What Anecdata Show And Don’t Tell

At graduation yesterday the class valedictorian, a journalism major, gave a first-rate address.  In it, the speaker charged journalists with making complex subjects accessible to people who have just a few minutes to spend catching up on them.

He didn’t talk about the people who write headlines.

Both groups came to mind when I read a Fast Company profile of a book that jumped to the top of the charts on Amazon.  Its authors had deliberately pirated their own book and let it proliferate as PDFs shared across the internet.

It’s an interesting story, one that challenges the notion that free distribution is antithetical to paid sales. But it is a long way away from “exploding the old publishing model.”

First, in publishing, “free” is not “new.” Book publishers have long used free content – galleys, blads, ARCs, sample chapters and the like – to entice the trade to stock books and to encourage people to buy them.

It’s also the case that distributing sample content in digital form, including PDFs, is not new.  For several years, both larger and smaller publishers have been testing the impact of free content on paid sales of both front-list and backlist content.  Our 2009 reportlooked at tests done by Random House, as an example.

Finally, the success of one book does not “explode” the model.  In fact, it could be the exception that proves the (old) rule.  If we tested 1,000 books, and 999 were worse off and one was better off, viral marketing would be anathema.  In that light, declaring Go the F*ck to Sleep an inflection point is premature.

If you consistently read our work and related posts on piracy, you already know my assessment: it’s okay to report what has lately been bandied about as “anecdata”, but it’s not smart to derive meaning from it.

This isn’t an argument that dismisses the possibility of a new digital marketing paradigm.  In my gut, I think that the existing scale-hungry model is in serious disrepair.  But I don’t have the data to prove it, and until I do I’m open to other interpretations.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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