Acquisitions and development editors’ careers depend on the value of their expertise. When a talented acquisitions editor fields book proposals, they bring to bear deep knowledge about what makes a book brilliant versus basic, the rules of the genre in question, and what sorts of books are selling well based on recent market trends. When a development editor works with an author to hone a manuscript, they do so as seasoned professionals, masters of story craft who know exactly how to help polish a plot and make a book better.

In either case, turning to market research for reader feedback about a manuscript can be perceived as weakness or even a disrespectful dismissal of the value of their expertise. After all (so the thinking goes), why would an editor or publishing team need to hear what a bunch of non-experts think about a book? What do they know? And, once the expert editor has weighed in, what’s the point in getting a second opinion?

But this sort of thinking misunderstands the potential of data-driven insights and underestimates the wisdom of crowds.

Here’s the thing: market data is only useful in aggregate. Feedback from a single reader, even one who fits perfectly within a book’s target market, has very limited value. Individual readers may provide useful insights, but they do so from a single, narrow perspective. On the other hand, when feedback from multiple readers within a target audience is looked at as a whole, the savvy analyst can identify patterns in the data that indicate broader trends—yielding consumer insights and editorial recommendations that even expert editors are likely to miss.

For example, in a recent Target Reader Manuscript Analysis (TRMA) conducted for a fantasy novel, readers from the book’s audience were asked what they thought of the overall structure and flow. While the vast majority of readers found the book to be clear, well organized, and easy to follow overall, 53% complained that they didn’t like how the book began. Specifically, readers disliked that the book’s prologue focused on a secondary character rather than the protagonist, resulting in them becoming disappointed or confused when the perspective abruptly shifted. One reader wrote:

“The beginning of the story does not feel like an effective start. I find it odd that we began with X’s perspective, when we would ultimately jump to Y’s perspective for the rest of the book.”

If just one or two readers had made this complaint, the criticism could be ignored as an isolated perspective, unlikely to be shared by the target market as a whole. But because many readers independently identified the same issue with the manuscript, the insight became worth paying attention to. Patterns in aggregated data reveal the issues most likely to emerge with readers post-publication the sorts of issues that can hurt sales. Thus, reader feedback provides data-
driven directions for improving a book before it hits the shelves.

Aggregated feedback from target readers can provide insights and identify issues that even expert editors miss. But that doesn’t mean that market research is a replacement for editorial expertise.

Rather, smart publishing decisions require a Both/And approach.

Here’s what we mean:

  • Acquisitions and Development Editors have legitimate, valuable expertise and perspectives that lay readers lack. Yet they are still limited by their single perspective.
  • Aggregated data from target readers provides the “wisdom of the crowd”—identifying quantifiable trends, issues, and insights that more reliably predict what consumers will actually think of a book. Yet these readers lack the literary and industry expertise offered by professional editors.

So, is target reader feedback a threat to editors? Absolutely not.

On the contrary, data driven insights are valuable tools that acquisition and development editors ought to be using to bolster their decision-making frameworks, alleviate risk, make the case for the books in their portfolio, and ultimately improve their publishing scorecard.

 Smart editing is data-driven editing.