that the ink of a new Sunday product came off on their hands and they were worried about their expensive furniture. Rightly so! None of these people were AWARE of what they were telling us. The ink did not come up in their criticism at all because they basically liked the product.

    It is sometimes hard to distinguish between perception and reality. EVERYONE wants to pass themselves off as more clever, more affluent and nicer than they actually are. So if you take the customer's word for it, you end up with very boring products no one will buy.

    Coming from an industry that is not so far from book publishing, I would think in-depth interviews with six potential buyers would suffice to find inherent problems with a product. This research, of course, I would only conduct with the work of a reliable writer who intends to write a series and then pass the management summary on the the writer in small doses (magazine editors are prone to screaming when confronted with their reader's opinions – it would probably worse here where people cannot hide behind other people's blunders). One could end up with very valuable insights that far surpass the editor's judgement.

    As with writing, though, the interpretation of the data is actually an art form not very many people are capable of. There are few very few good people out there who understand the process. David Zinkin in London, for example, is an absolute genius. Shame he does not do any work in the German market. Maybe I will take my own novel through the process and see how it goes? Should be interesting.

    All the best from Germany, Barbara

  • Krista Phillips

    >Makes a ton of sense! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Sue Harrison

    >I love the Mark Cuban quote about inventing the future. I've been researching the bestseller lists (for fiction) of the past 70 to 80 years. At first I could see few trends, except that romance sales seem to peak during economic slowdowns, but eventually I realized that on nearly every list, year after year, there is one consistent bestseller. People are intrigued with and will buy books about a culture that is "new" to them. From Pearl S. Buck's THE GOOD EARTH to THE KITE RUNNER and even HARRY POTTER, we are a reading population of the curious, and I think that's great.

  • Jason

    >Good for Mark Cuban…"the best way to predict the future is to invent it…"

    Sounds a lot like Steve Jobs…problem is, most people aren't as in-tune to the American zeitgeist as Steve Jobs is.

    I think a better way is just to let someone else be on the cutting edge and just do what they do…only better.

    Like our CEO says, the problem with being on the cutting edge is a lot of the time you bleed.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Computer books and various kinds of Bible study guides come to mind. While the market research might involve printing a book and asking how the customer likes various features, I can see where it would be useful for the publisher so they can include the best features in future books of that type and eliminate the wasted space for the others.

    In fiction it may seem like the product is one book, but in many cases this is far from the truth. My mother has been buying every book from Harlequin’s Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense line, but she won’t buy books from the Love Inspired line. In that case, the product isn’t the individual novel by an individual author but the line of books by several different authors.

    You mention a matter of integrity and that it goes against the grain of writers and publishers to change the product to suit the whims of the consumer. I’m not sure if I would call that integrity or arrogance. If I were teaching a class, my presentation would be completely different if I were presenting it to a group of Harvard graduates than what it would be if I were presenting it to a group of kindergarteners. If I were teaching something from the Bible, my presentation to a group of Sunday school teachers would be different than my presentation to a group of atheists. As a writer, it is in my best interest to know who my audience is and if necessary, change my writing accordingly. That doesn’t mean I should change my convictions based on my audience, but there are things that should be changed if we hope to communicate well.

  • Katy McKenna

    >Sue, My coffee hasn't kicked in. I thought you wrote "I've been researching the bestseller lists FOR the past 70 or 80 years…." And I thought, WOW! There's a woman who really wants to break out! :)

    BTW, can you point us toward a link where you can view archived bestseller lists? Thank you.

  • Barbara Krasner

    >As a former market researcher, I offer this: packaging, pricing, and promotion (that is, factors that might influence purchase) might be good to research, most probably in a general sense.
    Customers usually don't know what they want. Focus groups are great, because often it's the participants' nonverbal reactions that tell the story. But, as a qualitative method, you might not want to bet the budget on the results.
    I think common sense and a good bit of intuition and hunch go a long way.

  • Brian Miller

    >nice. i agree this makes sense. when i think about the books that have really made it big there was a confluence of events that surrounded their rise. copycats quickly followed with ever diminishing returns. i think yu just might drive yourself crazy trying to write the next big thing you just might miss it.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Interesting post Rachelle. Thanks.

  • Patti Struble

    >I would think that market research in pub would be cost prohibitive. Also, how many Meyer's, Brown's, Grisham's and even Austen's would never be available to the public if research had worked against them. Besides, there are many great artists who never made a dime during their lifetimes, but we recognize, celebrate and admire their genious. No amount of market research would have helped any of them & I don't think any amt. of research can predict the next hot item. Punt, pray and hope for the best. There is a place for everyone and for every writer an audience. No MR could ever define that successfully enough, so we just have to go for it. Great thought provoker for a Tuesday morning, though. Thanks!

  • Clara

    >I agree. I mean, if I was at the group to approve Twilight, I´d deny it and then, bye bye crazy phenomenum.

    The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
    is one of the best lines I´ve ever heard =)

  • Carl

    >I think your argument is sound as far as it goes, but I don't think it addresses all things that market research could do for publishers.

    It is a fact that men read less fiction than woman. Unless we believe that it is impossible to get men to read more fiction, we must believe that there are things that can be done to get men to read more. How are we to find out what those things are? Market research. We've discussed this on the Boylit Blog.

    Men as a demographic are a rather large group to just ignore and it would be in the industry's interest to do the research to determine what male non-readers would like to read and how best to reach them.

    It's true that people don't necessarily know what they like and are even less likely to be able to articulate what it is they like. However, there are scientific methods that could be used to determine what appeals to a given group, as opposed to just soliciting opinions. For instance, if you give a focus group the first chapters of a few books and give them the option of either requesting or declining more chapters of the books, you may learn what it is that group likes. I am sure that market research professionals could come up with very productive studies to do.

    I do think you have to target the research to particular demographics in order to determine what the demographic enjoys as opposed to the general population. I would love to see such research done in schools in order to gain some insight into what boys, particularly reluctant readers, want to read and how to reach them.

    One of the things that we have discussed is the use of book trailers on Youtube to reach boys. The demographic that represents young boys is overrepresented in its usage of Youtube, but publishers don't seem to take advantage of that. I think there are lots of things that could be learned from market research other than whether or not a particular book is going to be popular.

  • Anonymous

    >Having worked in marketing (among other things) and having been involved in business my whole life, I have to disagree with the idea that 'people don't know what they want'. That's very general to say the least.

    Here's what people REALLY want. They want a quality product, they want it to entertain them and they don't want to feel like they've been ripped off.

    I don;t care if you sell books, DVDs or bagels. People want the above – period.

    As far as young men reading, let's take a look at what we are offering them (promotions wise) IF they have 2 minutes to decide (and that's about 1:55 more than the average young man spends making entertainment decisions!) They see Twilight, Harry Potter and Anita Blake plastered all over the place. All of those books have cross-over appeal, but do 18-24 year old guys want Vampire love, kids on broom sticks or Urban fantasy/paranormal romance smut? Probably not.

    The industry really doesn't seem to be offering them much (on the surface anyway). Yes there are options for young men (or whatever other age/gender/race/etc group you want to target) but when publishers blow their promotional efforts on the next Twilight book and Sarah Palin's new memoir, they are not getting the word out about something that might interest the underrepresented 49% of the population (book reading wise anyway – we are doing fine in pro-sports representation and biker gang membership thankyouverymuch!)

    Really, how hard would it be to go after those Youtube folks with a viral marketing campaign for the next epic fantasy or military thriller or sci-fi adventure? Probably a lot less money than what they could get in return if they stopped the 'big book' model that continues to squeeze out everyone else…

  • Siddhartha Herdegen

    >I found your remarks about “integrity issues” interesting. As an economist I have to consider what it means to not want to conform or adapt to consumer preferences.

    I think, in the first place, you are right. There is a tremendous feeling among artists that they are creating something which has to be expressed regardless of whether or not other people “get it.” Some writers, I imagine, would consider it a badge of honor if their work was underappreciated as it would reinforce their feeling of having an uncommon understanding of things.

    But to the point of whether or not publishers and writers adapt their “product” to meet consumers’ expressed preferences: they most certainly do. That’s how supply and demand works. If consumers want something they’ll buy more of it. If writers and publishers want to sell products they need to meet those needs.

    A publisher may not go to an author and say, change your book to include a subplot of unrequited love, but they have a lot of novels to choose from. If publishers are consistently selecting stories with a similar subplot, authors will pick up on this and write to it.

    It’s a more subtle influence than outright telling them what to write, but every writer knows there are some things that will sell and some things that won’t. if you want to get published you don’t try to convince the world your idea of what they should read is better, you shape your ideas to fit the product they enjoy.

    I have enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with all of us.

  • Sue Harrison

    >Katy, I'm still laughing. I'm not that dedicated (or that old!). For archived bestseller lists check out the Hawes Publications Website at http://www.hawes.com/pastlist.htm

    Also, Wikipedia has an article about New York Times Bestseller Lists. At the bottom of the article there is a list of various links. They're interesting to peruse!

  • David Jarrett

    >Publishers do do market research, only theirs is a trailing model. They look at an author's submission, look at the past sales figures for that author, if already published, look at the sales figures for books similar to the author's if not published, and make a preliminary judgment on that basis.

    Then they look at the book itself, which has already been pre-screened by the author's agent, who has already gone through the same exercise, vetting the work before approaching the publisher.

    It's kind of hard to see how they can lose with this model, unless the public stops buying books, period.

  • Lynnda – Passionate for the Glory of God

    >Good morning, Rachele;

    You wrote on a subject of continuing debate in many companies. Doing research to quantify the effectiveness of market research is similar to chasing will-o-whisps in the swamp; market research might be valuable but the value can't be captured.

    The facts that human nature never changes but tastes do, in my opinion, explains why some market research gives usable results and some does not. And speaking from experience, even when a company has good market research, it may not know how to use it.

    Better, I think, for a writer to find an audience who will respond to their voice, find an agent and publisher who can refine the work, and then meet that audience's desire – whether it be for a fad like Twilight or a need like dealing with the death of a loved one.

    Be blessed,

    Lynnda

  • Katherine Hyde

    >Market research can make sense in certain situations. I work for a small niche publisher of religious nonfiction, and we've polled our customers to find out what general types of books they felt most need for, as well as how well they felt we were currently meeting their needs. We spent nothing (beyond a few hours to set up the survey and to evaluate the results) and got some useful results. But certainly with regard to fiction, market research is pretty useless.

  • Reesha

    >When I first read the title of the blog post, I thought "Wait a second….you mean they DON'T?"

    But after reading the reasons you give, it totally makes sense.

    Thanks, Rochelle.

  • Livia

    >You make good points, but I still think there are areas where publishers could benefit from market research. Every industry has blind spots, and it sometimes takes someone else to reveal them. Here's an interesting article where the author argues that there is a market for male-oriented books, it's just that the female heavy publishing industry has not been producing books for them. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-pinter/why-men-dont-read-how-pub_b_549491.html

    And as to suiting the whims of the consumer, doesn't the publishing industry already kind of do that? There's a reason why publishers don't buy short story collections and poetry very often. I don't really see it as an integrity issue. It's just what sells and what doesn't.

  • Erica Vetsch

    >I should think that fiction market research would be particularly difficult to pin down.

    Non-fiction market research? I have a friend who is shopping a women's devotional series, and the publishers who have shown an interest all want her to hold focus groups and find out the 'felt needs' of the women she's trying to reach, then tweak the proposal based upon their feedback. In this limited way, she's responsible for her own market research.

  • Magdalen

    >I think publishers miss a chance to use market research to publish "outside the box." Because they're probably working from existing sales data, they make choices about what to publish two years from now based on what is selling today. In romances, that means paranormals are big now, so paranormals may be big in two years.

    But if someone with Stephenie Meyer's ability comes along and sells a great book about something totally different, that will breed a lot more of that new thing. The problem is that publishers aren't looking for The Next New Thing, they're still looking for The Old Thing in a new wrapper.

    So here are two very specific ways in which publishers can use market research to find The New Thing more easily. First, if a manuscript is submitted to them through an agent or "over the transom," but it's a New Thing, they don't have to publish it to see if people like it. They could test it first. (There has to be some contract whereby an author would be recompensed for, say, losing the opportunity to sell the book elsewhere while the market research is being conducted.)

    Second, publishers could ask long-time readers what they most like. This could bridge the gap caused by a stochastic model where future sales are shaped by past sales. Each book sold is a book sold, but did people actually like it and would they have preferred something different?

    Take, say, educated heroines. Maybe readers would like to read more novels with well-educated heroines. But that's not what's being written now, so it's not what's being sold, so it's not what publishers see as doing well. A modest amount of market research could tell publishers that readers enjoy their books but "wish the heroines were better-educated," say. (It's a hypothetical example.)

    The publisher would then alert its editors that this is something its readers have said they'd like more of. The next author of a new book with a more educated heroine might find his/her manuscript getting a green light where it otherwise might not.

    We all know that even well-written books get rejected sometimes because publishers *think* they know what sells. We also know that publishers can be surprised by how well The Next New Thing does; market research could help them have a feel for what New Things readers are receptive to.

    Market research is a way to let readers tell publishers more about reader-driven preferences than actual book sales reveal.

  • James Castellano

    >Makes perfect sense. Predicting the future by re-inventing it works for the delivery system. Not so much for the content.

    The i-pod reinvented how music is listened to, but did not reinvent music.

    E-readers do the same for publishing. The writing is still hard work and there is not much that can change this.

    As an author the easy way to accomplish a market survey would be to look at the best-seller list. Or look for other books in the same field and see if they are selling.

  • Michael K. Reynolds

    >As a marketing professional I do believe that research provides important baseline statistics for measuring and predicting trends.

    That being said, there is a real limit to how useful this historical evidence is in a world that is changing at an ever increasing pace.

    As writers we can keep a finger in the wind to sample prevailing winds, but mostly we need our eyes "on the ball" of creating compelling stories with riveting characters.

    A great book will never be out of style.

  • Timothy Fish

    >We can’t ask readers what type of book they would like to read and expect them to give us the answer we want. They will likely tell us about books they have enjoyed reading in the past, but since they have already read those books it would do us little good to write another. A better question would be, “What problem do you currently face that you wish you knew how to solve?”

    Suppose the answer comes back, “I wish I knew how to get my grandchildren actively involved in church.” We can then look around to see if there is a book that addresses that issue. If we don’t see anything, there is a gap that needs someone to fill it. As authors, we may not be qualified to write that book, but a publisher can seek out an author to write that book, publish it and make it available to the audience that is looking for it.

    The novels we would write based on that answer may not be as obvious, but maybe we do just write a novel about a woman who sets out to get her grandchildren in church. We go around to various groups to speak on the subject and using the concept that the non-fiction themes of a fiction book sell the story, we may still be able to sell books to that audience based on need.

  • Nicole

    >"Mark says, 'The best way to predict the future is to invent it.'"

    Right or wrong, I think to a degree publishers have attempted to do this. They've shortened the novels and only allowed "sagas" in certain genres. CBA publishers decided at some point that the fantasy genre didn't sell when in fact there are myriad readers and writers of fantasy who are Christians. I suspect the publishers had difficulty marketing it until recently.

    Men's fiction has been poorly marketed. I know lots of men (Christians) who read fiction but have no idea what's available from CBA.

    So the CBA publishers who cater to their main market of women readers have failed to address the rest of the market. And with a huge percentage of published books not earning out advances, something is not quite right in their market choices or their marketing schemes.

  • Kelly Freestone

    >This makes perfect sense.
    Also, publishing IS market research!
    If people don't buy the book in a certain area, that demographic didn't find it interesting.
    If people don't buy the book during Christmas season, a murderous adultress doesn't sell at that time of year.

    As was said, writers and publishers don't cater to the public, but the public will respond. One way or the other.

  • T. Anne

    >I have to agree with Anne Lang Bundy. It is a wonderful liberating feeling to forge our own trail as authors, rather than feel compelled to follow the latest, greatest trend.

  • Peter

    >There are other industries with such broad products – music, motor spares, art. Many others mass customise, resulting in unique customer-products. They research product categories and demographic groups. Post research informs on what happened, but never says anything about what didn't happen i.e. why demographics with potential are not buying and why, so its self defeating to opt out.

  • Peter

    >There are other industries with such broad products – music, motor spares, art. Many others mass customise, resulting in unique customer-products. They research product categories and demographic groups. Post research informs on what happened, but never says anything about what didn't happen i.e. why demographics with potential are not buying and why, so its self defeating to opt out.

  • D.J. Morel

    >Thanks for the post! This is a topic I've thought of much, as it's where my day job and writing intersect.

    I understand the Mark Cuban post on "never listening" to your customers, best summed up by Henry Ford who said that if he had asked people what they wanted they would have said: faster horses. But Cuban oversimplifies. In focus groups, a/b testing, and other types of similar research, you don't ask customers what they want. You learn from listening and watching them. The Swiffer mop is a great example. The people who developed it watched people clean their floors, and were surprised at how much time people spent cleaning what they clean the floor with versus the floor itself. No one said: It takes me too long to clean the mop. This came through observation.

    I also don't understand the argument that publishers don't have the time or money to conduct research, since they're so busy publishing so many books. My understanding is that most books lose money. Why spend so much money and time to produce so many products that don't work? Why not stop publishing the books that lose money and only publish those that make money? How can you move toward better telling the two apart? One way is market research.

    I also think you've overstated the costs. Moving online has streamlined both the time and effort required to really connect with customers. (This blog is also a form of market research.) For a few thousand dollars, publishers could set up focus groups with 100 readers–the exact demographic they're targeting–and ask them to comment on and rate samples from 50 books under consideration. That sort of insight would be fascinating, and go a long way to understanding why readers are drawn to some books and not to others.

    My hunch is the reason this hasn't happened is that editors would see it as a threat to their editorial role. I've seen this in other businesses, where this type of research is initially rejected by those in decision-making roles. It takes time to bring them on board, once they understand that ultimately the final decision is still their's to make. The customer input is just there to help with the process.

  • Patrick Brian Miller

    >Any publisher who stooped to actually ASK their readers what should be published should just go ahead and shut their doors. Seriously, most good writers get a much better shot (even with the long odds) of getting published now than if market research took over or heavily influenced publishing. It would be sort of like the computer that took over the Enterprise and ended up identifying friendly vessels as enemy ships in an "exercise"–and torpedoed several ships before the crew could get to the manual override and shut it down. Agents and editors are the "human" element that identifies the artistic and business value of books. No system is perfect, but we trust their judgement over scientific models and methods.

  • Stephanie Reed

    >"Barbara Krasner said…
    As a former market researcher, I offer this: packaging, pricing, and promotion (that is, factors that might influence purchase) might be good to research, most probably in a general sense."

    I agree with Barbara here. Plus, correct me if I'm wrong (if there's still anyone at the party), but I have participated in market research for a CBA publisher–I was asked via an online survey which book cover I liked best. At least, this to me is market research: Would you buy this book based on this cover? How about this cover?

  • Steve

    >Use market research to ask readers what kinds of books they are looking for and not finding. Do followups to see how much potential audience these "missing" categories represent. Those categories which are large enough to be salable, marginally sabable, or which could become salable with some effort should be encouraged by publishers sending out the word they are looking for this kind of writing.

    -Steve

  • sharonbially

    >Rachelle, I'm so surprised that you speak about "integrity issues" with publishing: "Market research implies the author/publisher would change the product to suit the whims of the consumer, something that goes against the grain of writers and publishers."

    But this happens all the time!!

    As a publicist and marketing pro I have worked with dozens of authors and have seen so many of them collude with their agents and/or
    editors to re-write or develop more marketable, potentially "crowd-pleasing" books. It's always struck me that their big mistake has been to wonder not what readers will potentially like, but what current trends are. So we wind up with many books that look alike but just don't sell, and plenty of money invested in these with relatively little money invested in new ideas and approaches that could become the next trend.

    And while we're on spending: how on earth do publishers justify giving new authors fairly large advances with no indication of how their books will sell (even low 5-figures seems pretty big to me!) or giving second and even third advances to returning authors whose books haven't necessarily sold enough copies to break even? I'd say those dollars would be much better spent on market research!

    Yet we continue to blame low profitability problems on things like e-books. And just as you once said that being an agent is, after all, a job…. Publishers are, first and foremost, businesses.

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