Why do you write?
This is a question that I’ve been going over in my mind in recent months as I assess where my fiction projects are at.
For context, while my first novel, which was released in 2007, sold reasonably well for a lit fic debut, and won several awards, my second, released 11 years later, did not fare as strongly, which may well be the death knell for my literary career – because if you can’t show publishers that you can generate ongoing sales, ideally to an established audience, then they have less reason to reinvest in your next project.
That’s basically where I’m at. The market has changed a lot since my debut, and the reasons why people buy and read books has also shifted, with a significant portion of book marketing now focused on the author’s story, alongside the work itself. This, of course, has always been an element, but in the age of social media, author identity is a bigger consideration, and if you’re not doing all that you can to establish an audience, based on who you are as well as what you write, you’re once again diminishing your marketing value, and thus, your prospects of being published.
But I remain confident in my work. My writing is of a publishable standard, and I’ve completed several new manuscripts. I just can’t get anyone to read them. Like at all.
Which then begs the question – why write? Why do you set out on a literary project, and what are you aiming to get from your efforts?
If it’s fame and money, then lit fic is not for you, and money has never been a major element of why I write (luckily).
Ideally, you want readers, you want to connect with an audience, and a general lack of interest in reading has definitely become more pronounced, among people that I know at least.
It used to be that people would read on the train home, or they’d squeeze in a couple of chapters, propped up on a pillow in bed, before switching out the light. Now, we have phones to soak up all those gaps in attention, which makes it harder to get anyone to commit to reading long-form fiction.
People still read, with crime fiction and thrillers, as well as books from established authors still selling reasonably well. But it feels like it’s a harder pitch to get people to commit to 250+ pages than it’s ever been, which increases the barriers to success.
So if you can’t make money, and readers aren’t overly excited to check out your new stuff, is it worth writing at all?
I don’t know, and I’ve been grappling with the concept, as I continue to work on different fiction projects and ideas over time.
It seems that we now simultaneously have more pathways into publishing than ever before, with the internet and self-publishing so prominent and readily available, while we also have fewer actual readers to reach.
Then again, you don’t need a huge audience to make it worthwhile (dependent on your aims), and maybe then, self-publishing is the way to go, just to keep things going, just to keep it moving, while ideally also helping you to build an audience and establish your own market.
Maybe that’s the path I should take – but even then, it doesn’t feel like that’s really what I want, that’s not the reason that I want to write.
So what is it? What makes you want to come up with a story and map it out and write it down and put all the pieces together and have it all complete?
For me, completion is, at least in part, the goal. I have a concept that I want to explore, I develop the characters, and I’m interested to learn more about their lives and experiences, while also refining my writing and creating a dynamic, moving story. I love doing that, I love writing and re-writing, then leaving it for a few months before checking back in, to read your own words with fresh eyes. That still excites me – and maybe that’s enough, maybe I don’t need outside recognition or acknowledgment as much as I just need that creative outlet, for my own sanity as much as anything else.
But it still feels like a bit of a let down. I spend all that time crafting something complete, something that comes together, that builds page-by-page. And no one will ever read it.
Is that enough? I’m still coming to terms with that, and considering my stance, but right now, despite my latest work, in my view, being far more advanced than my past efforts, it’s just sitting on my hard drive, gathering digital dust.
So is it worth starting something new, when no one’s interested in what you have?
For me, as a learning and development exercise, there is still value in the next project. And market trends shift, things come back around. Maybe another opportunity is coming.
Till then, I’ll keep working, and see where the next story takes me.
Could the expansion of creator tools online, and in particular via social media platforms, offer new publishing potential for a broader range of fiction authors?
I’ve had this question in mind for some time, in considering the ways in which literature is now accessed, and what might be the best way to connect with modern audiences in alignment with how they’re looking to read.
Because the truth is, readers have changed. People used to read books on trains and buses, and get through a few chapters in bed before turning in each night. But the arrival of smartphones has changed this, with everybody now glued to their devices for hours on end, which then reduces the time that they’re willing to spend with books, while concurrently increasing the value proposition that authors then need to communicate to get people to commit to engaging with longer form content.
You need to hook readers in, and the easiest way to do this is to take a topical angle, tying into a prominent discussion or trend. Then, through implicit virtue, you’re bound to get at least some readers to buy and mention your book. But without a topical hook, general fiction now struggles to gain attention, and sales traction as a result.
That’s why literary trends have changed so significantly, with thrillers and historical fiction dominating general reading trends, while literary fiction falls away. Lit fic takes more time and attention, while the faster pace of thrillers aligns better with shortening attention spans.
So what do authors do? If you don’t write within defined genre constraints, and don’t have a specific political angle for your story, how can you gain optimal attention for your work?
The truth may lie in re-imagining how you communicate, with newer, digital styles of publishing potentially providing a better fit with modern readers and their content engagement habits.
That’s why Salman Rushdie’s recent announcement that he’s publishing a new novella on Substack is interesting, with a traditional fiction superstar now looking to an alternative online publishing format to maximize his reach.
Rushdie’s planning to release his latest novella in instalments, via Substack’s newsletter platform. That could see Rushdie publishing a chapter a week, for example, which is not an entirely new concept in itself, but it is interesting given the profile that Rushdie already has, and the fact that even the big names in the field are now considering alternate pathways to audience reach.
As explained by Rushdie:
“I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, and I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age… Whatever the new thing is that’s going to arise out of this new world, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.
In some ways, that process is actually taking literature back to its early roots, with classic authors like Dickens and others originally publishing most of their works in serialised form, as a means to attract new readers. Now, it would be scaling things back to hold attention in the same way, with the hopes that these smaller samples of the broader work can attract new audiences – though even then, there is a question around holding reader attention, and whether such process can viably translate into a sustainable form of income through subscriber-based tools.
But I think that Rushdie’s right – literature hasn’t found its right form for modern consumers just yet.
Much of the online literary discussion these days is far less about the writing itself, and far more about the political considerations around such, leading to various debates, but too often the focus shifts away from the content itself, and onto the author and/or the topic, leaving the craft of writing, and actually creating the world of the work, as a side note. Which shouldn’t be the case, but as noted, getting people to actually engage with the work itself is more and more challenging, and in order to facilitate ongoing discussion around literature and writing, we need to find the best ways to connect with readers that will align with their behaviours, essentially making such as engaging as scrolling through non-stop social media feeds.
Nobody knows what that solution will be, but more authors are experimenting with shorter form, digitally accessible formats to maximize audience reach, while establishing community connection around your work can also facilitate more value and engagement.
These are elements that authors in times past have not had to contemplate in the same way, and it can be difficult to change your thinking around how things should work, and the importance of the relationships between publishers and authors in this respect.
But clearly, things are changing, and the authors that can change with those trends, rather than battling against them, are the only ones who stand a chance of winning out.
Otherwise, more and more debut fiction writers will simply fall away, and literary discussion will increasingly shift away from the work, and more towards tangential elements.
Because that’s what’s retaining attention, and while that’s not conducive to literary culture, habitual shifts are what they are. You either listen to that, or write for yourself, and hope that, one day, someone might, maybe, read your stuff.
For all the talk about growing opportunities for creators online, it feels like modern creative outlets, like online video, are far more temporary in nature, while support for traditional arts is becoming even more finite, which limits the scope for getting things like literary works published.
We’ve seen this happen with the film industry – in the mid-nineties, there was a flood of arthouse films, which seemed to thrive alongside more mainstream faire. But as technology advanced, seeing improvements in digital downloads, home cinema systems, improved content access, etc. As this happened, audiences stopped heading to arthouse films at the same rate, and studios eventually stopped funding them as a result, which has since seen the focus shift almost entirely to blockbuster movies instead, with smaller films getting a thin lifeline from Netflix and other outlets, where success, and even broad scale awareness, is largely a crapshoot.
Now we’re in the midst of a similar shift in the literary world. With people now able to access a constant form of entertainment, and distraction, in their pocket at any time, getting people to actually commit to reading a book at all is a far bigger task than it has been previously.
People don’t need a book to read on the train home from work, or to take with them on a road trip, they don’t get through a few chapters before turning off the night light. Instead, they scroll, for hours on end, through an endless and constantly updating stream of snackable, short-form content, which quenches their desire for entertainment, education and escape, without them having to lock in for hundreds of pages.
As a result of this, the big publishing houses are getting more limited in what they publish, and while there are still some interesting titles being released, their potential for success is much lower, and the threshold for a literary career, as such, is far more limited. If you want to make it, you have to sell books, and if you don’t, you won’t be getting that next contract. Your literary career can go from celebration of publication to an abrupt and unceremonious end, very quickly, and just getting that basic awareness, getting people to even pick up our book in the first place, or just know that it exists, is a challenge.
So publishers are getting more limited. If it feels like a lot of the same thing is being published, again and again, that’s because it is, while it’s far easier for the publishing houses to get media coverage, and therefore boost awareness, for stories that touch on topical issues and themes. That’s always been the case to some degree, but now, it seems like a much bigger factor, with media interest, and social media promotion, often hinging on these additional elements.
In the end, this makes the pathway to publishing far more difficult. That’s not to say it can’t be done, there are still various examples of well-written books getting published, despite not having a topical hook or angle. But sales of literary fiction, in particular, are not strong in the AUS market, and peeling people away from their phones long enough to care about your work is a rising challenge.
So what do you do? Should you look to add more topical angles to your projects? Should you lean into what’s trending, or focus on a more specific style or genre in order to boost commercial appeal?
What’s more important – the quality of the writing itself, or the marketability of such?
I don’t know. I don’t think anybody has the answers. But it’s getting harder, and connecting with audiences, despite more avenues than ever for such, is no easy feat.
A fellow author friend of mine, Jack Heath, recently posted an explanation on Twitter as to why he needed to take a break from social media in order to better focus on other things.
As Jack explained, one of his biggest concerns is that in maintaining an active social media presence, which he feels compelled to do with respect to book promotion and establishing connection with fans, is that it’s having an impact on the way he experiences the world.
“I used to go through life looking for stories to tell. Now I’ve found myself looking around for things to post about. I worry that if I keep going down this path, my books will cease to be imaginative or original. I can’t even enjoy reading anymore, because whenever I hit a good paragraph, I feel the urge to take a picture of it. I almost always resist that urge, but it’s too late – the thought alone has taken me out of the story.”
Jack raises an interesting question – do authors need to have an active social media presence? Or even should they?
Like most writers, I’ve had conflicts with this myself. My day job is writing about digital marketing, so I need to use social media in order to understand how everything works. But I don’t post much myself, and I don’t see a huge amount of value in doing it, personally. But many authors do indeed gain significant value from being active online – I’ve written previously about how authors can maximize the benefits of social media, and build their platform to help them sell more books.
But it’s hard, it’s a big commitment if you want to use it as a brand-building vehicle. it’s not just posting whenever you feel, it takes a dedicated effort in establishing your place and what you want to be known for. That then enables an audience to find you, and you can then use that to help promote your books, and some authors clearly have a knack for it. But others…
Writing is a solitary exercise – you need time away from everybody else in order to gather your thoughts and let your stories form, before then needing even more time alone to actually write them. Given this, it’s not surprising that many authors are actually quite introverted and aren’t looking to be the centre of attention. Which is counter to the aims of promotion – and definitely, with access to millions of people, social platforms provide you with a means for promoting yourself and your work. But as Jack notes, it can also take a toll.
So should you bother?
This really comes down to the individual. Again, many authors gain a lot by being active online, yet equally as many high-profile writers don’t even have a Twitter profile. Tara June-Winch has won virtually every major literary award in Australia in 2020, and she doesn’t have a Twitter presence. In fact, of the five authors nominated in the fiction category in the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, only one of them has an active Twitter account.
In some ways, this seems like an option only available to more established authors, as they have less need to build that initial brand awareness. But it does also suggest that it’s not 100% necessary, being active online is not a definitive requirement.
Yet, there is also a growing focus on author identity in book promotion, with often as much discussion around who the author is as the work itself. This is counter to literary discussion, in my view, as the work should always be the focus, but either way, it’s a trend that exists, which points to it being beneficial to let your audience in, and to share more of yourself with the world.
In many ways, though, it seems like more writers would prefer to take the Cormac McCarthy approach.
Notoriously media-shy (or resistant, depending on how you look at it), if you want to get in touch with Cormac McCarthy, for an interview or any other purpose, you reportedly have to leave a letter in a mail box which is checked periodically by his ex-wife. If she thinks it’s relevant, she’ll pass it on, and then he might, if he deems it of interest, get in touch. But probably not.
There’s no other form of contact, which leaves him to concentrate on his writing.
As one of McCarthy’s ex-wives noted to The New York Times in 1992
“Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page.”
That feels like a better approach, though there is much value in writers groups, online discussions, contributing to the wider community. But it can also get to be too much.
In the modern world, establishing the right balance is increasingly difficult.
Should you be actively creating at this time?
In many ways, it seems like the perfect opportunity – people have more time on their hands due to the lockdowns, there are fewer social events to attend, etc. Yet, most people I know are not feeling overly creative, and have struggled to stay focused on fiction work and art.
Why is that?
Because creativity is inspired by our lived experiences, in what we do and see each day. Fiction writers don’t come up with an idea for a story instantaneously, it takes time – it’s various pieces and elements that rattle around inside your head until they coalesce, and the seed of a story is formed.
Right now, it’s hard to be creative because our inputs are reduced, because there are not as many things happening to us personally, which makes it more difficult to gather the various remnants and ponder their meanings and reflections.
Of course, there is a lot happening, in terms of global events. On a broader scale, its one of the busiest periods in history, but those larger scale incidents lack the immediacy required in many cases, to actual feel the emotion of small moments, to understand the scope of the details.
In essence, what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re struggling to create right now. If the words aren’t flowing, if the story is not coming together. Because without our usual connection to the broader world, it’s harder to find those small pieces that you’ll need to complete the puzzle of your story.
Writers are observationalists, we pay attention to the details and absorb moments, which we then use to build an understanding of the world, and the worlds that we subsequently create. Without fewer chances to observe, our creativity, understandably, is impacted.
So go easy on yourself, there’s a lot going on, for everyone, and if you’re not feeling it right now, it’ll come back. There’s no need to pressure yourself even further if the creativity feels a little distant.
People are sometimes surprised when I tell them that the biggest challenge for writers these days is awareness. With fewer bookshops, fewer literary events, and limited budget for promotion, simply letting people know that your book exists is a critical challenge.
But it’s more than that – these days, people just don’t read books at the rate they used to.
For example, a recent study by Pew Research in the US found that 27% of American adults have not read a book at all in the last year, a stat that’s almost doubled since 2005 (the researchers note that the rate of non-book readers first hit 27% in 2015).
The most likely culprit, based on comparative trend data, would be the rise of mobile devices, and with social media being the most used app type, it’s likely due to the fact that people are now more likely to scroll through their social feeds in bed before going to sleep, as opposed to getting through a few more book chapters instead.
The arrival of colour TV in the 60s was the first major impact for books, and as you can see in this chart, those distractions have only increased in the 2000’s, so it makes sense that we’ve seen relative declines.
The extended impacts of this shift are likely far more significant than we realize. Given that books help expand our thinking, and improve cognitive process, it’s not a stretch to say that society is now less intelligent and analytical as a result – but again, the key point from a writing perspective is that getting people to even consider taking the time to sit down and read your book at all is hard, and it’s not even because of the market itself, and the other storytellers you’re up against. You’re actually going up against complex social platform algorithms that are designed to hold people’s attention using psychological tricks and incentives.
Given this, you can assume that people are less actively seeking books to read, which again points to the challenges of awareness. If people aren’t even looking for books, your potential for exposure is already significantly hampered.
Raising awareness is hard – and while the common counter-argument to this is that authors should simply “write better books”, often implying a need for more commercial sensibilities, I would argue that, given these noted limitations, this isn’t even a significant element. There are plenty of good books out there that are just not reaching an audience – quite simply, they’re not even being given a chance, which makes an objective analysis of quality, based on sales data alone, impossible.
And there’s more – Hollywood film studios are now taking fewer risks with smaller budget movies, and focusing on blockbusters, in order to provide a cinematic experience that can’t be replicated via newer big-screen TVs and home entertainment systems. That means fewer book-to-film adaptations – or at least, fewer art house films based on novels – which is a pathway that’s long been a key pipeline to connecting more general audiences to literary works.
The flow-on effect then is that publishers also shift focus. Logically, publishers need to primarily sell books, so you end up seeing more and more of what’s making money (i.e. what sells in Big W), and less risks on new voices and styles, limiting publishing opportunities. That, consequently, changes the focus of festivals, who also need to sell tickets, further shrinking your window for exposure, and again making it harder to gain awareness.
Add it all up and it doesn’t look promising. Who’d be a writer, honestly?
And yet, we persist.
We write because for most of us it’s part of who we are, because something compels us to keep at it, to keep working towards creating something, hopefully, great. But on balance, getting people’s attention is not going to get any easier, and getting them to actually read your work even less so. Building a sustainable career as a fiction author is getting more difficult, and while technological advances have also facilitated new avenues in terms of self-publishing and building your own audience, establishing enough of a presence to fuel a reliable sales pipeline remains a significant challenge, especially without mainstream media reach.
Which brings us back to awareness.
Again, the key challenge for authors is raising awareness, getting your book in front of the right people, in order to even pitch them on what it is in the first place. This has always been a challenge, but the odds are now stacked against you even more.
So how can we get more people looking our way, and spark more interest in our own, and others’ literary works?
Like it or not, social media is key, building a presence and maximizing your reach opportunities. Taking part in events is essential, doing talks, getting in touch with libraries about potential functions. Authors now need to be marketers – which, for many, is the opposite of their personality. But you have to do it. If you build it, they will not come, necessarily, but if you build hype, they will indeed start looking in your direction.
From a broader scope, the decline in book readership points to an increased need for literary arts funding from government, and a greater focus from government-funded arts bodies on promoting local authors and their work.
If literary festivals (or as they’re increasingly titled, ‘words and ideas’ events) are increasingly funded by the private sector, it’s only logical that their programming decisions will also be increasingly driven by bottom-line results. That means more exposure for the few, less share of voice for the many. And again, less awareness as a result, completing the circle of decline.
And the trends do indeed show that literary culture is declining.
It may not seem so drastic, it may not seem like this decline is having a major impact. But you can arguably see the results of this in all levels of public discourse.
And while again, some would say that we should simply let it go, especially in terms of literary fiction, the more niche and high brow of the book genres, the impacts will be far broader than you would suspect.
That’s why we need greater representation for authors, and opportunities for local writers to showcase their work, wherever possible. We need to show new writers that there are opportunities for them, and that they should feel free to write what they’re passionate about, as opposed to trying to fit into a certain genre box.
Literary culture has underpinned centuries of civilization, helping us to better understand the world, and opening discussions which would otherwise not have happened.
We should be fighting for it, and looking for ways to build platforms of opportunity.
As you may have heard, a group of Australian authors recently launched a campaign to help raise funds for the volunteer firefighting groups who are currently battling the massive bushfires impacting several regions across Australia.
Some of these volunteers have spent months away from family and loved ones, often at their own expense, risking their lives to help save other peoples’ property, and the work they’re undertaking is grueling, unforgiving, and this fire season in particular, relentless.
The #AuthorsForFireys campaign, which is running on Twitter, has grown significantly, and there are now a heap of big-name authors – both from Australia and overseas – who are offering some amazing packages, including mentoring, copyediting and professional manuscript feedback, along with signed books and related items for fans.
I’m a very small player within this larger pool of literary superstars, but I’ve also put forward what I can offer, if anyone might be interested.
Okay, this is what I’ve got for #authorsforfireys
– A pre-release, alternate cover version of my novel Rohypnol
– A copy of the German version of Rohypnol
– A copy of my latest novel One
All personally signed to the winning bidder. pic.twitter.com/W8b1nGw2P3
— Andrew Hutchinson (@adhutchinson) January 7, 2020
This is an amazing campaign for all aspiring writers to be aware of, and get involved in – and some of these offers could actually end up being the thing that helps you get that initial momentum that you need to get your work published.
It feels less joyful amid the current bushfire crisis, but I am pleased to share that ‘One’ was recently announced as a shortlisted title for the 2019 ACT Book the Year Award.
The winners will be announced sometime this month – fingers crossed.
In 2009, my home town of Kinglake was hit by the Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2, 000 homes. I wasn’t living in Kinglake at the time, I’d moved to the city about five years prior, but I had family there. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle didn’t lose their houses. My brother did.
Kinglake is (or was back then) a small town, where everyone sort of knows everyone, so I also knew a lot of people who were impacted. In the weeks following the fire, you couldn’t go up to Kinglake without a resident pass on your car, but I went up with my brother, and I got to see people I hadn’t seen in ages, their faces still half shocked, each of them perpetually on the brink of tears. The horrors they explained to me are difficult to comprehend, and while several books have been written about the Black Saturday fires, none of them has come close to expressing the emotion they shared, even in the smallest details.
These are events which etch themselves into the psyche of those in its wake, the smoke seeps into their bones and becomes a part of who they are. No one can fully comprehend the enormity of such an incident. In my mind, fire moves slow, you can see it coming from a mile off and you can get away if you leave in time. That’s not the reality that these people faced.
I’ve heard stories of animals on fire, writhing in the smoke, human bodies in burnt out car wrecks, shrivelled and shrunken in. My brother was part of a CFA team that rescued a young girl, who took shelter in a dam as the fire front hit. Her skin was basically melting off her bones as she ran to meet them. These are not images you can shake out of your mind, the impacts of such events will linger inside these people forever.
Now, ten years later, we’re witnessing yet another major fire event. And while debate rages around what could have been done, what sparked the blazes, and how we address future threats, keep in mind the people at the centre of this. The people who’ve lost everything, things that insurance cannot recover. Pets, memories. A sense of place. A feeling of home. It’s easy to overlook these things when it’s not you that’s impacted, but the ripples of this catastrophe will resonate throughout these communities, and the nation more broadly, for years to come.
Research shows that over a quarter of the people who were in the worst affected areas during Black Saturday showed signs of significant mental health problems, while PTSD and suicide rates rose as people struggled to recover.
If you can help, please do so wherever you can, and if you know of anyone in the impacted areas, please reach out to them and let them know that you’re there, and that you’re ready to listen if ever they need. It’ll also be important, at some stage, that people look to head back to the coastal areas, in particular, to visit, as towns which are largely reliant on tourist income have also been hit by this crisis.
Definitely, people have a right to demand answers from the government as to its lack of action in this respect, but make sure that anger doesn’t overtake the need to consider the humanitarian impact, which will stretch on for lifetimes.
You can donate to the Red Cross or Salvation Army relief efforts to directly benefit bushfire victims, you can also donate to the RSPCA Bushfire Appeal and the NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES) who are working to provide assistance for impacted wildlife, while The Black Dog Institute and Fearless are both working to assist the victims of post-traumatic stress. Comedian Magda Szubanski is also raising money to help bushfire victims long term with trauma and mental health support.
Main image via @gnat_fly/Twitter
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.