Patterns in Everything: How to Sell Books in a World of Big Data

Last week I was bleating about the new catchy catch-all genre moniker of ‘Up-Lit’ – following in the faddy tradition of ‘Grip-Lit’, right back to the grandmother of it all, ‘Chick-Lit’ and all those other Lits in between (or what I like to call ‘Really Fecking Annoying Names For Things Which Really Shouldn’t Be Grouped Together Because They Have No Fecking Connection Really’).

One of the consequences of the explosion in digital and self-publishing is that more titles are loaded onto virtual bookshelves on a daily basis than any databank could reasonably be expected to handle. It’s the publishing world’s version of Big Data. And as we all know, Big Data is meaningless without analysis.

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The problem with analysis is that results will always be produced, even when there are no tangible results. I know this, because I also deal with Big Data for a living. Analysts are sent forth to find patterns and answers, and By Gum, they will find those patterns by hook or by crook. Very often it’s most definitely by crook.

This fad for creating new and ridiculous genres is precisely a result of this kind of pattern-hunting. There are so many book titles out there now that everyone is petrified that their titles will perish, unless they can slot them into an easily marketable category.

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Picture the scene. It’s a Big Publisher. Their office is only gorgeous, full of glass and brightly-coloured furniture nobody knows how to sit on. But disaster looms. They recently stopped the free biscuits. People are terrified. Everybody knows that only six weeks after Other Big Publisher took away free muffins on Fridays, they forced all staff onto zero hour contracts and slapped a 32% salary levy on anyone with a logo on their handbag.

Editor enters the kitchen, sniffing the air. The coffee smells cheaper. Marketing Director is watching a video on her phone while balancing precariously on an oversized cerulean thread spool.

Editor: So I just got this manuscript in which got me really excited. It’s the best story I’ve read in ages.

Marketing Director: I need it in 5 words.

Editor: What?

Marketing Director: Give it to me in 5 words or less. Where does it slot in? Is it Grip-Lit? Up-Lit? Or does whoever the hell wrote it have a YouTube channel?

Editor: It’s not like that. It’s really original. I’ve never read anything like it.

Marketing Director: I’m afraid you lost me at ‘It’s not like’.

Editor: I mean it, though. It’s a really fresh idea. It’s like Bleak House met Rebecca and had a threesome with The Reluctant Fundamentalist before giving birth to a tragic yet hilarious time-travelling soldier baby.

Marketing Director: I’m not hearing a genre.

Editor: You have to read it first.

Marketing Director: I don’t need to read it to sell it.

Editor: [sighs] Okay. It’s a romantic adventure thriller with, um, war science.

Marketing Director: Fine. Hyphenate that in less than 9 letters and call by my office at 3. Bring biscuits.

Editor: I really, really hate you.

Marketing Director: Make sure they’re artisan biscuits. Hold the kale.

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With such a sea of titles on the shelves – particularly the virtual ones of Amazon, and the like – it’s no wonder that people are desperate to find patterns in what’s selling. Publishers and writers alike yearn to know what makes a book successful, and will take even the smallest of signals as a sales trend.

It’s a human act. We’re all looking for that call in the dark of Big Data that will lead us to enlightenment. There’s far more than anyone could possibly read or understand, so we go straight for the Cliff Notes.

But all it takes now is for 5 or more titles in the top 100 to have similarities (such as female unreliable narrators dealing with a threat in their own home/neighbourhood, or a quirky elderly person befriending various oddballs), and hey presto! We’ve got ourselves a new genre.

Once called out, the new genre then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it gets picked up as a trending news item by industry periodicals, newspapers, and upstart blogs such as this one, thus perpetuating the new myth that the only fiction that’s selling at the moment is Grip-Lit, Up-Lit or Om-Lit. This in turn spawns a whole new generation of these titles, which become as self-fulfilling as a Kardashian looking in the mirror.

Patterns in Everything: How to Sell Books in a World of Big Data

This only happens to Stephen King now

The real issue with this lies in the fact that anything which doesn’t fit the trend, doesn’t get the column inches. I must include myself in the circle of blame, here. The premise for this blog in the very first place was to look for book trends and talk about them.

Any time I see an article about book trends I click on it. I’m as bad as the rest, and then I start moaning and whinging about how I can’t find anything original to read, because the only books I’m hearing about are titles categorised by these trends.

But as we all know, I’m not here to change anything, fix anything, or if I’m honest, do anything. After all, if I didn’t have anything to complain about, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. Unlike Up-Lit, I am not a lifestyle blogger. Plus, I still love analysing data, and the thrill of seeing a pattern emerge, even if I know it’s tenuous.

The only solution would be to pay more attention to published titles which don’t seem to fit a wider trend. But how would I make fun of that? If I didn’t have stereotypes and clichés to lampoon, I might possibly expire. And if there’s one thing we get from a faddy new genre, it’s stuff to lampoon.

Isn’t it just a shame there’s no money in that, eh? Answers on a €50 note to the usual address. (Also as usual, skinflints can use the comments section.)

Patterns in Everything: How to Sell Books in a World of Big Data

Yay for patterns! And trends! And money!

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  19 comments for “Patterns in Everything: How to Sell Books in a World of Big Data

  1. April 8, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Was Choc-Lit ever a thing? Because it seems like a missed opportunity if not…

    Liked by 3 people

    • April 8, 2018 at 11:28 am

      Believe it or not, there’s actually a publisher with that name. They specialise in women’s fiction, which is either very clever, or very annoying. I’ll let you know where I settle on that one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. April 8, 2018 at 11:20 am

    I’m sitting here stunned that you’ve drawn such a sharp, surgically-painful-seconds-after-the-initial-shock line between what I write and what I do for a living. You’ve hit the bulls-eye as usual. I analyze telecoms, where the public information is by that virtue accounted worthless, and anything folks would really like to know is held proprietary. So we alternate between flogging the same old revenue and margin data for some new insight and stepping out on a limb based on maybe two whispered confidences to have an idea about what’s really happening. The first are called Trends, the second might qualify to be a Maverick proposal. I’m terrible at both.

    And I watch the biscuits like a hawk, because there, too, are trends of importance…

    No wonder I love chronicling, and especially in such a non-trendy, doomed to infamy genre as epic fantasy. No trendy bus to catch or sloping chair to try not to slide off. I just tap out a little more of what happened next, and sometimes for a bonus someone reads it.

    One is enough, when they write me to say they liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 8, 2018 at 11:34 am

      I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a writer on Earth any more who’s doing it for the money, Will (except maybe James Patterson, who isn’t even technically doing it himself). It’s the only bogus internship which exploits every single generation equally, so on that note, I suppose we can say it’s a win for equality?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. April 8, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    Reblogged this on When Angels Fly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. April 8, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    I like the idea of analysing all of the stuff that isn’t pigeon-holed and then building a whole new pigeon coop. Do pigeons have coops? Or is that just chickens? I had a pet duck once but she lived in a pen. Which sounds surreal if you remember we’re talking about writing. I’ve got distracted again haven’t I?
    I think music has a similar problem, but there are loads of reference points and all it takes is a 20 second listen to start categorising: “Ah yes, kind of Motown with a Punk / Pan-Pipe vibe”. You have to work so much harder with literature, which is a problem given how lazy people tend to be with the pigeon-holing.
    I wonder if one of the pigeon holes is a lot bigger than the others, because the turkeys have to go somewhere (ba-dum-tish).

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 8, 2018 at 7:31 pm

      That’s such a great comment, Nick, I’d like to take each part and answer it separately, if I may:

      1. Yes
      2. No
      3. Donald
      4. Poultry In Motion
      5. Cranberry Sauce

      Let me know if I missed anything.

      Liked by 1 person

    • April 8, 2018 at 11:59 pm

      Pigeons live in dovecotes, which are like elevated apartment houses, because they pretend to be sophisticated. My grandfather kept pigeons, and sometimes he’d wring a few of their hoity-toity necks, pluck and draw them, and give them to my mother, who cooked them in spaghetti sauce. When I was a kid, my grandfather gave me a runt duckling. We named her Drusilla, and before she was fledged, she lived in my old sandbox, surrounded by chicken wire walls and roof. When she got old enough to need privacy for egg laying, she took over the old doghouse, which had a small run surrounded by a white picket fence. Ducks are more cosmopolitan than pigeons. Grandfather’s turkeys, on the other hand, lived in a ghetto: a large chicken run where the chickens, the big ducks, and the guinea hens congregated.

      Liked by 2 people

      • April 9, 2018 at 11:16 pm

        It’s like a childhood in poultry, Christine. Or perhaps a microcosm of society, in poultry. It’s also kind of beautiful, if not downright poultrical. It’s so many things. I think you might have invented a whole new genre. The possibilities are endless, I tell you. ENDLESS.

        Liked by 2 people

        • April 10, 2018 at 10:00 am

          Christine’s comment definitely gives a new spin on chick-lit. Dare I say, a more sophisticated one that most books in the genre so far?

          Liked by 1 person

  5. April 8, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    No, I think that sums it up pretty well. Our work here is done. Well, mine is cos I’m now drinking hot sweet tea. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. April 9, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    The sad part of this post is that it’s so true. But it’s not only marketing directors who want to pigeon-hole books into recognizable genres, it’s often readers as well. Personally, I like cross-over and combo genres because they challenge my expectations and are full of surprises, but not everyone enjoyed that. Are marketing directors steering readers into a limited range of books or just giving the masses what they want? Or both?

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 9, 2018 at 11:19 pm

      Far be it from me to defend the marketing giants, Diana, but I honestly don’t see what choice they have. With so many titles out there competing – not to mention the digital-only publishers, who are firing out titles like fast fiction has become the new fast fashion – what else can they do except fling catchy labels at everything? I’m a massive, massive fan of cross-genre stuff too, but if I was working in publishing, I’d be looking for the easier sells too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 10, 2018 at 3:10 am

        That was pretty much my point. *Sigh* Just have to keep writing books we can be proud of.

        Liked by 1 person

        • April 10, 2018 at 8:01 am

          Truth and facts are SO depressing, aren’t they?! No wonder we are where we are 😂

          Liked by 1 person

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