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Applying Moneyball in publishing

I recently attended a publishing association event where one of the speakers brought up the topic of data and how Moneyball isn’t just for baseball. If you’re not familiar with it, you should read Moneyball; the movie was fine but the book is less about Brad Pitt and more about using data in new and innovative ways.

We’re swimming in a sea of numbers. Sales data, subscriber trends, website analytics, etc., are just a few of the indicators we can touch on a daily basis. The key is to figure out which numbers to pay close attention to and which can be ignored. 

Moneyball opened our eyes to how certain stats in baseball were being overlooked by teams and their scouts. It requires a fresh look to really appreciate what numbers are important. More interestingly, it allows baseball teams to avoid overpaying for the wrong results. OK, it hasn’t caused many teams to avoid paying too much, but it’s helped level the playing field for teams on tighter budgets. And who isn’t facing a tight budget in any form of publishing?

Moneyball should challenge every publisher to rethink the weight they place on certain metrics. My favorite example is in the book publishing world, but Moneyball applies to newspapers and magazines as well.

In book publishing everyone focuses on the Bookscan data since that’s the one source of POS results. Everything from what book to acquire, how much to pay as an author advance and even how many copies to print are often driven by Bookscan data from related titles.

So what’s wrong with using Bookscan data for these decisions? It’s a lagging indicator. In other words, it’s showing you what happened yesterday, not what’s happening today or likely to happen tomorrow. In some cases, Bookscan numbers can be a terrific guide; in other cases, they can lead to losses because of timing or changes in the marketplace.

I’m not suggesting Bookscan data be tossed aside, but I do believe publishers need additional data streams to help make better decisions. I’m talking about leading indicators, ones that can provide a better sense of where the market is today and where it’s likely heading tomorrow.

How closely are you studying the trends on your own website? What are the popular search terms today, not 6 months ago? How about Twitter and Facebook activity around the topic? And if you’re not familiar with Google Trends you need to be. Even though each of these other data streams also have a lagging indicator element, they provide more immediate, up-to-date information about what’s happening today. Bookscan, on the other hand, can be significantly influenced by distribution or marketing campaigns. Adding in these other resources can help provide a more balanced picture, leading to smarter decisions.

As I said earlier, Moneyball isn’t just for book publishing. If you’re producing a newspaper, magazine or a digital-only content service, what tools are you using? Are you paying too much for the content you’re acquiring and developing? Do your target customers even care about it? Are you asking them the right questions to help figure out where to place your content emphasis, frequency of coverage, depth of coverage, etc.?

I’ve suggested a few simple tools to help improve the decision-making process and I’m sure there are plenty of others. Taking a day or two to research the options would be time well spent and likely pay off with better targeted content and more appropriate investments in delivering that content.

The logic behind Moneyball is as applicable today as it was when the book was published 11 years ago. If you haven’t read it, do so immediately and start thinking about how it applies to your business.

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