Business Musings: Vexing Numbers
In May, NBC’s former flagship reality TV show, The Voice, hit a weird patch. Adam Levine, one of two remaining original coaches, left the series suddenly, the day after the season finale. Two weeks before, Levine had posted on social media that he would return to The Voice for the next season. Indeed, The Hollywood Reporter says that Levine had signed on to The Voice for two more seasons, and his sudden departure would cost him at least $30 million in earnings (maybe more if there are early departure clauses in his contract).
There’s been a lot of spin in the press about Levine’s departure, some of it having to do with the advertising Upfronts the week before. But if you’d been watching the show, as we had, Levine’s dissatisfaction with the new format went from I guess I’ll put up with it to That’s not what I signed up for.
The comments slipped out sideways. He started talking about the show as a music show rather than a competition. Levine and the early judges were all about the music: heck, that was why they did blind auditions, so they could hear the purity of the voices singing with nothing else—no package, no spin.
This season the show introduced a new round, called “The Cross Battles,” in which an artist from each team sang against an artist from another team. They were picked to sing against each other on the live show, and then fans voted overnight.
Overnight votes (and the Twitter saves, which were introduced a few years ago) reward the coaches with the biggest active Twitter following, and that’s Blake Shelton. Country music radio also does a get-out-the-vote campaign, which none of the other coaches benefit from.
Sure enough, Shelton’s artists almost swept the Cross Battles, while the other coaches barely hung on. Fans barely hung on as well. Ratings for this season of The Voice were down 20 percent over the previous year.
That’s huge, but NBC doesn’t seem anxious. In fact, the network seems to like Twitter saves and overnight voting. Active fan engagement: proof that the fans exist.
I already had some context for The Voice debacle (okay, that’s my personal opinion, which I suspect I share with Levine). I had gone to most of the film and TV discussions about the future of programming at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and every major executive was talking about numbers.
The upshot was, they said, it’s impossible to figure out who is watching what when anymore. The problem with that, particularly for network television and cable TV, is that on-air advertising is still based on the 1960s model of measurable eyeballs on the screen. It used to be counting the number of people who watched the show live. Then it was live+1 (watching it the next day). Then live+7 and jeez, I have no idea what it is now.
But streaming has come into network and cable as well, with their apps that are available on Amazon TV or a Roku device or on a phone or on a computer. And streaming is a whole different count. Not to mention buying the entire season on DVD, which some people still do. (I watched some guy buy an entire season of Westworld at a discount department store the other day.)
Then there’s social media. If there’s buzz, it counts as well. This all got reinforced, oddly enough, as I read an article in my university alumni magazine, On Wisconsin. The magazine decided to interview a lot of the alumni who are currently active in TV and TV production. They spoke to everyone from the presidents of AMC and CBS Entertainment to producers and showrunners on projects that air on Netflix and ESPN and beyond. Some of these folks have decades of experience, and others maybe ten years, but they’re all fascinating to read. [link: ]
Buried in these interviews were some observations on numbers. First, there was this from Justine Nagan, who works as as the executive director for American Documentary and an executive producer for POV and America ReFramed.
In answer to a question on storytelling, she said this:
POV is 31 years old this year. For many years of POV’ s existence, the broadcast was the highlight of a film’s release and now it’s a highlight. We are really focused on broadcast, streaming, and community engagement.
A highlight. Not the highlight. Community engagement. Those two comments are quite telling. She didn’t answer the storytelling question at all. She answered the question as if it were a ratings question. She’s looking at engaging the audience, not just through the first broadcast, but on streaming services and on social media.
Then there was this from Jennifer Carreras, Vice President of Comedy Development, ABC. When asked how she knows if a show is successful, she said this:
Ratings are still a discussion, but not nearly as important as they were before. Part of it is what the ratings are, but also viewer engagement across social media. There are a lot of different ways to look at things, to see how the audience is responding.
That last sentence describes The Voice. They look at ratings, yes, but are working very hard to gin up audience involvement in real time. And that apparently means something to the execs at NBC, or The Voice producers wouldn’t do it.
Here I am again, discussing television in a fiction writing blog.
But we have some of the same issues, and we have had those issues for more than a decade now. With all the different ways readers can consume books, how do we know if a title or even a byline is successful?
It really does come down to how we measure success.
For one of my writer friends, success is a million-dollar advance. Another knows, as close as he is able, how many readers bought his novels since the beginning of his career. Yet another friend wants great reviews. And one of my friends wanted to be award-nominated for a particular industry award that had meant a lot to him as a child.
For some indie writers, success is the number of names they have on their newsletter. For others, it’s how many reviews they get on Amazon in the first few months after release. For still others, it’s how many five-star reviews they get (even if they have to ask people to write those reviews).
For me, I have and always will say that I want to make a good living as a writer. That’s not a guaranteed thing, by the way. Freelance income goes up and down, which is why these blogs are often about money management. A writer who manages her money well can handle the gusher of money followed by the lean years. Or the lean years that slowly morph into a steady income. Writers who expect consistent money and spend like their income is as consistent as a salary always end up broke and disillusioned.
Once upon a time, we used to all agree on what constituted success. We had to: traditional publishers mandated it. The books had to have some kind growth trajectory, and had to sell within some kind of set lines. Or, rather, not sell per se, but ship. If the book shipped well, and other books by the same author shipped well, it might take years for the traditional publisher to realize that those books didn’t sell well. They would have huge returns that trickled in, and ultimately the book lost money.
Even then, even when everything was based on copies shipped versus copies sold, returns and all kinds of games that publishers played to keep as much money in their pockets as possible while hanging onto (or hemorrhaging) writers, no one knew what the actual numbers were.
Just like in television back when the ratings system developed in the 1960s. How did they know who was watching what? Nielsen sent out paper booklets to random homes. My family got one during those years, and my mother filled out our viewing habits like it was her sacred duty. Then she sent the booklet back in the prepaid envelope, and some poor schmo tallied up the results coming in from across the country. That schmo or a different schmo would then apply the numbers received from the booklet households to some kind of algorithm, figure out an average, and from that would declare what the viewing audience was that week (or that month) for various TV shows.
Computers took Schmo Two’s job before taking away Schmo One’s. Cable boxes eventually sent back numbers to various data collection places. And now, Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services know what we watch when we watch it and how we watch it.
The first time I accidentally left my streaming device on Netflix freaked me out. I came back to the TV to see a floating message: We note that you have not been active for three hours. Are you still watching or should we shut down the stream?
Yeah. I shut down the stream. But I went back the next night and finished what I was watching.
This long elaborate point, though, was only to show you that the numbers are ephemeral and, in some ways, meaningless.
Unless we writers give those numbers meaning. And it’s up to us to figure out what’s important to us.
I think what happened on The Voice this past season shows the changes in a nutshell. Levine has always been about music purity. When it came his turn to save an artist who got eliminated by the so-called popular vote, he would invariably pick the true musician who was in his stable. Not the prettiest person or even the person with the best voice, but the person who had a great love for and ability in music itself, who maybe played a lot of instruments and who was often a songwriter. In the early years, Levine’s enthusiasm for that type of contestant would translate into a slow build for that person, and they would often place in the top five at the end of the season.
There is no slow build now. There’s Twitter saves and jockeying for votes. And even that doesn’t always work. At the end of this past season — SPOILER ALERT!!!!!— all three of Shelton’s contestants in the top four split the Shelton fan vote, and John Legend’s contestant won. She had a lovely voice and she was a great performer, but did she win because Legend has a good Twitter following and his wife Chrissy Teigen has an even larger one? Or because Shelton’s contestants split the vote, and Legend’s contestant barely edged above the others?
Impossible to know, because NBC doesn’t release the actual numbers. Much like traditional publishers of old.
Levine left, I think, because the pure musicians have no place in the latter half of the show. He wasn’t having fun anymore. He has gone on to produce Songland which is sort of about true musicians. It’s actually about songwriters and collaboration and tailoring songs. But it is about music, not about who has the most Twitter followers. So I have no idea if the show will survive.
Just like I don’t know if some of my writer friends will continue on. There’s been a lot of number comparisons and social media follower comparisons and newsletter comparisons going on in the past ten years. It’s hard to keep your head on straight through all of that.
I even get wrapped around it sometimes, when I’m tired and vulnerable. I have had a lot of talks with myself about the writing being about what I want to do, and about building a fan base slowly, without noticing that I had been continuing to build my fanbase.
I don’t use the velocity (selling books fast) metric, and I don’t read reviews. I have grown my Twitter following organically, and I bifurcate my newsletter into a bunch of newsletters that focus on particular projects. People have spoken up more lately about Free Fiction Monday, but even then it’s only a comment or two, or maybe an emailed thank-you for putting up a particular story. I used to go online and obsessively watch the sales numbers as the indie world grew, because I couldn’t quite believe we were in such a great position—that writers actually could control their own careers.
So back in those days, I could have charted what sold best or quickly or consistently. I didn’t, except to notice trends. Such as the Free Fiction stories selling better the month they were up for free than they had previously. And the way that new books in a series goosed previous book sales. And how some forms of advertising worked while others didn’t.
But I slowly got away from that, because watching the numbers can make you insane. Or make me insane, anyway. Because ultimately, they don’t mean much.
For example, this week, at least six new books came into the condo. I finished one book that arrived the week before. My TBR shelf, whittled down in our move, is about 100 books strong. And those are the paper books, which I can keep track of. I have ebooks as well on my various devices, but I tend to forget about the ebooks. They don’t nag at me that way that paper books do.
So all of that is to say that while I’ve bought the books, I haven’t read them yet. And I know I’m not alone in this. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be an accepted acronym for the phenomenon. (My TBR pile.) Which means that just because people buy your books doesn’t mean they read your books—at least right away.
So the sales numbers aren’t the actual reader numbers. And buried in the actual reader numbers—the unavailable actual reader numbers—are the library books that get read repeatedly or the number of times a person loans out her favorite book to someone else.
We can never really know how many people read our books. Our newsletters sign-ups don’t tell us. Our social media doesn’t tell us. Our sales figures don’t tell us.
The readers themselves do, though, sometimes in startling ways. I was really humbled and surprised by the Diving Universe Kickstarter. I set the ask at $2000, figuring that readers who wanted The Renegat early would take the $5 reward, and readers who really wanted more of the series would also take the books of extras at $15. I didn’t think that there would be a lot of readers who would go for that stuff, which was why I put the ask at $2000. And hit it within hours.
I had no idea so many folks were waiting for the series—to read the next book—and I also had no idea that so many folks wanted the next book early. That’s really neat. As is the number of people who backed it the Kickstarter.
Here’s the thing about Kickstarter numbers. They’re like social media numbers. People who are active on Kickstarter think everyone is active on Kickstarter (just like people on Twitter think everyone is active on Twitter). But most people don’t go on Kickstarter. Most people have never backed a Kickstarter. Just like a lot of people (I’m not looking at this year’s statistic) haven’t read an ebook.
We get all caught up in our various favorite delivery methods and forget that it’s a subset of a subset. That such a large subset of Kickstarter backers and my readers came together in May was a pleasant surprise for me. And one that fits into one of my personal definitions of success.
Not only am I writing things I love to write, but people like to read those things and are willing to invest in them. That’s amazing, and makes me one lucky writer.
For the past ten years, I’ve been saying that the changes in publishing have given writers a real shot at doing what they want to do. We can write what we want, publish what we want, and make more money at it than we can in traditional publishing.
But, with those changes has come yet another upheaval on the ways we measure success. And I use the word measure on purpose.
I’ll wager that, if you ask Adam Levine, he’ll tell you that Twitter saves and overnight live votes, stirred up by social media accounts, aren’t the way to measure what makes music successful. I don’t know what he considers as successful. I just know how frustrated he got with the way that someone tinkered with The Voice. It wasn’t what he had signed up for, so he left.
Clearly it’s not about money for him either, or he wouldn’t have left $30 million on the table. He would have (grumpily) stuck it out until the end of the new contract.
But television, like music, like publishing, is trying to find a new metric, one that everyone will agree measures the audience in a way that we all believe is accurate. The key word in that sentence, by the way, is believe since we never had accurate measures in the past.
As artists, we can continue our search for a new metric or we can just tell our stories and put them out there, letting them build organically, and finding the audience in their own sweet time.
Eventually I’ll read all the books on my TBR pile. I have some books by new-to-me writers there. If I like those books, I’ll buy more from the same author. But it might take me two or three years after I bought the first book to do so. And by then, no metric will be able to track that first sale as something that led to the latter ones.
Maybe we should stop trying to find the perfect way to measure, and focus on our writing. After all, that’s what we love. That’s why we got into this business. And, I assume, that’s what we all do best.
I’m writing some of these blog posts in advance of the Licensing Expo, so that I have a few posts in the bank while I go over what I’ve learned at the Expo. Those posts will follow in mid-June and beyond as I process everything.
Thanks for supporting this weekly blog. It wouldn’t exist without readers like you. If you had told me fourteen years ago that I would be doing a weekly blog, I would have thought you were nuts. Now I wonder what I would do without this routine, and the interaction with you all.
So thank you!
If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.
If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Vexing Numbers” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / lucadp.