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The happy ending you asked for

Publishers and producers are studying audiences’ online metrics and giving the people what they want—for better or worse

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Sam Island


“Getting to know you, getting to know all about you.” So goes the old Rodgers and Hammerstein number. It would make a very suitable theme song for the online marketing industry, which has made a point of getting to know everything you do on the Internet.

And if you thought you escaped this kind of attention when curled up with a Kindle, think again. Amazon and Barnes & Noble, using the same kinds of metrics so beloved by online marketers, know exactly what you’re doing when you’re between the covers. Your digital device blabs about how far you get in every e-book, how quickly you read it and which bits you skip or reread, then shares that information with interested parties. While this data isn’t being used in the same way it would be to convince you that a certain foot powder or carpet cleaner would best meet your individual needs, it is nonetheless a form of marketing, and a pernicious one at that. Consider that Barnes & Noble has openly stated its intention to share its analytics with publishers, with the aim of tailoring content to the tastes of target audiences. Some publishing houses have even aired plans to incorporate e-reader feedback into subsequent print editions.

There is, as it happens, a sorry precedent for this trend. In the 18th century, the Shakespearean actor and playwright David Garrick rewrote the final scene of Romeo and Juliet to bring it into line with contemporary preferences, allowing the star-crossed lovers a brief, tragedy-mitigating tête-à-tête before they die. Now, imagine what such panderers might have gotten up to if they’d had reams of life-affirming feedback at their disposal. Romeo and Juliet 2: The Honeymoon is not outside the bounds of possibility.

Don’t laugh. In 2012, a former Google engineer and a gaming analytics entrepreneur launched Coliloquy, “a technology-based publisher of active fiction.” The company specializes in e-books that allow readers to customize characters and plots. The way it works is, reader responses and suggestions are sent to authors, who tweak subsequent storylines accordingly. In a romantic series titled Getting Dumped, this “author-reader engagement” led to a reprieve for a character about to be jilted. And while the series is hardly Crime and Punishment, there’s no telling how far this sort of tinkering might go.

Coliloquy co-founder Lisa Rutherford argues that the intrusion of democracy into the creative process is nothing new. Successful authors, she says, have always been receptive to the sensibilities and requirements of their audiences. “Our feedback mechanism has just sped up the process,” she says. “Often authors go, ‘Oh, I never thought of that,’ or, ‘I can’t believe everyone chose that. Maybe I should tell it a different way.’ It is certainly not minimizing the writing craft.”  

Movies are being subjected to similar levels of scrutiny. The streaming site Netflix, for one, has based its business model on sifting through data on a granular level, fine-tuning its preference-tracking ability to the extent that it can predict what a person might want to watch at a particular time. Now, having entered the business of content creation, it will use its vast reserves of data to help it decide which kinds of shows will work and which won’t.

When Netflix spent an exorbitant $100 million on producing last year’s “House of Cards,” for instance, its decisions were informed by a network of data points that would have had a CIA analyst reaching for the Advil. Later, when the company decided to resurrect “Arrested Development,” it didn’t just know how many people were streaming episodes of previous shows—it literally knew their names. This isn’t synergy between marketing and creative; it’s a merger.

There’s a scramble among conventional film companies, too, to hop on the metrics bandwagon. Epagogix, a U.K. consulting firm, uses “bespoke neural networks” built with self-generated data to help Hollywood studios develop scripts. “We recommend changes, like location or the size of a character’s role,” says CEO Nick Meaney, “to make the best film.”

The idea that a machine might have anything useful to say about such matters is, for many people, either abhorrent or absurd. Not so for Meaney. “I think we’re the writer’s best friend,” he says. “We point out what an editor might have said to Charles Dickens. Can an entire industry ignore analysis in favor of gut instinct?”

A moment later, when asked whether his company might have suggested a different ending for Casablanca, Meaney doesn’t skip a beat. “Probably,” he says. “But remember, when that film was first released, not that many people liked it.”

London-based editor and writer BOYD FARROW feels obliged to reveal that this article was written with the aid of a slide rule.

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