Problem statements for digital publishing research

The publishing industry has an absolute mess of unanswered questions that need further investigation if we are to solve its problems.

Here are a few relevant problem statements, off the top of my head. I’d be very surprised if these questions aren’t answerable with a bit of work.

  • Estimate the earnings of the typical author (i.e. median earnings), both self-published and traditionally published. In 2007 in the UK the per annum earnings of the typical author was estimated to be £4000. Estimate the earnings of each author group individually: self-published, traditionally published, hybrid authors. (This leads on to the question: how do we increase the earnings of the typical author?)
  • Describe the production values the typical reader demands from titles in a specific genre. How important are spelling, grammar, formatting, visual design, cover design, and typography?
  • Describe the storytelling quality the typical reader demands in a specific genre: plot, characterisation, style, structure, and illustration.
  • Identify what the typical reader in a specific genre wants from the ebook experience. Are the current ebook platforms underserving these readers?
  • Identify what the ‘jobs to be done’ are for a specific non-fiction genre. What task or goal are readers using these titles to accomplish? (This leads on to the design questions. How could these tasks be accomplished in different ways? How could the material be changed to better address these needs? Can this be done in ebooks or does this change require more capabilities?)
  • Identify the biggest pain points for self-publishing. What are the areas that self-publishers find the most difficult? What costs them the most money? Where do things go wrong the most?
  • Identify the problems self-publishers have with ebook production and ebook backlist maintenance specifically.
  • Identify what approaches to writing and publishing would best serve reader demands in a specific genre. What do readers want from the authors they like? More titles? Personal appearances? Insight into work processes?
  • Identify which processes, departments, and capital goods in a publishing corporation could in theory be replaced with web services. Do not focus on web services that exist. Focus on the tasks at hand and whether they can be abstracted into a service.
  • Identify the biggest pain points for ebook production. Why is it not an automatic output from the production workflow? Why is there still a market for ebook production? What is stopping us?

How about you? What big questions about digital publishing do you think need answering?

Bonus questions:

  • Estimate the impact of Patreon and Kickstarter on web comics.
  • Identify what readers want from a Patreon or Kickstarter campaign.

6 thoughts on “Problem statements for digital publishing research

  1. Identify how various genre communities want to be communicated with (and how often). It’s easy to say “publishers need a better email list” or “publishers need to be more active on Twitter”, but I suspect that reader communities are quite diffuse in which technologies they would like publishers to use to tell them about new books and how often and in what form that communication should take.

    • Ah, yes. Good one. This is another area where publishers are generally making shit up as they go along.

  2. It would be interesting to understand better the feedback loop from reader-to-writer-to-reader. Not just reading metrics (which would be very nice to have) and email lists but perhaps adding in some CMS style functions and analysis. Just as a good company learns from its support tickets, this isn’t about the reader necessarily telling the author what to write, or ‘meddling in the process’ but could be like using Zendesk or Groove (or something new) for fanmail.

    (Of course many authors do use various media to do some of this already, but structuring some of the data and making simple analysis easier could lead to interesting places).

    • To keep with the spirit of the post, how would you put that issue in the form of a problem statement—something that can be the subject of applied qualitative research or design research?

      Basically, we couldn’t investigate anything that doesn’t exist yet (like author-accessible reader metrics).

      Something like:

      “Identify the methods authors of a particular type use to assess reader reactions.”

      “Describe the author-reader relationship as it exists in particular genre or field.”

      The problem statement should give you a research objective with a manageable scope. That’s why it can’t go after all genres or every publishing market. Also, you’d get very different answers based on scope. Romance, comics, scifi, literary fiction—the results would probably vary enormously.

      It’s only after the research is done that you should start looking at how to address specific issues that come up during the study, try to address the needs you discover, or answer the questions that arise. You might even discover that the basic premise was wrong. (E.g. authors might think that having any sort of feedback loop between the author and reader was a bad thing.)

      (Writing this comment triggered a series of very vivid memories from the time when I taught at university. :-D)

  3. “Identify the problems self-publishers have with ebook production and ebook backlist maintenance specifically”

    I assume that the purpose of any research would be to suggest solutions so that things can be fixed in future. Though that may be wishful thinking. But, as to the above question, having sat with trying to do just that for the greater part of a Saturday afternoon: Why is formatting such a mystery? As a non-US writer I’m stuck with Smashwords to gain access to certain retailers. But Smashwords hoops for formatting is Byzantine, their help files are obtuse and their treatment of right thinking people is childish.
    My biggest problem is the time it takes to do something as simple as creating a clear mark-up file that will be accepted by most/all retailers.

    “Identify the biggest pain points for ebook production. Why is it not an automatic output from the production workflow?”

    This, what you said there. I’m headbutting my neck in frustration. The biggest pain point is the formatting. The second is access to markets for non-US plebs.

  4. (Dammit, I always get to these posts too late to comment directly. This is about your To do, to do, to do post.)

    I’m also one of the lurkers who really appreciates what you now appear to despise as navel-gazing about the whole epub world. You’re one of a very few voices (maybe the only one) who are thinking critically about the whole business, rather than just hyping the latest whiz-bang-ness.

    So I’d say keep it up, if you can stand it.

Comments are closed.