Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Betting on a Bestseller: Media Predict responds to questions about the stock market approach to publishing

Yesterday Simon & Schuster was (again) setting the publishing world abuzz with a strategy to involve the public in the publishing process. Brent Stinski, from Media Predict – the company overseeing the stock market game for S&S and the person who came up with the concept – takes some time to answer a few questions and explain how this process works.


Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions about this new project with Simon & Schuster. First, can you explain a little about how it works? Can any writer (unpublished or published, agented or unagented) participate? What about those involved in the stock side of the equation? Can anyone participate or are there guidelines?

Hi Sandra. Thanks for writing. Let me start out with a few big picture comments – and then we’ll get into details.

Media Predict will help media companies do what they’ve never done very well: make good forecasts. Traditionally in media, around 10 percent of the product line generates about 90 percent of revenue. So – whatever method they’re using – media companies most often aren’t honing in on what people want. It’s a very inefficient process, and we’ve all come to accept it because, I think, we assume there’s no better way.

Media Predict uses prediction markets to address this problem. Prediction markets have built an astonishing record in forecasting election results, box office revenue, sporting events, and more. And this is true even when it’s a prediction market game like Media Predict.

So in a nutshell Media Predict uses markets to make sure good stuff gets through the system. That’s the goal.

Now to answer your question: yes, any writer can submit to the site, agented or otherwise. And anyone over 18 can register on the site and trade. We need avid readers (like Spinetingler readers) to look over the book proposals and trade shares of the book proposals according to their careful deliberation.

What would you say is the primary purpose behind this plan?

The primary purpose behind Project Publish is to ensure writers and users that at least someone will get published off of Media Predict. If you’re a trader, your predictions will have a huge impact. And if you’re an unknown writer then you can come to our site have a chance at getting published. All you have to do is impress the traders who evaluate your work at Media Predict.

How did this originate?

The idea started about two years go. I was in Iowa City (my hometown) and I had a cup of coffee with one of the people at the Iowa Electronic Markets at the University of Iowa. He encouraged us to forge on, and we did.

Is there any guarantee that a participating writer will get a publishing deal? Or is it possible several will, or nobody will?

I assume you’re referring to the setup of the contest. Some attention has been paid to this, but I think it’s a storm in a teacup. Basically Simon & Schuster wanted the right to opt out if we simply couldn’t provide them with any good, publishable books. Looking at what we launched with, we’ve already surpassed that goal. There’s some great stuff on the site. So yeah: there will be a winner.

Now, remember that anything that appears on Media Predict is eligible for publication at any time. Simon & Schuster will choose from the top-50 scoring works at a future date. But if a publisher wants to buy a book tomorrow, then they can. Given the quality of material we have, I expect that to start happening soon.

Author Barbara Fister has commented on this plan, saying, “On the other hand, I'd much rather be asked which book I'd like to read, not which book is likely to sell the most copies. This approach just seems to keep pushing away the question of what readers - real readers - actually like and gets the public involved in the same guesswork now done by publishers.”

I can sympathize with this view. The thing to bear in mind is that – one way or another – we’re all dependent on the internal mechanics of publishing houses to deliver our books to us. If we improve that, we all win.

I think the key is confidence. It’s hard to have a lot of confidence when less than 10 percent of books are supporting the production costs of almost 90 percent of what publishers put out. As it is there’s an overwhelming temptation for publishing houses to go for blockbusters, or cookie-cutter stuff that they think people will like.

But what if media companies had more confidence? At the moment, they often see unusual or innovative material as too much of a risk, but they’ll put out these kinds of works if they had good predictions to back them up.

So this author may chafe at having to make predictions about books he or she might never read. Then again, there are lots of different kinds of books on the site, and there’s no requirement to trade in them all. In the end, the method does its work – and the more it’s applied, the more we’ll raise the level of content that publishers put out for everyone.

Two questions came to mind when I read Barbara's comment. One was, what’s to stop the people from putting stocks on the books they do want to read, rather than what sells? Is there some incentive to “win” the game with the stocks by “investing” in a way that means you become the virtual Donald Trump of the game? If not, how do you gauge the intent behind any of the participation?

You become the virtual Donald Trump merely by predicting well what will happen. Will a book get a deal? Will a band get a deal? Will a television pilot win its timeslot? These are the questions.

What’s nice about markets is that I don’t have to know the individual psychology or motivation behind someone’s predictions. As long as they’re right, they’ll prosper. So one person might just bet on what they like as an individual consumer. Another person might make complex calculations in making a prediction. It doesn’t matter – in the end the market brings together everyone’s best ideas. And the end prediction is usually very, very strong.

And part of the article in the NY Times referred to this being used as a variation on a focus group. The commenter above clearly distinguishes between the question of what a person is interested in reading and what a person thinks will sell. For example, I read a variety of lesser-known authors – Steve Mosby, Carol Anne Davis, Allan Guthrie, John McFetridge – that I will happily buy future books by, but I know that an autobiography of Bill Clinton is going to sell more copies than any of their works. What would you say to those who wonder if this plan only gives ammunition to support projects that would be an easy sell anyway?

Going back to my comments above, the goal is to improve confidence. A guy like Steve Mosby (we can ask him) probably had a tough time getting people to pay attention to him at one point. But he’s good. He fought through, he got into print, and now he has his audience.

With greater confidence everything about media improves. Niche-specializing publishers put out and profit from niche books. Mainstream publishers put out and profit from high-volume books. The real problem is the risk and uncertainty – that’s what makes record companies crank out synthetic bands and movie studios put out something like Big Momma’s House 3. This kind of decision-making is based on a rational desire to recoup investment, since to executives these things seem like safe bets. Ironically in the end they’re not – since all kinds of derivative stuff fails too. But that’s the vicious cycle we’re in.

We say: if you have an audience, you have a deal. That’s the way it should be. Or at least that’s a future we’d like to see. And that goes for niche products as well as mainstream ones.

I recently discussed focus groups and having more reader feedback in the publishing process, which is something I believe in to a point. With this approach, what ensures that actual avid readers will participate, as opposed to those who enjoy playing with stocks?

We have no assurance. Media Predict makes some people very excited. Others don’t have the same reaction. So we’ll just work with the users who believe in us.

What’s nice about prediction markets is that you can generate very accurate predictions with only a few people – with only a few dozen, some researchers say. We may need higher numbers in the case of Media Predict. But we’re confident there are enough avid readers out there who will get hooked on this. (The site is supposed to be fun, you know.) We invite avid readers to join in and trade at Media Predict. It is their participation that will propel good stuff through the system. Their participation will be enough for us to generate good results.

Will there be status reports or updates through this process to try to drum up interest?

I’m not sure – we have a blog, and I’ll post there when I have time. As with any internet company, we’ll have to see how things go.

Now, how can writers participate? And how can readers get involved in playing the stocks?

Anyone can submit to Media Predict without any commitment whatsoever. Our current books were referred to us by agents, but we’ll include user submissions as well. Unfortunately we’re limited in the amount of material we can put up, but we’ll include as many books as we can on the site. After that, it’s up to the users to call the shots.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Not really . . . I guess we realize it’s a lot to take in, and that all of this can be confusing. I think some of the press coverage in the publishing community reflects that confusion. But we’re not trying to please everyone, and this isn’t for everyone. We’re really looking for the people out there who believe in this method – they’re more than enough to help us achieve our goals.

So if anyone out there has read this far, I’d encourage them to get involved. It’s your site. You can make it work.

Thanks for your interest Sandra. And thanks to your readers.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Brent. This is one of the more original things I’ve seen lately, along with the author bus tours in Scotland. Very creative, and more than anything, it will be interesting to assess the entire process and see what happens.

Well, we never said we could compete with the bus tours in Scotland…


There has already been discussion about this on Crimespace, and undoubtedly as the industry takes note there will be more discussion. I guess you could say the jury is out – on the authors under submission and the process. The one thing I feel confident about is that a lot of people will be watching.

10 comments:

Brian said...

Great way to follow up. I'm not too sure that most people would have contacted him.

He sounds earnest in his intentions. But the one response that he gave I find troubling "Unfortunately we’re limited in the amount of material we can put up, but we’ll include as many books as we can on the site." He just gave himself an out.

I'll check it out though and may even play. Its like my dad says "if you didn't vote then shut up."

Its something that we are going to have to keep an eye on because we cant say that there are a dearth of ideas for the companies to try then decry the new ideas that they do try.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brian, if you decide to play I'd love to hear your take on it all. I am still uncertain about my thoughts on it. I really don't know what I'd think if my book proposal was posted there.

JamesO said...

I'll be interested to see how this all pans out, but I can't see it changing the publishing world very much.

Still, thanks for putting the effort in to contact the guy, Sandra. Now get back to your manuscript - your audience is getting impatient;}#

Sandra Ruttan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandra Ruttan said...

James, I'm working! Geez, I already have three unpublished ms's sitting here!

Reminds me of someone I know who stuffs work in drawers and doesn't always send it out..

(Hellish day for typos. I should go back to bed and start over again...)

Evil Kev said...

I think this is a great idea. Books, no matter how we dress them up, are products and that's how they are selected for publication and marketed to the public.

I think of that million dollar advance book that Sandra mentioned recently. If that book went though this process, would it have still garnered such a large advance? This process could add more sanity to the industry and help to prevent such ridiculous situations.

I think it is far more cynical to trust a half dozen to a dozen marketing people or two to three editors have the insight to determine what books are going to be successful than a thousand traders, so of whom will actually buy the book. The more involvement there is with the potential readers in selecting books, the better.

Anonymous said...

So can anyone at all look at these books or just selected readers. Do they recommend whichever book they like or what?
I'm just finished a 12hr shift so bare with me.
How exactly does this work?
I'm concerned about copyright!
And if any book on there can be sold to a publisher, who's making the deal.
Is this the new "Boyband" era for books.
Will the writers make money? Or will this company gain a hefty percentage?
Chelbel.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Those are some of my concerns Chelbel. The minute you post anything online it becomes difficult to deal with ownership issues, from the perspective that you can't copyright an idea.

As I understand it, anyone can read, anyone can participate. As for the 'boyband' era of books, in some ways, we're already there... It's really hard to say how this will play out. There were absolutely no guarantees going in that anyone would be published.

Anonymous said...

I'd be very nervous about this. You can guarentee lawsuits!
I know it's not something i will ever do.
What ever happened to good old fashioned Bookshops, eh?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't know anonymous... I suspect they've protected themselves legally. The jury is out - time will tell. I'm on the fence, officially. I see some potential and I see some risks.