Friday, 22 May 2015

How Do People Choose Books in a Book World of Near-infinite Variety?

The Marketplace of Attention (James Webster, MIT Press)

    This blog presents some ideas presented in a book that I have been reading, called The Marketplace of Attention, by James Webster. These points are mainly brought out in chapter 2 of that book; they concern how the audience makes choices, particularly in a landscape of near infinite variety. Though he focuses more on media such a ts television and film, the book publishing industry falls squarely under this umbrella as well. I have summarized and synthesized some of his points, and expanded on them in terms of Indie publishing in italics. As always, to get the full extent of this interesting research, you should buy the book :)

How do People Choose?

  • Rational choice

  • They have detailed knowledge of their preferences (preference structure).
  • They have complete knowledge of the choices available to themselves.
  • They have the ability to calculate the costs and benefits of their choices and select the one that is maximal (can maximize their utility functions).
  • Basically, this is standard economic theory, with all its usual strengths and weaknesses.
  • In the print-book and e-book world, this is clearly unlikely. There are far too many choices available and their choices can be constructed by various external contingencies (e.g. front table placement, co-op, etc).
  • Genre Preferences

  • The idea is that people have stable and predictable preferences for particular categories or genres of entertainment and that these then guide their choices.
  • But research has shown that people are not that easy to pigeon-hole. They do have genre preferences, but those loyalties are not as deep as once thought, for most people.
  • It seems that variety is important to people, and they won't necessarily be strongly bound by their genre preferences – few people want to consume nothing but police dramas, for example. They tend to dip into many genres.
  • Research also supports the idea that genre preference is more about dislikes than likes. They avoid genres they don't like, more than they seek out genres that they do like. Think of the old phrase “disco sucks”, for example.
  • One is inclined to think that in the print-book and e-book world, genre is perhaps more important than in film and television. As we know, a significant proportion of e-book purchasing is genre driven. Still, people often shop in multiple genres and can try out new genres if the recommendation is from a trusted source.
  • For Indie publishers and writers, genre presents an opportunity. People loyal to their genre are willing to try out new writers, and are not all that concerned with who published the book. Indeed, some genres have been under-served by traditional channels, so readers are very receptive to Indies.
  • Tastes

  • Tastes are related to genre, but are a somewhat more sociological explanation.
  • Products are categorized by concepts such as highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, for example.
  • A person’s taste for these products is associated with their social class, which is a result of their upbringing, education, and occupation.
  • So, this is similar to genre, but more class based. Some genres might be considered lowbrow, but certain examples within the genre might be considered highbrow. For example, the regency romance genre might be considered lowbrow, but Jane Austin is acceptably highbrow enough to compensate.
  • There is also a finding that some people are cultural omnivores, and will consume entertainment from many taste cultures. This aligns with the notion that people like to consume a variety of genres.
  • As with genre, taste preferences may be more a matter of avoiding some categories than being extremely loyal to others.
  • In the print and e-book world, some choices are probably heavily influenced by taste (and therefore social class). The most obvious examples are literary fiction and classics. Having read James Joyce, for example, is probably a fairly accurate indicator of social class and educational status. Indeed, some books are more purchased than read, for social class signaling reasons.
  • For Indie publishers, this can present a barrier to acceptance. Highbrow readers may expect the comfort of curation and the assumed social status that it confers.
  • Cultural omnivores, on the other hand, may enjoy the cachet of exploring the Indie world.
  • Ritualistic vs goal directed consumption (i.e. habit versus active choice).

  • Basically, the idea here is that some entertainment choices are not really active choices, but just force of habit, escape, time killing, etc..
  • This might not apply as much to reading as to television, as reading is generally more of an active choice. We don't just sit down in front of our Kindle and consume, the way we veg out in front of the tube and accept what's on.
  • Nonetheless, for Indies this kind of behavior is more problematic than it is for Trads. People who are ritualistic readers are probably more likely to settle for low effort best-seller choices in their reading.
  • Selective exposure and cognitive dissonance

  • The idea here is that people can seek out agreeable content, and avoid content with which they disagree.
  • Political choices are the most obvious candidates for this, especially news and public affairs.
  • However, even quite ideological people seem to seek out opposing points of view, even if it is only to hone their debating skills.
  • This can also arise in “mood management”. People can seek out choices that reinforce good moods (escapism) and avoid unpleasant moods (depressing realism). However, the evidence that people are very good at this is rather scanty.
  • For Indies, a few points are obvious. Be aware that extremely ideological content might turn off a good part of your audience. Also, be aware that the tone of your work might affect the choice of people who are attempting to manage their moods.

The User's Dilemma – tactics audiences actually use to help make choices in a world of abundance

  • Bounded Rationality

  • Contrary to the assumptions of standard economic theory, people have limited information about their choices and preferences and limited ability to calculate their utility functions.
  • There are simply too many options to choose from.
  • Entertainment goods are experiential goods – you can't fully judge them until you have experienced them.
  • Therefore, people don't maximize their utility, they “satisfice”. This means they are satisfied with “good enough”.
  • Repertoires

  • People tend to limit themselves to a manageable number of channels, websites, artists and writers, to reduce their choices. These are referred to as repertoires. These include major outlets that many people use, as well as idiosyncratic choices that are very individualistic.
  • For Indie publishers and writers, this can reduce their potential audience, particularly when people only buy at brick and mortar print book stores, to which Indies have limited access.
  • Some people also confine themselves to Top 100 books, which reduces the potential audience for most Indies (and most Trads).
  • However, some people have idiosyncratic repertoires, such as “new writer” lists, free book lists, highly specialized genre sub-categories, blogs, and so forth, which can be Indie friendly.
  • Heuristics

  • People also use heuristics to simplify choices. Basically, this just means rules of thumb.
  • These basically fall into the categories of meeting expectations and social approval.
  • “Meeting expectations” generally means coming up to assumed standards of quality, via quick indications of quality, credibility and genre.
  • For Indie publishers and writers this highlights the need for good covers, good titles, good blurbs, and good mechanics (spelling, punctuation, word choice). If these don't come up to standards, you lose people who are relying on these heuristics.
  • Good” can refer to technical quality, but it also can refer to genre appropriateness. Cover art might be great, but if it doesn't signal genre it could still be ineffective, for example.
  • The other major heuristic relates to popularity and social approval.
  • First of these is the recognition heuristic. Name recognition itself tends to suggest quality to people. If they have heard of it, it's probably good.
  • Next, and related, is the reputation heuristic. This is also known as brand appeal.
  • For Indies, the recognition heuristic explains the advice to write and publish prolifically. Each new work is another chance to get your name out there.
  • It also explains the lure of offering free content, which widens the audience and hoped for name recognition.
  • Of course, a plethora of content dilutes everybody's opportunity for name recognition, and can create a content “arms race”, but that's show biz.
  • Traditionally published writers get something of an edge in the reputation department, to the extent that the imprimatur of an established publishing house lends some of its reputation to the writer. There is much debate over just how strong that effect actually is.
  • Even more important is the endorsement heuristic. Basically, these are the various forms of social approval and recommendations, including social networks, ratings and reviews, and word of mouth.

  • Opinion leaders, formal but more often informal, can have preponderant influence over people's choices.
  • Social ties and “the strength of weak ties”. The latter tend to be the spreaders of novel information, since people with strong ties often already know the same things. However, strong ties tend to reinforce each other, independent of content (e.g. retweets on twitter).
  • Social media sites and media reinforce these phenomena, via things such as “most viewed”, “popular in your network”, Amazon “alsobots”, and so forth.
  • For Indies, this reinforces the desire to get books on important book blogs, tweeting prolifically, maintaining a facebook presence and so on. Of course, mere spamming doesn't help, and can actually hurt. And getting mentions on important book blogs and related sites isn't cheap or easy, in most cases.

Going viral

  • It is thought that key influencers (regular people or celebrities) can create viral cascades, but the evidence is actually rather scant. Marketers love the idea, but it may be more myth than reality.
  • Other things that may contribute:
  • utility of the content
  • quality of presentation
  • novelty
  • bizarre content, cuteness, etc
  • emotional powerful
  • but, these are all conjectures, no really good evidence exists

Structural considerations

  • Even free content costs (e.g. hardware, cable/internet costs)
  • Cognitive skills, education (e.g. how to use search engines)
  • Work schedules, cultural norms
  • Seasonal factors, daily ebb and flow (commuting)
  • Geography – near things are more interesting, all else considered
  • Language – even multi-lingual people tend to consume media in their mother tongue.

    And here is a vaguely related comic:


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