Back in 2016, NPR ran a story in which long-time editor and publishing great Alan Rinzler described the decision to publish a book as “an act of love.” The way Rinzler saw it, when a book lands on a publisher’s desk and they have to decide: “Is this good? Will this sell?” They don’t make that decision based on data, but on instinct. They “fall in love” with a book, go with their gut, and publish based on that feeling.
Rinzler is far from alone with this heart-driven approach. The publishing industry at large has long been built around intuition, too-often shunning the possibilities offered by data-infused insights even as other markets embraced their potential.
In a TAI study from October 2021, more than half (57%) of surveyed publishers reported that they “rarely” or “never” capture reader feedback on manuscripts before publishing. It should come as little surprise then that more than three quarters (76%) of publishing leaders reported that one-third or fewer of their titles met or exceeded their first 12-month revenue budget.
In short, the vast majority of published books—most of them chosen, advocated for, and funded based primarily on publishers’ or editors’ gut feelings—fail to sell as well as hoped.
Why then has the publishing industry historically relied on instinct?
Part of the answer to this puzzle is inertia. If they’ve always done it this way, why change?
To that objection, one only need point to market trends: in a world where readers are flooded with more and more content every year, picking a winner that stands out from the crowd is harder than ever—and intuition alone may not be able to cut it.
But that’s only part of the story. The second piece to this puzzle is more abstract. In short, using data to drive decision-making about publishing the written word—a medium so grounded in art, creativity, and raw human emotion—can just feel wrong.
Can data gauge the surge of feeling that rises when one reads the poetry of Borges or Toni Morrison’s powerful prose? Can statistics reckon the whole of the transformative power hidden in Brené Brown’s insights or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ grappling with racial injustice in America?
Frankly, no, they can’t. Good art, good writing transcends our feeble math.
And yet, data can do wonders to help a savvy publisher or editor identify a great book when it lands on their desk.
And this is the point: When it comes to publishing, “Heart vs. Data” is a false dichotomy. “Falling in Love with a book” is not at odds with data-infused decision making.
In a recent Target Reader Manuscript Analysis (TRMA) report, First Look Readers™ read and responded to a novel marked by philosophical themes, complex characters, and soaring, poetic language. Analysis of reader responses revealed that the majority loved the book as a whole, enjoyed the writing style, and were genuinely moved by the character arcs the author had crafted. As one reader wrote:
“The characters were alive and lovable even in their broken places, and the writing was fluid and engaging. This is a book (and series) that I would keep on my shelf and loan out to only worthy and searching friends.”
Simultaneously, many of these same readers struggled to follow the plot, losing the thread of the story amidst the poetry of the language.
“The book is jumpy. It’s hard to get into because there seems to be so much effort being placed on painting a picture but less effort on making a clear point.”
“Parts of the story were really amazing, but often it felt like short stories bunched together. It was hard to see where the book was going and see it as a cohesive story until nearly the end.”
In other words, the book was marvelous and readers loved it, but many were also confused and felt that the book’s lack of cohesion could cause it to fail to reach its full literary potential.
By capturing the responses of readers within the book’s target audience, our analysts were able to identify clear patterns of what worked and what didn’t work. In the end, their feedback provided both encouragement and points for improvement—areas that an editor or publisher may have missed, and which could easily have impacted the book’s public reception if left unaddressed.
Similar themes emerge with non-fiction books.
Another recent TRMA analyzed reader responses to a book about investing and personal finance. The manuscript was a huge hit with readers. Written by an already-established author, it seemed destined for success. Yet amidst the deluge of praise, over a third of readers complained that the book’s introduction was frustratingly long and boring.
“I felt that the intro dragged on. It took a long time to get to the tangible action steps.”
“My only complaint was that it felt like it took a long time to actually get into the meat. … I was around 40 pages in and still waiting to actually have some tangible advice and actions to be taking.”
Once (or if) these readers made it through the dense introduction, they found themselves caught up in a book built on solid writing and exciting ideas. Yet some nearly gave up before they got to the good part. Analysis of audience responses confirmed that this manuscript was likely to be a hit, yet also highlighted a problem-area that, if left unaddressed, could have driven some readers away and damaged its overall popularity.
In both cases, data-infused insights strengthened these books’ ability to capture audience attention, move hearts, and change minds.
Data is not the enemy of creativity, nor the opposite of intuition. Rather, data-infused insights are powerful tools for maximizing a book’s, and an author’s, full potential.