Episode 3: Guy LeCharles Gonzalez on Being Data-Informed

This week, Joshua talks with Guy LeCharles Gonzalez (@glecharles), Chief Content Officer at LibraryPass, about how publishers can become more data-informed and avoid the pitfalls of being too data-driven.

The data-driven approach to publishing can lead to myopic thinking and decision-making. When a publisher only makes decisions based on Amazon sales numbers, they are likely to miss some important data about where those consumers discovered their books. Being data-driven like that can actually lead to reduced sales if broader discovery mechanisms are ignored.

As Joshua discussed in Episode 1, backlist sales are of growing importance to publishers, and the bestseller-focused model often makes the midlist much smaller. This can lead to fewer options in the backlist, and can limit a publisher’s reach.

How does a publisher fight the inclination to be data-driven, and where can they get more data that will help them make better decisions? Guy suggests taking a page from the magazine marketing playbook: Focus on building up direct connections with the consumers who frequent your vertical, and learn from those communities. It is also helpful to create connections with other publishers and create shared opportunities.

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Transcript

Joshua Tallent
Hello, and welcome to the BookSmarts Podcast where we talk about publishing data and technologies and send you away with some insights that will help you sell more books. I’m your host, Joshua Tallent. So in this episode of the BookSmarts Podcast, I’m really excited to have a conversation with Guy LeCharles Gonzalez. For those of you who don’t know Guy, Guy was a former poet and a blogger, reluctantly active on Twitter. He’s the founding director of the original Digital Book World, which I think is where I originally met you. Is that right, Guy?

Guy Gonzalez
I think so. Yeah. If not at Digital Book World, in relation to it.

Joshua Tallent
Yeah. And also you worked for Writer’s Digest, and Library and School Library Journal and the Panorama Project. And now you’re the Chief Content Officer at LibraryPass. So welcome to the podcast, it’s great to have you.

Guy Gonzalez
Yeah. Glad to be here. Thanks for the invite.

Joshua Tallent
Yeah. So this is actually kind of cool. Because Guy made a comment on LinkedIn a couple weeks ago, after listening to the first episode of the BookSmarts podcast, and he made a comment about how publishers are sometimes data-driven, and sometimes data-informed and the value of being data-informed over data-driven. And it’s an interesting idea, because I think a lot of times we get this idea that you have to be data-driven. And so anyway, I wanted to bring Guy on to talk about this topic and kind of flesh it out a little bit and hopefully give some insights to people about the difference between the two. So Guy how would you describe a publisher who is data-informed instead of being data-driven?

Guy Gonzalez
So my issue with data-driven is, it’s become kind of a buzzword that’s lost its original meaning. And I compare it to, you know, the early days of GPS, where if you’re not paying attention, GPS will drive you off a cliff. So, you know, data is only as useful as the context you’re pulling it into, and the other insights you bring to it. Otherwise, you know, it can cause you to make some rather myopic decisions. So for me data-informed is much more about, you know—you’re getting all this sales data in that says, 70% of our sales are from Amazon. A data-driven approach might say, All right, we’re gonna put 70% of our resources and effort towards maximizing sales on Amazon. And data-informed says, Okay, well, we know, Amazon is a transactional point, for a lot of people, it’s not necessarily the point of discovery—you know, sites that include links to Amazon social links, blah, blah, blah, there’s a lot of reasons people go to buy a book on Amazon, and half of them have nothing to do with Amazon, helping them discover that book. So if you decide to shift 70% of your resources towards, you know, say, Amazon advertising, and you’re only prioritizing metadata on Amazon, you potentially are losing all of the other touch points that drove those sales to Amazon, and suddenly, your Amazon percentage may stay at 70%, but your overall sales may drop. And that, to me is one of the key differences between we’re data-driven versus data-informed. That’s where you really draw a line.

Joshua Tallent
Yeah, so it’s basically garbage in garbage out, too. Because the the amount of data you have and the type of data you’re pulling in, you know, if you’re only looking at a subset of real information, then you’re only going to have enough information to make a very narrow choice. But when you come when it comes down to the data that publishers receive, a lot of times, they don’t get enough data to really be able to be data-informed in the first place. And so you feel like you have to be data-driven, and just make decisions based on what you’ve got. So besides that problem of being a little bit too myopic, are there other problems that you see with being data-driven? Have you seen examples of this or or challenges that you think are kind of endemic to the to the way publishers go with the data-driven angle?

Guy Gonzalez
Yeah, I think if you look at look at how the publishing industry itself has kind of evolved over the past 10 to 20 years. I remember at the beginning of Digital Book World, one of the big issues that was being debated was were publishers, you know, should publishers publish fewer but better books? And that was fundamentally a critique of the best seller model, like, throw as many books out there because you don’t know which one’s going to be the best seller usually. So you’ve got to publish a whole bunch because the public—the big, you know, big corporate publishing model really relies on a couple of big hits to subsidize that entire operation. You know, so Barack Obama’s book last year, that was PRH’s big book for the year. It pays people’s bonuses I remember years back, when does it E.L. James with the Shades of Grey, when they picked that up from self publishing, that became the title that got everybody their bonuses at the end of the year at—they were Penguin or Random House, I forget, that might be before they became PRH. But that scale model of chasing best sellers is kind of a good example of data-driven gone wrong. The critiques ever since have been well, if you’re only chasing best sellers, and best sellers are reinforced by a system that has kind of prioritized a certain type of book and audience, you end up narrowing your prospects. And so that data-driven approach means you’re chasing a smaller audience for a smaller subset of books. The midlist over the past 10 years, has—not disappeared at the Big Five, it’s definitely kind of faded and pushed out into the smaller and midsize publishers, that’s kind of the opportunity they get to play in. But outside of Amazon, the priorities are given to these bigger books. So bookstores, even library budgets, are heavily weighted towards the big bestsellers. All of this, to me is kind of that outcome of being so data-driven that—Oh, this is what’s the best seller, all our comps are going to be compared to this. And we’re missing the opportunity to identify other books, other audiences that may not be bestsellers, but not every book—If every book was a best seller, there’d be no bestsellers. You know, the Incredibles “If everybody is special, no one is special” kind of thing. So that being too data-driven, can lead you down that path of, Oh, best sellers are the only thing that matter. But predicting a best seller is really difficult. So you end up in this scenario of most of your—on the publishing side, most of your investment and marketing resources go towards this particular segment of books. And these other audiences and segments and categories don’t get as much attention. Creates an opportunity for other publishers, though, so the good side of being too data-driven is that’s a weakness for your competitors, that if you’re data-informed, you can take advantage of

Joshua Tallent
Yeah, and this ties also into the backlist sales. You know, I talked about that a couple of episodes ago in the Moneyball episode, the idea being that, you know, backlist sales are increasing, they’re 67% now of total sales, if you don’t have a mid-list, how are you going to have, you know, a solid range of backlist titles that people would just kind of slowly catch on to and and want to buy and kind of discover over time. If everything’s big blockbusters—sure those are backlist as well, at some point. But there’s there’s a benefit to having a pretty broad back mid-list. So you have more of that content that people will catch and say, Oh, that’s an interesting title. I didn’t hear about this book when it came out three years ago. Let me go pick up a copy. And I think that’s an important aspect of this whole data-driven versus data-informed approach to.

Guy Gonzalez
Yeah, I think, you know—so here’s an interesting example, when I was running Panorama Project, we did this partnership with Washington Post to do an analysis of—last summer, there was the big burst in interest in social justice, anti-racist titles. And so we, we did a version of this Panorama Picks initiative that we had that tend to look at recent titles that kind of were in demand at libraries, but weren’t like top of the bestseller list titles. So we tweet that to look at a handful of relevant BISACs to—there is no, you know, anti-racist BISAC. Yeah, do be a little creative by looking at some of the books that were most often recommended: White Fragility… blanking on the names of some of them, but there were like five or six that was on everybody’s list. So we took those books, looked at their BISAC codes, and then we we put no date parameter on recency, to look at what was being surfaced in libraries in those categories. The range of books, if I remember correctly, was more than 20 years. Only two of them had been published in the past year. So you talking about backlist and a category that—honestly let’s be real, no publisher was taking seriously before last summer, it was an occasional thing—the vast majority of that backlist was five years or older. And there were at least two of them where the same title appeared twice—its original edition and a 10 year updated edition. So that was an interesting example of, during the pandemic, when backlists grew even more and frontlist—a lot of books got pushed out marketing, you know became a very different challenge for a lot of publishers. And yet 2020 book sales increased, right? So that to me says a lot about—if you’re minding your back list and really being data-informed and understanding what is driving those backlist sales: A) your frontlist should be a lot better, because you’re identifying where the areas of interest are. And the fact that it took the various events of last summer to really blow that category up is an interesting—you can look at that as one way of well, look what it took to drive the interest in those books. Or you could do the flip side, well, maybe if you were more focused on that category, things wouldn’t have gotten to that point. You know, why wait for things to blow up to identify an important category that you can contribute to. So that to me partly comes back to mission as well, you know: if your mission is purely, you know, capitalism and commercial hit the bestseller list, like several big fives are, then you’re gonna have a different approach to data. If your mission is something else, whether it’s more niche oriented verticals, serving particular communities, really owning a particular category, I think that’s where the data-informed approach becomes a lot more relevant and robust.

Joshua Tallent
And that’s where a very large number of midsize and smaller publishers fit, right? They have a mission-driven approach to whatever kind of topics they feel are important the books they want to publish. And so there’s a real benefit in having that, and even considering looking for where the trends will be a couple years down the road in that niche so that you can focus in on publishing the right kinds of topics that will eventually become those, you know, those midlist bestsellers, or the midlist, backlist that really works for works for generating more sales in the future and kind of giving you a good baseline.

Guy Gonzalez
Yeah, absolutely.

Joshua Tallent
So, let’s think about—talk about some practicalities, right. I mean, we’re talking about these these big ideas all the time. But let’s talk about practicalities, what kinds of data do you think that publishers should be utilizing? Do you have any practical advice for publishers who really don’t know where to get started on becoming more data-informed?

Guy Gonzalez
So you know, I came from the magazine world initially, and that informs a lot of my own perspective on data and how to use it. My first job was in the circulation department, old school, direct marketing, managing lists and spreadsheets, doing A/B testing, all the stuff that on the digital marketing side is, you know, treated as innovative and cutting edge kind of thing—ways to really drive sales. That’s what we did in the old days in subscription marketing, it just wasn’t a sexy. So a lot of the practicalities to me come from—the magazine world has always had a direct connection to its readership, you didn’t have the B2B relationship that book publishing has, where the wholesalers and the booksellers and the libraries, those really traditionally have been publishers’ customers. And that, to me is part of where the data-driven flaw comes in. If you know—we know all about book deserts in this country, you know, huge communities that don’t have a single bookstore, when I lived in the Bronx, the Barnes and Noble out by Co-op City was the Bronx’s is main bookstore and the Bronx is a million-and-a-half people—one Barnes and Noble. And that closed eventually. So when you talk about your data coming from secondary sources, you’re in a different position. So when I think about practicalities, one of the first things I look at is: if you’ve got a clear vertical that you serve, you’ve got opportunities to capture data beyond just the sales data that gets fed to you from your partners. And there are publishers who have done this no TOR.com remains one of the best examples of a big five publisher really rethinking their process, and figuring out how to go to direct to consumer in a way that wasn’t about ecommerce. In the beginning ecommerce was going to be a part of that, but they couldn’t get other publishers to share information about their other imprints. So they kind of went on their own, and built an audience around TOR titles, and ultimately self publishing became a part of that niche as well. And I think over time, other publishers started playing nicely with TOR.com. But that’s a good example of, Hey, we can just be the sci-fi imprint that gets our information from Barnes and Noble and Amazon and continues to publish, you know, the traditional sci-fi and fantasy that we’ve all come to expect. Or we can expand our awareness of this audience by—you know, one of the biggest changes on everybody talks about, oh online disrupted advertising and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. What online did that get undervalued is: there is a community for everything on the internet, you can get a pretty clear sense of how big it is and how engaged they are. And you can build a business model around that, if you can develop the right content or services—you know, it’s not just about books—for those communities. But it starts with really understanding those communities. And to do that, you got to be a part of them. So you can’t just go buy, you know, Reddit’s mailing list, or do an ad buy on Reddit, and think you’re engaging with the community, you’re just, you know, shifting traditional marketing approaches to the internet. So for me, the most practical thing is, first and foremost, you know, take that magazine model of direct engagement with readers, and find a way to fit that into whatever your particular mission and vertical fits. You know, the caveat to that is, if you don’t have a vertical, if you’re just a general publisher, you—that’s a choice. And then you’re kind of a lot more reliant on being data-driven, you kind of chasing trends, you don’t have maybe a defined audience, that’s a tougher world to play in. It’s a valid world, there’s plenty of publishers who do it. But that I think, is where you kind of almost have no choice but to be data-driven. And your expectations should be different.

Joshua Tallent
Yeah, those those publishers in that situation actually might benefit from having a black ops group kind of, you know, a skunkworks kind of group that can focus in on some verticals, that they already have a good solid position in, that—maybe they are a very general publisher, that doesn’t mean they have to run it completely, you know, across the board, like a big publisher would or like a general publisher would. Take some time and take some energy and go pursue one of those verticals that you already have some good writers and some good authors and see if that can flesh it out into something that’s more focused and can give you a little bit more of that direct to consumer basis. I agree with you 100%, I think direct to consumer is going to be the future of publishing, if you look back in history, you know, publishers have have not had a direct connection to their, to their consumers almost at all right? It’s almost, it’s completely B2B. It’s all about that. It’s all about the relationship with the distributors, and maybe the retailers, the wholesalers. But there’s very little connection. I’ve seen a lot of publishers in the last year and a half, two years—as a result of the pandemic and shutdowns of bookstores—they’re having to figure out how they can go more direct to consumer how they can build those verticals and build those connections. So I love that idea, the connection to the magazine market, I think if you look at—the way magazines do direct to consumer is very different than, than what you see and even in direct to consumer in the in the publishing world in the book publishing world still, and I think there’s a lot to learn there.

Guy Gonzalez
Yeah, one of my favorite examples is—I use them a lot Microcosm Publishing, they are out of the Pacific Northwest, I think they’re based in Portland. They are a clearly, mission-driven, traditional publisher. They don’t, you know, they don’t do magazines or anything like that. But their entire persona is built around—you know, they started out with zines, you can’t get more like mission and audience driven than that. They’ve got a really distinct voice. They’ve got a strong ecommerce presence, to the point where they very reluctantly sell through Amazon. They don’t rely on Ingram they do their own distribution, and they even distribute other small and midsize publishers. But if you dig around their website, if you order a book from them, and see how they operate, they are taking—in some ways, there’s magazine publishers that could learn from them—but they are taking kind of the best of the internet, from a beginning that was not internet oriented. They were old school hitting music festivals selling their zines physically—they’re to me one of the best examples of what a traditional publisher operation can look like without going so far as like a TOR.com, where you build out the equivalent of a magazine media operation on the internet. That to me is like a good benchmark for—we don’t want to get into that bigger audience, then you got to focus on having a real identity and a real personality, and figure it out that way. And once you reach those audiences, ecommerce becomes a lot easier, because they’re gonna come to you to buy the things they’re looking for. So that—they’re a good example I use for people to say, Well, you know, we’re just a book publishers, okay. You don’t have to go full on in the magazine approach. Here’s a good example of the way to do it.

Joshua Tallent
Yeah. So focus on your audience, start with that idea of figuring out who your audience is. That obviously is a pretty straightforward, practical point for publishers. What’s another—any other practical advice you can give to a publisher who’s really trying to figure this stuff out? Maybe they, maybe they can see what their vertical might be—How do they reach into that vertical more effectively?

Guy Gonzalez
So, you know, the one of the other differences between books and magazines generally, is that in books, the authors are the brands. There are imprints who are recognizable brands—TOR, Microcosm—those brands mean something to those communities, usually, because the people who founded and built them were part of those communities. It’s rare that a brand is just created out of scratch and becomes part of the community. So, you know, in book publishing so much of the industry is behind the scenes, they’re completely reliant on the authors to be the brands. And that can work as long as you’re bringing some other important things to the table. And so if you’re, if you’re building that audience, what are you giving that audience besides just access to these books? You know, it’s kind of a variation—I like to flip the script on publishers, and like, a lot of you publishers—you know, when I was running Writer’s Digest, “platform” continues to be like one of the biggest issues, concerns, opportunities for both aspiring and mid-career authors. And you constantly hear, Oh, you’re gonna need a platform, if you want to get that traditional book deal. I flipped that and said, okay, authors, publishers are asking you for your platform. Here’s some things you need to evaluate about the publishers platform, like flip the script on them and say, Hey, well, here’s what I’ve got, what do you have? You know, what is your email list look like? What is your relationship with libraries, if libraries are an important part of your personal mission? so there’s—even as a B2B operation, you can look at some publishers and see, Oh, these guys have a genuine relationship with these intermediaries, they’re not just a distribution channel. So you know, the difference between, say Penguin Random House’s library marketing efforts and almost any other publisher’s, really, they’re kind of one of the better ones—you can see that stuff right on their website, right in their promotional efforts. So I think when you think about from a small and midsize publisher angle, look at ways you can collaborate, I feel like outside of the Big Five, and at some key publishers, the sense of competition is a little different. There’s there’s a lot more willingness to collaborate. One of my favorite conferences, was PubWest, I went two years ago, right before—actually right before the pandemic. So that was last year, geez. I’ve not seen since the first year of Digital Book World, the kind of willingness to kind of collaborate, share insights. Really, you know, the side conversations that would happen, where people get into deeper discussions about how they’re doing things, you know, finding that network in the industry itself. So there’s one thing about finding your audience, it’s also finding industry partners who are in a similar situation, whether they’re in the same niche or not, I found that small and midsize publishers are a lot more willing to work together and share insights and resources to kind of overcome some of these challenges, where the Big Five has obvious obstacles there—you know, PRH, and Macmillan aren’t necessarily going to collaborate on any major initiatives. But you know, midsize publisher X and Y absolutely could. So I think that’s another practical area, find the industry conference, whether it’s PubWest—if you’re smaller and it’s IBPA—really take advantage of those resources. Because there you can make connections with other publishers who are in a similar situation. And you may find some interesting opportunities to collaborate, you know, literally—like Microcosm, has done a good job of periodically pulling together Pacific Northwest publishers, on marketing initiatives that they had the platform to help scale. But it wasn’t just about selling their own books, they were able to help five or six others, not all of whom were necessarily their distribution clients. So those opportunities exist.

Joshua Tallent
That’s great. That’s awesome. Well, we’re short on time. So we’re gonna go ahead and close it out here. But, Guy, I really appreciate your insights on this. I hope that everyone walks away with better ideas and some practical advice that they can run with. And this is an important area, we talk about data a lot in publishing—I talk about data all the time, it’s kind of my thing—but the we got to be careful about being so focused on being driven by the data that we that we don’t understand what the data is telling us and even understand where the data is coming from to be able to be better informed by it. So I think that’s, that’s really great. And I appreciate you coming on the show to talk about.

Guy Gonzalez
Thanks for having me! Enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to the future episodes.

Joshua Tallent
So that’s it for this episode of the BookSmarts Podcast. If you like what you heard, then please leave a review or rating on your podcast app. If you have a topic suggestion or feedback about the show, you can email me at joshua@firebrandtech.com. Thanks for joining us, and for getting smarter about your books.


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