Readers of An American Editor know that one of the tasks I believe an editor has to do — preferably continuously, but at least yearly — is try to determine future trends that might affect their business. This is not easy to do, but it is necessary for a successful future business. Every time I urge prognostication I am asked how to do it and what trends I foresee.
My answer to what trends I foresee has been no answer at all. The reason is that what is a trend for me is not a trend for you. Our businesses, our plans for the future are not the same. What is important to my future business is different from what will be important to your future business.
My answer to how to prognosticate has been vague. The bottom line really is that there is no single, scientific way to prognosticate because there are so many factors involved. But I am going to attempt to illustrate one method and I am going to identify a trend I see for books, especially ebooks.
One thing I have discovered in recent years about colleagues is that many have very narrow reading habits. Surprising to me, some colleagues only read the material they are working on; they do no “outside” reading, preferring to watch television or do other things. Other colleagues do read but either not much or within very narrow confines, generally for amusement rather than for education.
Trend prognostication requires broader reading habits. It is not enough, for example, to read only romance novels when most of your editing is geology journals. Narrow reading is not good for many reasons, including because it limits the scope of your knowledge base expansion. We all have limited reading ranges — because of the sheer volume of material that is available. I struggle to keep up with the books I buy (see the series “On Today’s Bookshelf” for some of the titles I acquire) because I spend a significant amount of time trying to keep up with the periodicals I subscribe to. But between the books and periodicals I read, I get a broader knowledge base from which to discern trends that will affect my business.
“We Know How You Feel”
A good example of an article that triggered future thinking (and the foundation for this essay) is “We Know How You Feel” by Raffi Khatchadourian, which appeared in the January 19, 2015 issue of The New Yorker (pp. 50–59).
The article is a discussion of the current state (and future expectations) for computers to be able to “read” emotions. The idea is not new and has been worked on for decades, but it is in recent years that great strides have been made. Software now can determine whether your facial expression is one of anger or confusion or some other emotion — with 90% accuracy. What the software can do is simply amazing; what is expected in the not-too-distant future is Orwellian.
I read the article and was amazed, but then I began thinking about whether and how this will impact my work. I grant that I am looking a decade down the road, perhaps more, but then the way some companies move, perhaps not. What I ultimately want is to determine how I can position myself so clients need to come to me to take advantage of skills that perhaps only I will have at the beginning of the trend. I want to be able to command and control the market for editorial services in this up-and-coming field.
I hear you asking “What up-and-coming field?” “How can this possibly relate to manuscripts?”
A Future Trend?
Think about how books are bought today and who buys them. (This analysis can be applied to anything with a manuscript; I am using books to encompass all.) In addition to the consumer who buys a book to read, publishers buy books to publish. When a publisher “buys” a book, it does so through an advance. Whenever we buy a book, we gamble that the book will be to our liking or, in the publisher’s case, that it will be a bestseller. The emotion-reading chip of the future could remove that gamble.
The first thing I see is the software being embedded in ebook reading programs and devices. In the case where we download a reading application to our tablet, it will be the tablet that will come with the emotion-detecting software and the downloaded app will link to it. Emotion-detecting software can collect all kinds of data about reader like and dislikes and transmit it to the publisher. Imagine learning that fewer than 25% of the purchasers of a particular book actually read more than 20% of the book and that the reason why is they find it confusing. Perhaps the publisher will rethink publishing the second book in the series or, more likely, will take that information and help the author rework the second book to make it a better seller.
The second thing I see is that the emotion-detecting software will change the way books are sold to consumers. Today we pay in advance; with this software perhaps we will pay only if we like the book or read a certain amount of the book. In other words, all books will be free initially with payment based on liking and amount read. In other words, books will come with an enjoyment guarantee.
The third thing I see — and the most important — is the change in how books are written and the role of the editor in the creation process. I see books being rewritten based on objective reader responses. Today we rely on beta readers telling us what they think about a book. But beta readers miss many clues that only can be picked up via trained observers. For example, a beta reader may well like a book but not realize (or remember) that while reading chapter 4 she was confused or turned off by the characterizations or was very (dis)pleased with an exchange between characters. Or that the author tends to meander, which makes the reader yawn and wonder if the author will ever get back on track.
In other words, emotion-detecting software can make authors and editors more knowledgeable about what is right and what is wrong with a manuscript. Are readers turned off by character names? Are they okay but not happy with the lead character being a grammar school dropout? Do they like the story better when the child is 10 years old rather than 12 years old? Do readers become frustrated every time a particular minor character appears and then become happy when he leaves the storyline? Are readers frustrated by the never-ending acronyms or localisms? How quickly do they tire of the constant, repetitive swear language?
When we use beta readers today, we usually use people who are familiar with the genre. For example, if we are writing a space opera, we tend to find beta readers who are space opera fans. But what can that beta reader tell us about how readers of paranormal or fantasy or steampunk fiction will react to the book? More importantly, if you get a paranormal reader as a beta reader, how valuable is their feedback (today) in determining what will and will not appeal to other paranormal readers?
It is not that beta readers today are not useful; they are very useful. It is that emotion-detecting software can catch all the emotional nuances — the ups and downs, the hates and loves, the likes and dislikes — that we express unconsciously. Instead of “The book reads okay but I do not find the characters interesting,” emotion-detecting software could tell us which characters fit that description, which gave a glimmer of interest, and which were very interesting, thereby enabling an author to rework the manuscript appropriately.
The Editor Who…
The editor who is familiar with emotion-detecting software will be able to better guide an author. The editor will be able to interpret the results, and to discover the writing techniques the author uses that readers like and dislike. (Does, for example, the repetitive use of “further” to begin a sentence annoy readers or do they not care? Or do readers smile at certain character names but frown at others? Is a reader’s reaction to a character related to the character regardless of the character’s name or to the character’s name? Do the readers who read the version of the manuscript that sets the action in Berlin like the book better than those reading manuscript where the action occurs in Cairo? Or vice versa? How are readers reacting to various sections of dialogue? Do readers find the characterizations or the storyline unbelievable? Is it likely that readers will give positive word-of-mouth feedback to fellow readers?)
The editor who can offer such a service first will be able to command higher prices and a unique service. It is like when a few editors, in the days when paper editing was dominant, were able to show publishers how to save money by editing on a computer even though such editors expected to be paid more than other editors. The early-adopting editors had a head start that was difficult for other editors to overcome, especially those editors who resisted the transition.
Emotion-detecting software has the potential to revolutionize the publishing industry, just like the advent of ebooks did and the transition to editing on computers. The question is, will you spot the trend and leap on it? Perhaps today you can only follow progress, but that is what trend-spotting is about: identifying those happenings that need to be followed closely so you can grab the opportunity as soon as possible.
Imagine being the only editor who offers indie authors a way to exponentially increase the likelihood of success. That is what prognostication is all about.
Richard Adin, An American Editor