On the ALLi Self-Publishing News podcast with Dan Holloway: Research from Germany suggests children, not grown-ups, are driving a reading revival.
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About the Host
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet, and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines, He competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Read the Transcripts to Self-Publishing News: Children Are Driving a Reading Revival
Dan Holloway: Hello and welcome to another Self-Publishing News podcast from here in Oxford, and of course next week, it's a very important week for all of us romantics out there, as many of us who are writers are. That's right, next week it is Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, which I am hugely looking forward to as a lover both of cooking and consuming pancakes. It's also Valentine's Day, but that's certainly less of an attraction than pancakes, but everything is.
Anyway, it's been an Amazon heavy week, it's the first time I've been able to say that for a long time, and there are three things I wanted to look at with Amazon.
Making the Most of Amazon Algorithms
The first is an, as ever fascinating piece from Jane Friedman, and Jane obviously always has really great insights into the way publishing works, in particular into the way things work for us as indies, and the things we can do to become more successful as indie authors and publishers, and the thing she has been looking at is an answer to a question that we probably don't ask ourselves enough, which is how long does Amazon remember the poor performance of a poorly performing book?
That is, if we have a book, way back when, we all do, we all have those books, I certainly have lots of books that didn't do as well as they might have done, didn't do as well as I hoped, and there are some quite good reasons for that. They are often from the early days of our journey, when we didn't know so much about editing, cover design, whatever it might be. The answer she comes up with to her original question is actually Amazon never forgets, which is quite a sobering thought, that somewhere in the back of the algorithmic memory, as she puts it, there is a little black mark against your name as an author as a result of that performance.
So, she goes on to ask, what can you do about it, does that mean it's too late?
The fascinating answer seems to be that, yes, you can do something about it, and what you can do about it is you can get to work on the metadata or the product description, you can start tweaking and changing things to make the book appear different to capture Amazon's attention in different ways.
Tweaking things in your product description, tweaking the wording, and all those things you say that you might not have said very well before.
I think one of the things that came across is the fact that sometimes for books like that a change can be for the better, even if it's not a particularly beneficial change, the fact it is a change can actually help get over that problem of the fact that Amazon remembers how badly the book did.
Amazon Developing AI Personal Shopper
So, that's a really interesting insight, and it's a really interesting insight that feeds very nicely into the really big Amazon related news, which is that Amazon, obviously we know they're bound to have been working on AI, of course they're working on AI in all sorts of areas, and one of the areas they're working on AI in is creating a digital personal shopper.
The AI in question is called Rufus, and Rufus is a digital personal shopper. You can type questions to Rufus and Rufus will give you answers that will help you to have a better shopping experience; it will help you to understand what you're shopping for.
The article I read which explained it really spoke to me, because the kind of questions it was asking or giving as illustrative of the answer is, what's the difference between trail running shoes and road running shoes.
So, it's not a question I would ask because I know the answer to that, but it's a question that I can imagine asking, and back in my early days of being a runner I would very much have wanted to know that.
That all ties in, obviously, with how our books get discovered. So, it's inevitably one of the things that such a personal shopper will do is act as a discoverability tool. It will point people towards purchases that are more appropriate for them.
One of the things that Jane made very clear in her article is that the reason Amazon never forgets a badly performing book is that they don't want to recommend things to consumers whom they really value, that they think customers aren't going to like, and one of the things that might have made people not like your book is, she says, maybe that lots of people click through because you had a really great advertising campaign, but then no one bought your book. So, Amazon is certainly going to stop recommending it, and so obviously changing your description so that people who find your book like it more, so that it performs better, and is remembered better by the algorithm will also inevitably mean that you are easier to find for Rufus and whatever comes after Rufus.
It will be very interesting to see the extent to which this becomes another means by which Amazon are able to decide that their own products are a better fit for their customers, or whether even there becomes at some point a buy option. Obviously, we know that one of the issues that we face as sellers on Amazon is that there can be buy buttons.
So, we find sometimes people are recommended to buy copies of our book from people who aren't even us because someone has bid for the right to be the buy button. So, might it be the case that people bid for Rufus's recommendation? Who knows?
One thing I think we can be fairly sure of is that some clever and nefarious people will figure out a way to make Rufus act in certain ways by priming with certain questions, and it's going to be one of those ongoing cat and mouse games to see how Amazon deals with this.
We know that they are always fighting fires around scams, whether that's review scams or whether it's product stuffing; the kind of books you used to get in KDP Select that were a thousand pages of nonsense and you'd have a table of contents that sent you straight to the end and people would pick up all the page views in between for revenue. So, Amazon is very used to firefighting around that kind of scamming. Inevitably, there are going to be people who are going to try and scam an AI, we know this from experience of AI elsewhere.
Obviously, Microsoft were the first to experience this with their very brief online chatbot. I think it was Tay, wasn't it, and this went on Twitter and very soon learnt how to be really quite offensive because the people who interacted with it taught it to be such.
I'm sure people who want to sell their products on Amazon will teach Rufus how to recommend their products even when they're not necessarily the best fit for consumers. So anyway, that's going to be a really interesting thing to follow.
Amazon Announces 2023 Profits
To round off our Amazon stories, it has been a good time for Amazon in 2023. They had a very poor 2022. They made a loss. They made a loss of 2.7 billion. In 2023, however, they made an income, or a profit of 30 billion. That's quite a lot of money and it's quite a sizable turnaround, and that was in large part a result of the success of Amazon Web Services. So, their digital cloud offering, which has seen them rise to stratospheric levels of profitability.
IBPA Announce New Chair
So, moving on from Amazon to a world that's more familiar to people who work on our size, the Independent Book Publishers Association, the IBPA, it's an organization I report about quite a lot because obviously indie book publishers, they are one step from us, they are indies, they are people who push the boundaries, who like to do things their own way and do some really exciting, innovative things, and they have just appointed Tashina Davis as their incoming chair from July the 1st.
It's very exciting news. It's really frustrating when you have to say the first about things that really shouldn't be the first, but Davis is the first black woman and the first person of colour to hold that position, and we wish her huge luck. She is the CEO also of Publish Your Gift, which obviously is an independent publisher.
German Study Finds Children Inspire Parents to Read
Another really interesting story that I found this week comes from Germany, or in the context of the launch of this year's German national reading competition. So, this is a fascinating thing, which I said in the column sounds like a cross between a spelling bee and a poetry slam.
Half a million people take part in this every year, and it's a reading aloud challenge that gets you to read from one of a selection of recommended books for three minutes and you are judged on how you read aloud. I remember when I was at school I took part for my sins in a Latin reading aloud competition, a county-wide event in Gloucestershire, and I did very badly because apparently I don't read Latin like Cicero did. Because obviously the judges know exactly how Cicero read his Latin out to the crowds in Rome, back in days that it feels like most Latin teachers can remember, even though we actually know they can't.
What's really interesting about the publicity around this competition is they've tied it into a fascinating piece of research about the role that reading aloud plays in intergenerational reading, and in getting people reading through one generation of their family reading aloud.
So, this is the National Reading Competition; getting German citizens to read aloud is part of an ongoing decades-long campaign to increase literacy and to increase families reading together and people just getting reading, which seems like a really good thing to do.
The research had a really interesting finding, which is that it is the case that reading aloud increases the likelihood of whole families reading. So, one generation reading increases the likelihood of another generation reading, but they also found that this isn't the way you would possibly expect it to work. So, it's not the case that if parents read to their children that gets their children reading. Rather, it seems at least as often to be the case that when children read and bring books into the house and get enthused about books, that gets their parents reading.
So, again, it probably shouldn't feel like a surprise, because actually one of the things that we've seen in the news quite a lot in recent years is just how resilient the children's book market is. Kids love reading, which to most of us listening to this, it probably will not come as much of a surprise because as kids we loved reading. We possibly loved reading even more than we do now. I certainly, these days I am too exhausted to spend all night up reading, I don't sneak under the covers in order to have a secret read all night long and hope I don't get discovered. I could read all night long if I wanted to, I don't, but as a kid when I was meant not to, I did, and that seems to be a wider thing.
As I say, the children's book market has been incredibly resilient, and we know that kids love reading in print. Again, people speculate why, they get surprised that it happens, but it is the case that they do.
Again, we know from places like BookTok that younger people actually really like reading, and they like to have books. They like the physical feel of books in their hand. They like to be seen with books. They like to carry books around. So, this is simply a part of that phenomenon, and maybe at some point we will realize that, far from being the lost generation, or however people talk about children as, oh, if only we could get kids into reading, actually kids are into reading and it's the adults who need some help, and who's going to give it to them? It's the children.
So, that's a really exciting piece of research and also really great news, obviously, for all the children's authors out there, of whom there are many in indieland.
So, on that positive note, I will leave you until I speak to you again when you will all be sated with pancakes and half a week into whatever it is you do or don't do for Lent.
Happy February and speak to you again soon.