Data in the Form of Applause

I wrote this blog post quite a few weeks ago and am just now getting around to publishing it. Much of the sentiment went into an article for Slate, so I held off until that story ran. I’ve been on this particular soapbox for a long, long time. During my book tour a year ago, I often slid into a speech about the roots of storytelling. Those roots are why I made involuntary gagging sounds while reading William Petrocelli suggest that no good writer should care what their readers think.

In reaction to the news that streaming digital book services might aggregate the reading habits of its users and offer that data to publishers and authors, William had this to say:

Good writers know that this is nonsense. They don’t need to monitor a reader’s viewing habits to tell them what to write. They develop their own vision and their own style, and they know that the most important thing they have to offer is their authenticity.

William closes his long rant with the opinions of two NYT readers, and we can assume that by “giving them the last word,” he agrees with the ridiculous views they spout:

Art is a supremely individual expression. It doesn’t ask permission; it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly. Artists say what they know, paint what they see — they have no choice in the matter — and it’s our privilege to be brought into their world, so distinct from our own, and to be altered by that experience. Once artists start asking how many “likes” they’ve garnered, or listening to customer-satisfaction surveys to increase their sales, they’re no longer making art; they’re moving product.


It doesn’t surprise me that many companies are eager to profit from easily acquired electronic data about reading habits or anything else, but what does surprise me is that writers would openly embrace the idea of tracking their readers as they read so that the writers might modify their writing in hopes of increasing sales. Writers such as these could be described as “tech savvy,” or known by an adjective that predates the digital age: hacks.

Taking this hard line that writers are the sole creators of their work and should take input from no one seems outright insane to me. Writers shouldn’t take their agents’ and editors’ suggestions into account? What about their spouse’s input? What about beta readers? Nobody?

Some writers might be writing to create pure art, and that’s wonderful. I respect that. But many others are writing to entertain or enlighten, and these are equally valid reasons. Knowing when we are doing any of these things, or when we are failing to do them, is invaluable. I would love to know when my readers put down my book and never pick it back up. Actors on stage, musicians performing live, comedians — they all have this feedback loop, and it can enhance their art. It doesn’t have to diminish it.

Not everything new needs to be hated, just because it’s new. That’s the vibe I get from this article and from the two comments selected. It’s especially daft because what these people are railing against isn’t new. It gets back to the root of storytelling, which was oral and would’ve included audience participation and would’ve hinged on audience reactions. The sterile, unchanging, single-sourced novel is a comparatively modern tradition, one that had its brief day and is now going the way of the dodo. Good riddance. Let’s get back to our roots. Those who want to pretend that the new is somehow ancient can bask in their ignorance of history. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the live aspects of writing for a participatory audience. I’m going to serialize and write for a live audience. I’m going to celebrate fan fiction and wiki-fiction and Twitter and the madness of a hundred voices swirling on the wind while I fashion my stories.

Because that’s the way it has always been done. And if these hipsters were true hipsters, they would reach further back into the past than the last two hundred years and embrace what is human and universal in all of us. Storytelling. Live. With a community. So we know when someone is listening.


27 responses to “Data in the Form of Applause”

  1. Wow! You never cease to amaze me. We were having that same discussion out here! I grew up in the deep south amongst a southern family and they were storytellers. We didn’t have TV when I was little, so my grandmother and aunts would entertain us with tall tales and song–on a tinny sounding piano, no less. I try to put that in my work today regardless of what people think I should be writing. I always wondered if my work would pass the muster of people who write ‘literary fiction’ or even those ‘literary’ critics. Probably not, but I’ll keep writing, and hopefully, keep getting better. BTW: Check out Doris Lessing’s old book “The Golden Notebook.” She was highly criticized for her work and I thought she was pure genius! Thanks Hugh!

    1. I spent 5 years in Appalachia, where a strong storytelling tradition persists. There are mountain men who still tell “Jack Stories.” Books are a delivery vehicle for something much older. Technology is allowing us to break free from their constraints. I’m hip to that. :)

  2. […] P.S.: A must for writers: Read Hugh Howey’s latest post:  Data in the Form of Applause […]

  3. This sounds like so many of my English Lit professors in college, I wonder if some of them helped write the article.

    Artists must still eat.

    Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because he needed the money, not because of a love of art or some other altruistic notion. The idea that art must be created in a vacuum is just silly.

    I suppose Dickens or Shakespeare never approached one of their friends with a sheaf of papers and asked, “Would you have a look at this and tell me what you think?” before they published.

  4. Just because ancient stories like the odyssey and the illiad were originally oral poems does not mean they were composed in some kind of communal way. They (the ancient greeks) are the culture that invented the muses after all. The spirits to whom were attributed the creation of precisely these kinds of stories.

    If the oral poet’s composition was primarily influenced by audience participation as you say then the muse is superfluous. The whole idea of the muse surges from an unconscious need of the creator to offload responsibility for a creative act that is far-removed from the normal modes of living and surviving. The idea that artists have no say in the matter of what they create, as in the paragraph you quoted, accomplishes the same thing.

    Moreover, the idea that crowds of people could viably aid in the creation of stories in any positive way is ludicrous. People get dumber in large groups, not smarter. Further, the degree of input any person can give on any art is proportional to their breadth of knowledge and conditional on their own particular taste and in the end largely a shot in the dark. No one knows what sells or why it sells. Polling random people you are likely to get a hundred different answers and one answer is as likely to be as right as any other.

    1. Check out a book called “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Mobs are smarter than you think. Of the three lifelines in Who Wants to be a Millionaire, “Ask the Audience” had the greatest track record. Diffused knowledge is the best kind, which is why I’d take Wikipedia over Britannica any day of the week.

      Not saying the lone genius doesn’t have her place, but the idea that we shouldn’t care what the reader thinks seems strange to me. We do market research in all types of entertainment.

      1. Which one? There are two books with this title on Goodreads. Is it written by Surowiecki or Surhone and Marseken?

  5. I’m afraid I do not agree with you.

    First, the article highlights some pitfalls of reader analytics that you do not address—loss of privacy and restricted choice for readers, reduced revenue share for authors, and so on. I find these issues troubling.

    Also, as someone with decades of experience in marketing, I can attest that a little statistical data in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing. Some indies already run their businesses according to shibboleths, responding with outrage to anyone who tries to explain elementary business concepts. I can just imagine newbies being browbeaten into believing their book will never sell without a sex scene involving cats on page six.

    It’s publishers, though, who will wreak the real mischief. They will inevitably draw the wrong lessons from the data and then impose them on the market as a whole. And no, markets do not really correct mistakes like this.

    The roles of writer and publisher are two different jobs, even if indies play them both. Writers create. Publishers sell. Their concerns intertwine, of course, but are still distinct. I think it’s wrong to assume quantitative data will be used only to address writerly concerns of plot and pacing and so forth. Money is involved here, so publisher’s concerns will be paramount. Somebody is going to find an exploit. People will try to game the system. The result will be “data-driven” formulas even more rigid than the ones authors in many genres already have to contend with.

    You know, Hollywood already measures an audience’s moment-by-moment reactions to each film in real time. You can see where that got us.

    1. “a sex scene involving cats on page six” — LOL. Thanks for making me smile.

  6. This is a subject I’m intensely interested in. In fact, I have a set of tests going right now on Surveymonkey in an effort to quantify marketing potential of ideas ahead of writing a novel. Who wouldn’t want pre-sales data? I can come up with dozens of ideas a day, and if there’s a tool that will help me key in on the pulse of readers, I’m all for it. It’s still in the early phases but I’ll document my learning on my blog when I get further along.

    I just finished reading “How to Measure Anything” by Hubbard Douglas, which is a good foundation on this subject.

    This is actually a common industry practice in user experience design for software, though better utilized in some companies than others. Sure, some designers have better instinct and they seem to do okay working in the dark, but I’ve never met a designer who could predict how customers would respond to their work better than a researcher who has spent hundreds of hours working with real customers from behind the one way mirror.

    I think the key learning from the NYT article and the readers quoted is that you can’t involve readers in the discussion of how to conduct your craft. They have this fantasy that you go up on a mountain top and bring down the novel in one fell swoop, like Moses and the 10 commandments. They don’t want to know about the research and editing and what goes into the art. Don’t bother them with it — let them have their fantasy, it’s part of what we’re selling them. A magician might just as well sit down and explain all the secrets of the art to the audience so they’ll understand how they were entertained — but it really shouldn’t be done.

  7. I’m with Allan and Hugh on this one. The drivel reminds me of my undergrad and graduate English professors who seemed to me to be making accessibility to stories incredibly remote. You had to learn a whole language just to be able to properly discuss a good book. James N. Frey captured it very well in his book, How to Write a Damn God Novel:

    “The reading of novels is primarily an emotional experience. In English 102A . . . your professor taught you to hunt for hidden symbols and . . . vague literary allusions . . . . This kind of nonsense has ruined a lot of writers as well as a lot of readers. . . . Your primary object as a novelist is to move the reader emotionally.”

    1. Let’s ignore for a second that how-to writing books are the real nonsense to begin with.

      I don’t know about literature professors, but all of the great writers I know of would never speak about their work in terms of allusions and symbols. They would speak of their work as aesthetic experiences. Each writer pursues his own personal aesthetic vision and there is a wide gamut of techniques with which one can do so. Allusion is one of those techniques. Breadth in topics, variety in vocabulary, rhythm and pacing are others. And there are many more. Why single out a pair of them as being nonsense?

      And why would you volunteer a limit on what a novel can be or do? The very best novels do a whole lot more than move me emotionally. They elevate my consciousness. Blood Meridian, for example.

      Sitting down to intentionally write something that will move the reader emotionally seems like a great way to write slop.

      1. “Sitting down to intentionally write something that will move the reader emotionally seems like a great way to write slop.”

        Depends if you want to sell any books or not. :)

        From my POV, the word “only” is missing from your sentence. Emotion is part of human experience, and removing it simply makes a novel into some other kind of writing.

        Hollywood is to blame for most of the current how-to-write nonsense on the market. It is axiomatic among screenwriters that the only thing Hollywood has to sell is emotional experiences–forget everything else.

        Hollywood is also to blame for making the monomyth/Joseph Campbell/Hero With a Thousand Faces approach into rigid dogma. Today screenwriters start brainstorming with little stickies that say “Into the Special World,” and “Refusing the Call,” whether they’re writing about space warriors or waitresses. This formula entered movies with Star Wars (Lucas was very explicit about it) and now there’s no getting rid of it. Now the same formula has spread among authors, to the point where people actually believe it is the only way to tell stories. Never mind that the original book that launched the idea (Frasier’s The Golden Bow) was proven to be utter bunk by anthropologists ages ago. Never mind that the pre-Star Wars/pre-Joseph Campbell 1970s was actually a golden age for Hollywood. Today we are literally down to one story, and everyone is supposed to tell it.

    2. I am reminded of Alfred Hitchcock, who said his movies were all about delivering an emotional response. And did they ever! Look up on YouTube for his take on the difference between mystery and suspense. And mastering cinematic tension, and using your materials to their fullest. He was the master.

      As for me, it always drives me nuts when people look for symbols and find them even when they are not there. Story first, silly symbolism later. Take that, Robert Langdon.

  8. After reading the article, and this post, I can only come to the assumption that it would depend on how the information was used/abused. I noticed that the article was geared toward a middle-man publisher when addressing issues such as data dissemination, rather than a possible indie publisher, who might use the data in a different way.

    I think from an indie standpoint, Being able to compare how the reader reacted during parts of the story, with the actual context, would be an aid in showing areas which might need improvement, or even areas that were written well.

    Petrocelli also breaks down his logic into a monthly user equation, but what is forgotten is that these will not be the same readers every month, so the accumulated data would eventually include a possibly substantial poll group. There may well be only 2 readers from month one, but what about month six? Twelve?

    There will certainly be those writers who will try to capture the current trend wave using the data available, already proven by watching current search engine trends with up coming books being published. However, a confident writer, would probably use the date to continue polishing their craft voice.

    Then again, what do I know? I’m just getting started.

  9. Hi Hugh

    I’m loving the Sand series. Just tried buying the fourth instalment on Amazon and it’s “currently unavailable”. Looks like all of the Sand books have the same status.

    Is this just a glitch or has it been pulled from Amazon?

  10. I’m all for gathering statistics. But I would not support a service like Scribd, that collects the data of HOW readers read books–like google analytics for books.
    Does anyone who read 50 Shades of Grey really want their reading patterns sent to the author?(everyone skips the sex scenes to get to the excellent character arcs and lyrical prose, btw).

    Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. AND I support end-user privacy. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
    As authors, its probably enough to know “someone bought my book.”
    And readers, if we WANT our opinions known, can offer them up through reviews, letters, emails or recommendations to friends.

  11. When I started writing my novel (Stewie Griffin: “Hmm, how you, uh, coming on that novel you’re workin’ on? Got a big stack of papers there?”), I did not think of audiences. I decided to write a satire of the DaVinci Code, which morphed into writing what I know: superheroes. Or as I often say, my superheroine Holly punched her way to the top of my book. I wrote what I wanted to write.

    I never thought if a superheroine would be popular. Comic book conventions? Comic book geeks? I’d be writing this book whether or not superheroes were hot. Although now as a comic book geek, I believe that we need more superheroines (quick, name some besides Wonder Woman), and some more laughs.

    Only after a long time writing (or perhaps learning how to write) did I start getting advice. The ladies in my critique group said that my Batman-type guy and my superheroine made a perfect couple. So I wrote more romance (and opposites-attract-type clashing). And I find that many ladies like Holly. And that kids like how I read my stories at open mics (I like laughs over grim, no dystopia for me, yet). So at long last I keep readers in mind when I write my novel (“Gotta, gotta, gotta a nice little, nice little story you’re workin’ on? Big, uh, novel you’ve been working on for three years?”). Okay, I am gonna publish short stories first.

    Anyway. After years of writing and nailing down my characters and story-lines, I think of readers, what they like. The time to do that, for me, was NOT when I was planning the novel. Rather, it was after the novel evolved, and then seeing who liked it. I am not writing a young adult novel (Holly is NOT a teenager, teens can’t do Alan Moore!) or a romance novel. But I keep my potential audience in mind and write what they might like while still writing what I like.

    Bruce Campbell, of Evil Dead and Army of Darkness fame, once told a guy at a comic book convention who asked (or maybe demanded) the demographics for Bruce’s next movie, that “Writing movies for demographics is just bulls–t!” (See, I am thinking of the little girls in my audience!) But in Bruce’s , “If Chins Could Kill,” he also noted that when audiences watched an early movie os his and Sam Raimi’s, that the audience liked the blood, buckets of it, so that’s what they gave them.

    P.S. I want girls to like my writing, but I do not want to give up my condom joke at the end of the book. Not yet, anyway. Decisions, decisions.

  12. “L’Art pour L’Art” is a luxury of the well-fed.

  13. […] I just posted a reply to a post on Hugh Howey’s blog. Scroll down, I am number 17 or so to reply. My take on writing for an […]

  14. Food for thought: Readers — is kind of a blanket term.

    Don’t we all agree with the sentiment, “If you try to please everybody, you wind up pleasing nobody.”

    However, I also agree with Hugh. I think it is important to consider the reader first. But I’m not talking about a broad definition of reader that is synonymous with everyone. Stephen King cites that he writes for a particular reader, a constant reader, an ideal reader, but that guy is SINGULAR.

    Gotta say, from personal experience, outside input is great…to a point. Then it just becomes noise. And truthfully, that can become as crippling to the writing process as no feedback at all.

    One of my favorite Steven Jobs quotes touches on some of the problems with dealing expectation:

    “But in the end, for something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

    1. There is a world of difference between focus testing a piece of art and getting data in-mass on how readers respond to a book or just the detail page on a retail site.

      The software industry is an interesting corollary for this where there is a ton of precedent for this kind of research. Check out The Lean Startup by Eric Reis and Measuring the User Experience by Tullis and Albert.

      Steve Jobs was an innovator in a lot of ways, but not at all in this area. Henry Ford has a similar quote. But it isn’t right to assume that creativity and vision have to go in the freezer the second that you have a means for experimenting on your audiences interests. Its another tool that will probably be more inspiring and useful for certain authors as opposed to others.

  15. Hugh’s disagreement was with the concept that art should not be created with a concern about the reaction to one’s art. The quote by Mr. Petrocelli, “Artists say what they know, paint what they see — they have no choice in the matter”, is simply not true. An artist makes lots of conscious choices whether his medium is prose, a painting or music. His creations are affected by all sorts of sensory input, both distant in time and recent. Any artistic creation is the fruit of an artist’s education, prior work, both successes and failures, and having experienced others’ art. It is also affected by input from a spouse, friend, editor and even strangers. And so much more. Such outside input is helpful because it is difficult to be objective about one’s art. A critical comment or a question can help me realize how I can improve my writing or drawing. For God’s sake, its why there are editors.

    What others think is important also because art is meant to be shared. I often (not always) find the act of writing or drawing to be pleasurable but I also want others to find my writing and drawings meaningful or at least enjoyed. I certainly do if I wish to sell my art. Why wouldn’t I be interested in others’ reactions? Only if it was never to be read or seen by anyone else.

    I did find the acquiring of “reader’s habits” as described by Mr. Petrocelli unsettling (and somewhat 1984ish). But, the leap from that to the concept that a writer or artist is not and should not be concerned about his audience is just silly.

    1. Nobody is saying that artists should not be concerned with their audience (concerned is such a vague word as to be useless anyway. What does being concerned amount to?).

      The point is these concerns are wholly irrelevant to the process of creating the work. Do violin players think about how the listener is enjoying the music while they play? No, her performance hinges not on any outer variable but on the amount of time she has spent practicing and building her skills and her sense of what good violin playing is and sounds like.

      A writer performs in the same way. The work she creates is the product of all of those things that nourish a writer. Reading and writing and reading some more. Of course, a creative process is an intensely personal thing and some people may do it differently. But that is how it is for myself and for the great writer’s I’ve heard speak about their own process.

      And if writing well and selling books were simply a matter of listening to other’s opinions then every writer would be some kind of millionaire amalgam of James Joyce and Stephen King. Opinions are not hard to come by. All you need is a little money and you can buy as many as your heart desires.

  16. I remember reading an article by JK Rowling a few years back. She had every intetntion of killing off Harry Potter. She thought it was the right thing to do. But she changed her mind based on her audience’s reaction.

    I see writing as a blanket. There are the supporting fibers that can’t be altered, but some of the threads can be tailored to suit the audience – and the audience, the readership, is who allows you to write.

  17. So, unless I’m doing something horribly wrong, Sand is still unavailable on either the US or UK Amazon Kindle stores.

    I can’t wait to read on and find out what happens next but Amazon won’t take my money for some reason. Very frustrating. :(

  18. I don’t know. I write primarily to fulfill my ego. Other’s can make of that what they want.

    I use Joyce as my ‘spirit guide’, and Hemingway as my ‘spirits guide’.

    I am not a writer to help YOU understand the Universe. I write to help ME figure this **** out.

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