Penguin Random House Publishing Direct Justin Ractliffe recently wrote a new, in-depth report for The Copyright Agency which examines the evolving consumer marketplace for books in Australia, and how publishers can align with modern reader shifts.
The report provides some interesting perspective on the utilization of data-driven insights as a driver of publishing success, and repeatedly refers to Netflix as an example of a modern, content-focused business which has built consumer data into its product decisions, leading to greater success.
Which is not surprising – Netflix has repeatedly been held up as an example of how modern data analytics can be used to maximize traditional creative processes.
You may recall the story of how Netflix used ‘big data’ to create ‘House of Cards’, which all of its indicators showed would be a hit.
As per SOFY:
“Netflix identified that the British version of House of Cards was watched by many subscribers. Those members who watched the British version of House of Cards also seemed to favor movies starring Kevin Spacey. This was one of the patterns that led to Kevin Spacey being cast in the lead role – in fact, big data was instrumental in how most of the characters were cast. It had a role in how the script was finalized and how the overall narrative progressed.”
Brilliant, right? Tapping into consumer data, from Netflix’s 155 million subscribers, to create shows which align with their interests, thus driving viewer loyalty. Great.
Except that’s not really true.
Definitely, Netflix, as a case study, provides some interesting considerations, as noted by Ratcliffe, but the correlation/causation elements of this argument don’t play out as strong when you dig a little further. Yes, Netflix has achieved success – but how much of that, really, comes down to its original content?
Here’s a simple counter – Netflix published some 700 original shows in 2018, and 80 original films. How many of them can you name?
Sure, Netflix has had some big hits – the platform has struck gold with shows like ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Stranger Things’, and movies like ‘Bird Box’. But on balance, Netflix’s production output is still fairly hit and miss. If Netflix’s data-driven approach were as spot on as implied, why are so many of its offerings failing to gain momentum, and attract big audiences?
But Netflix has 155 million subscribers, which many use an indicator of the success of its original content. Is that an accurate correlation?
Not necessarily. Netflix benefits from brand equity as much as it does from its content – the platform is cheap to access (in relative terms), provides access to a heap of movies and TV shows (Netflix-created an otherwise), and there are also, every now and then, cool, original shows that people want to watch. Given these various elements, it’s impossible to attribute how much of Netflix’s overall success comes down to its’ own productions.
To make it an even more difficult comparison, Netflix doesn’t actually reveal any viewership numbers, so we have no idea what’s working and what isn’t on the platform.
Netflix did, just recently, publish a list of its best performing originals between 2018 and 2019, which provides some insight:
But as noted by The Guardian, it’s interesting, here, to note that only two of the shows listed weren’t a first season. So, again, despite Netflix’s data insights, it’s clearly not fueling ongoing success – which suggests that, potentially, the user analytics-driven approach isn’t as effective as suggested.
Arguably, the Netflix programs which have seen success have been driven to higher levels of viewership by the social media hype train, as opposed to simply aligning with consumption data. Indeed, ‘Black Mirror’, ‘Stranger Things’ and ’13 Reasons Why’ were all among the most tweeted about TV shows in 2018, while the Bird Box challenge became a trending meme on social media, which undoubtedly increased views of that film. In each case, an alternative view could suggest that it’s not consumer data that’s lead to their eventual success, but influence – slotting into the zeitgeist of the day and prompting expanded discussion, which then leads more people to take a look.
As such, maybe it’s not so much data-driven decision making that publishers should be investigating, but viral dynamics – studies like this one by Steve Rayson which dig into the reasons behind why such trends occur, with a view to fanning your own waves of success.
But that path, which requires understanding modern communication dynamics, aligning with pathways that lead to increased social media traction, and igniting those first sparks in just the right spots, is definitely not easy. It’s worth noting too that Ratcliffe doesn’t definitively suggest that publishers should adopt a strictly data-driven approach, but the risk in adopting such a strategy is that you end up narrowing the field too significantly. Basically, my response after reading Ratcliffe’s thesis was ‘I hope people really liked ‘Boy Swallows Universe”.
At core, my concern with Ratcliffe’s overview is that it looks to cater to the existing audience of readers, as opposed to seeking ways to win more readers back. And of course, the latter goal might not even be viable, but if you’re looking to make data-backed decisions, and the data you use is limited in scope, because the reading market is already narrower than before, then that seems like more of a path to eventual obsolesence, as your audience will thin further and further the more you refine your targeting.
But then again, the alternative is not a lot better – the truth is that people’s reading habits have changed, and with so many distractions available to us 24/7, asking someone to take the time to read a full novel these days is asking a lot. People aren’t reading as widely as they once were – which, as to Ratcliffe’s suggestions, points to the benefits of maximizing those who are.
As an author, and someone who loves to see new voices, that concerns me. But from a marketing perspective, I see the logic.
But I would argue that the Netflix data-driven model is not as solid as many suggest. Again, Netflix created 80 new shows in 2018, and relatively few of them resonated. And you don’t have to take my word for it – go watch them, a lot of them just simply don’t work.
At the rates that Netflix publishes, its track record is not much better than any other publisher, even with its added consumer insight. Which would suggest that the existing publishing models, which rely upon the knowledge of publishers – their ‘gut feel’ as it were – are probably just as good.
It seems less about the data in the acquisition process, and more about the marketing push, using elements like influencer marketing and similar dynamics, to amplify messaging.
But the market is narrowing, as are opportunities.
I haven’t posted here in a while. Partly because I don’t have anything new to share – I don’t have any new publication dates or anything set to be released in the near future. But also, because I’ve been contemplating where I’m at with my fiction work, and how to push through to that next stage.
Also, I’ve been writing. I’ve written three new novel manuscripts in the last two years, along with a screenplay, a YA novel manuscript and I’m currently working on a series for younger readers, aimed at my nine year-old son. I have a set writing routine, I’m able to commit time to doing it, and I want to make sure I use that capacity while it lasts. You never know when life changes might take your writing time away, so once you have it, you need to keep going.
And in some ways it’s freeing, being able to work on the projects I want to, dedicating the time to editing and reworking and getting them to a presentable state. But also, not having another deal locked in is scary.
I commit a lot of time and effort to writing, and will do so as long as I can, but it’s difficult to tell, in the current market, whether my ideas will make it. I remain confident that they will, eventually. But publishers’ budgets are getting tighter, and reader interests are, at least seemingly, narrowing in. I believe in my work – but will it actually work in the current environment? Can I find an audience and deliver for my publisher, solidifying my career?
And then there’s the more philosophical question – does that even matter?
I mean, I’ll always write, whether for thousands of readers or none, I’ll always come up with stories and ideas that I want to explore and flesh out. And in some ways, that’s probably enough – but then again, there are bills to pay, and the time I spend writing I could spend doing something more directly tied to income.
For the vast majority of writers, fiction doesn’t pay much, and most authors wouldn’t be doing it for the money – cause they could make more elsewhere. But it’s still a consideration, it’s important on some level.
But where do you draw the line – how much time is too much to be allocating to a task with indeterminate return? I’m sure this is a dilemma that all writers face – and again, I know that I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep doing what I love, keep working to improve. But the questions of promotion, of raising awareness, of how you go about boosting your profile, how you make money – while also matching that with, you know, actually doing the work itself, is always difficult.
There are government funding options to consider, of course, but those too are in increasingly limited supply. And also, I don’t need them as such. I work full-time, I can pay the bills. I would generally rather leave those options to writers more in need – because they’re likely the voices that we really need to nurture in order to broaden our perspectives. But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it.
Essentially, I haven’t posted anything here in a while because I’m waiting. For the next big announcement, the next step. And I’m not exactly sure what that is just yet.
So I’m working. I’m writing every day, refining my sentences, filling in my plot holes, tightening up my language. Improving where I can.
But I guess, aside from wanting to provide some sort of update, I also wanted to share that the process is hard, for everyone, and no one has all the answers. Even two books in, I still have periods of total self doubt. But I always come back to why I write.
Is it to make money? No, though that would be ideal. Is it to build a profile and chase some sort of literary ‘fame’? No, not at all.
I write because it’s what I love to do, and if I can somehow fund that work though publication, while also connecting with an audience, that’s the ideal.
But will I keep writing anyway, if that doesn’t eventuate? Sure. I mean, it’s what I do.
And the more you practice, the better you get.
Note: I was partly reminded/inspired to get back to my blog by this post from author Matt Davies, which all authors and prospective writers should read.
I’m always writing, working on one writing project or another. I was able to establish a good daily routine which enabled me to allocate time to fiction properly when writing ONE, and since then, I’ve tried to stay active, to keep working on new projects, so I don’t end up filling that time with something else.
I have a few projects in various stages – so nothing is definitively set in stone as yet – but here’s an overview of the main things I’m working on, and hoping to get to the next level sometime soon.
How in control of your life are you really?
Control follows the intersecting stories of four very different characters, as each navigates their own major life shifts, with their past experiences returning to define their current perspective. Can you truly escape your past? Is your life everything you believe it’s become?
Are you really as in control as you think?
A Home (Novel)
What if your child was hurt by someone, by another adult, when you weren’t there to protect them? How would you respond? Could you just let it go, or would you seek revenge, your own form of justice?
A Home follows the story of a father who chooses the latter path, hunting down the man who hurt his son in order to confront him, and his own regrets in failing his boy. But is revenge the answer? Does anger lead to real resolution?
A modern-day take on a Western-style story, A Home explores themes of protection, retribution and healing, and how we come to live with the hardest of realizations.
Argonaut (YA Novel)
In the mid-nineties, in a country town in rural Victoria, a teen girl commits suicide. No one wants to talk about it, people would rather avoid the topic entirely. But one young boy wants to know where she went, what happened to the girl who lived over the back fence.
For a school project, he decides to investigate the case, and he finds that the more he asks, the more he pushes the boundaries, opening wounds which are still healing and disturbing the close community. But maybe it is something we should be asking, and discussing with younger generations, rather than sweeping it under the carpet.
Set against the backdrop of a town event to celebrate the launch of a new war memorial, Argonaut looks at our contrasting approaches to death – and confronts us with questions of how that impacts our broader perception.
The Returned (Screenplay)
A magnetic disturbance has been pulling boats and aircraft into a remote section of the Southern Ocean, possibly for years. Now, they’ve found it, but they’ve also found survivors, frozen in the wreckage. And once they’re recovered, years out of time, re-connecting with the world seems impossible.
The Returned is a science fiction mystery story which looks at what it means to be isolated, and what the reality might be, if you were somehow displaced. And there’s more to the disturbance than it even initially seems.
In a time of personal data tracking, political confusion and larger concerns that impact the very future of our planet, it’s easy to get lost in the vastness of it all, to feel powerless, floating in the middle, hoping for the best.
Do you ever feel like just going? Just packing your bags and heading on your way, getting away from everything?
Sunshine follows the story of one man who does just that. In the wake of the hardest incident he’s ever had to face, he decides that there’s nothing here for him, that his life, as it stands, is finished. So he leaves, heading off on an uncertain journey to find a mythical location that he doesn’t know exists. He has no phone, no vehicle and limited funds, as he walks north, looking for the edge of the world.
Incorporating a modern take on the work of ‘bush poet’ Henry Lawson, Sunshine is an epic journey that criss-crosses the Australian landscape, taking in the sights and sounds along an emotional trip.
As noted, all of these projects are at various stages, and any and all details could change. But hopefully I’ll have more to share on each some time soon.
Today is the final day of school holidays – which means that tomorrow, my kids go back to school, and I go back to my regular writing routine.
It’s the greatest being able to spend time with the kids, but it obviously makes it hard to set aside the time to write in peace, especially amid the arguments over Pokemon, Roblox and whatever else it is they’re doing.
It’s been stupidly hot in Canberra too, which has limited what we can do, so it’ll be good for the kids to get back to hanging out with their friends and moving into a new school year.
For me, the long break is all about reading as much as I can, and writing notes on ideas and inspirations, and I have a heap of little reminders and scribbles in my notebooks that I now get a chance to delve into and see what comes out as I move back into full-on creative flow.
It’s great hanging out with the kids, but I’m very much looking forward to getting back to it, and burying myself in the depth of the next project to see what pans out.
And a relevant note here too for those trying to work out their own writing routine – I’d heard for years that the more you write the easier it gets, that if you get down, say, a thousand words per day, it all starts to flow eventually. I personally never found that advice overly helpful, until I really made it a focus – and while not everyone has the time or capacity to write that much, I can absolutely vouch for the fact that developing a writing routine does work. I’ve written more in the last two years than I had in the previous decade.
It’s hard to set aside time in amongst everything else you need to get done each day, and you have to push yourself a lot to get the ball rolling. But just like exercise, once you start moving, and stick with it, it gets easier. Till you can’t imagine not doing it.
Hopefully I’ll have more to share on my latest writing projects some time soon.
(FYI – The above image is my writing bag, with the various books, notepads and the mass of pens that I take with me wherever I go to write. The books change relevant to each project, as I use notes or passages for inspiration, or as a guide for sentence flow and structure, dependent on what I’m going for.)
Often when I tell people that I’m a writer, the perception they have is that I head down the local cafe at my leisure, then scribble a few notes, taking in the day with the ease as I ‘bang out a few words’.
That, of course, is not true – as any writer knows, actually making money doing what you do is not easy, it takes a heap of effort, and massive leaps of faith, labouring over tasks that may never ‘pay off’.
But that’s not why you do it – if making money was your aim, there are much easier ways to go about it. I write because it’s what I am, it’s what I’ve always been, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. Definitely, I wish it were all cafes and long lunches and staring at sunsets. But it’s not. Building a sustainable writing career is basically a series of trade-offs, taking the best bets in line with your passions to come up with a system that works for you.
For me, I wake up everyday at around 4am. Why? Because for my ‘day job’ (i.e. not writing fiction), I write for a website, covering digital marketing news and updates. That website is based in the US, so I need to wake up early to be up on the latest news coverage, while it also gives me some silence to concentrate before the kids wake up.
I research the majority my my work before the kids are up at 6am, then write and manage the website/social media stuff till normally around 12pm each day. The advantage of this is that this leaves me with three hours, every day, between 12pm and when the kids finish school at 3pm, to concentrate on my fiction work – I always have at least one novel or longer work in progress, and I spend a good 15 hours per week on that element.
This is a good set up for me, it enables me to maximize my productivity – but as noted, it comes with various trade-offs.
For one, you have to get up at 4am, a non-negotiable for most. But if I don’t, I don’t get my time later in the day, so that helps me will myself out of bad in the darkness.
Another trade-off is that I don’t make as much money as I probably could in a regular, every day job. I worked in corporate roles for years and have a fair measure of what I could potentially be earning. That impact is lessened, of course, by the additional earnings potential of my fiction work, but that, in itself, is another consideration.
As noted, fiction writing is a bit of a leap of faith. Most Australian authors don’t make a heap of money out of their work, but you do it because you love it, because you’re passionate about the process, and because, hopefully, you might connect with an audience.
But you don’t know if it’s going to work out. Part of the difficulty in investing so much time and effort into fiction work is it may all be for nought – I spend 15 hours a week, at least, on fiction writing, which is a total gamble. I have the backing of previous success to support my belief that it’s not time wasted, but still, it’s a big commitment for an uncertain return.
There are other trade offs too – staying home to write when the family goes away, isolating yourself and limiting social interactions. If you want to succeed, maybe you also need to take on projects you’re less passionate about in order to pay the bills. Anyone pursuing their passion in any field knows the same challenges, it’s not isolated to writing. But it’s a lot of uncertainty, there aren’t many sure bets.
You do it because you love it, because you want to make it work, but there are few writers living the high life, the cafe lifestyle, sitting at the beach all day just waiting for inspiration.
That’s not to denigrate the process – it is what it is, and you deal with the various obstacles as best you can. But writing, as with any art, is not an easy path, it takes dedication and commitment to make it happen.
And you’re never quite sure that things are going to go as you hope.
One of the key elements I’ve sought to explore with ‘One‘ is loneliness, and the impacts that being isolated can have on a person.
This is an important discussion to have, an element that’s often overlooked, so I wanted to just put a few notes down on why it’s so important – and what we can do to help.
When my mother was in her teens, her mother – my grandmother – remarried. My Grandma’s new husband was an abusive drunk, an alcoholic who regularly subjected her to anger and violence.
It’s something that’s always jarred in my mind – how, and why, would anyone do this? Why would my Grandma let this man in? I’ve asked my Mum about it and she’s always said the same thing – ‘loneliness is all it’s cracked up to be’.
As noted, the impacts of loneliness are often under-rated in considering negative societal influences. Sure, these days we have the internet, we have dating apps – we have more means than ever before to connect. But talking to someone online isn’t the same as in real life – and the awkwardness and self-consciousness that can come with it. If anything, such elements could be exacerbated by our reliance on online media, which could have wider ranging long-term impacts.
Every day in Australia, eight people take their own lives, the result of more than 65,000 suicide attempts each year. Of course, there are many complexities, many factors involved, not every case can be attributed to loneliness. But many do come down to simply having no one, nowhere else to turn. According to research, feeling a lack of connection to others is one of the three biggest risk factors involved in suicidal thoughts. In addition, recent studies have shown that loneliness can be a bigger risk factor than obesity, in terms of health impacts.
It’s difficult to imagine for most of us, it’s hard to think of there being absolutely no hope, no one else there – that non-existence could seem like a more acceptable outcome. It’s painful, it’s sad. But this is the reality, and these situations are happening, all too often.
But what can you do? As noted, there are obviously a lot of complications, each situation is weighted with complexities that are almost impossible to understand. But you can reach out.
You can ask.
That guy you went to school with who you’ve been meaning to get in touch with again. That girl you used to hang out with, but have since gone your separate ways. Not all of these people will be in danger, but some might, and your effort to re-connect and say hi could be a big step, a big help in reminding them that someone, somewhere, cares.
You can’t take it all on yourself – there are psychological complications that may be beyond your influence. But getting in touch is easy, easier than ever in our always connected age.
And that simple gesture just might be key in providing help.
If you know anyone who you think may be at risk, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or go to the website for resources and info.
People often ask about inspirations, particularly music and songs that might inform my writing. If you read ‘One’, this version of this song is what I had in my head when putting together the final scene (via Josh Cohen).
One of the most intimidating prospects about publishing your work is that once it’s out there, it’s out there, and readers will interpret your words in varying ways – sometimes not in the way you might have intended. Ideally, that doesn’t happen – the surrounding context should provide enough guidance and meaning in a story sense. But beyond the story alone, people will look deeper into your words and meanings, and make assessments of both you and your intentions.
In many ways, this is the point of writing – you’re trying to get people thinking, to see things from another perspective, so you want your readers to look deeper into the underlying logic. When people understand what you were communicating, that’s the ultimate for a writer, but when they misinterpret your meaning, or specific segments, it can be tough to deal with.
I had this with my first novel – of all the sections that got brought up, this one seemed to come up most often.
In a chapter where a group of young people are at a party, one young girl, Aleesa, speaks to the main character:
Aleesa smiles. ‘Who’s your pick tonight?’ she says, turns to face the girls dancing on the carpet.
‘You’re looking pretty good,’ I tell her. She shifts her eyes slowly back to me, the straw from her drink gently held between her teeth. She holds her glass up to my face.
‘You gonna’ drug me?’
‘I don’t do that.’
‘Ha. Bullshit. All you guys do it.’
‘So why are you here then? Aren’t you worried?’
‘I can take care of myself.’
A young guy joins the dancers, rubbing his hands across the clothes of the girls. Aleesa catches my eyes watching them.
‘Some girls don’t really care,’ she says, and walks off into the crowd, looking back over her shoulder.
This, in some reviews or comments, was interpreted as the character implying that some young girls simply don’t care about the prospect of being drugged and raped. Which, in literal translation, I can see – that is what Aleesa says – but the point of this scene was more to show that Aleesa was strong, that she wasn’t scared of them. At this point in the story, the group is gaining confidence, they feel like they’re dominant, that they run things. In this context, the line was more about Aleesa taking the power from them, saying that people know what they do, but that doesn’t scare anyone. The implied ‘liking’ of it was more the gossip aspect, as opposed to being targeted.
But I understand why this was misinterpreted, and why it stood out as such – but even so, it can be difficult to read such interpretations and not comment back to clarify. But you can’t.
A very high profile author once told me that you can never, ever, respond to criticisms or reviews. It’s tempting, obviously, but no good can come of it. And he’s right – though there is some argument that a level of controversy could, maybe, help in a promotional sense (maybe, if you were high profile enough, responding to a critique could help you get more coverage, similar to how some celebrities hit back via tweet every now and then) – it’s very risky, and you’ll most likely just come out looking worse.
But really, the work needs to stand on its own. Once you’ve published it, released it – once it’s out there, it’s its own thing, and open to criticism on its own merits. Your ownership of it decreases somewhat – if the work can’t stand on its own, then you haven’t done your job, and no amount of supplemental information will cater for that.
So while you might be misinterpreted, you have to accept that, and learn to give your work its own life. The story is what it is, it’s its own thing. You have to let it be.
The key is that you have to be happy with what you’ve created. If you’ve done all you can, you can’t think of any other improvements and you’re satisfied that the final result best captures your vision for the work, then that’s it. Sure, there might be things you want to do better next time around, but that’s always going to be the case. Nothing is ever perfect.
It’s the push to do better next time that’s exciting, and ideally drives us towards creating better and better work.
Sometimes you need a reminder of the power of creativity.