On January 2, Mark Zuckerberg announced, in a status update on Facebook, that his personal challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every two weeks. Zuckerberg will be tracking his progress, thoughts, and questions on a Facebook community page, "A Year of Books." In a generous, if sweeping, gesture, Zuckerberg then patted the adjacent cushion on his online sectional couch, and invited the entirety of the social network's 864 million daily active members to join in.
The media reception of "A Year of Books" has been interesting to watch. For the most part, people have written excitedly about the project, pointing to the number of followers the community page has received (almost 218,000 as of this writing), and "Likes" (about 6,000) given to the announcement of the first book, Moisés Naím's The End of Power. "The publishing industry will likely be thankful for one of Mark Zuckerberg's New Year's resolutions," leads an article on the Publisher's Weekly website.
A number of people have asked whether Zuckerberg is making a play to be the next Oprah, or outright suggested that he's already laid claim as her successor. This is ridiculous. Mark Zuckerberg is not Oprah. Oprah built an entertainment and media empire that trades in feelings; she is the definition of a successful personal brand. Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, a website buttressed by targeted ads with a well-intentioned but often emotionally clumsy experience. Oprah can make one's life feel like an important journey to the center of the soul. Facebook can make one's life feel inadequate, ephemeral, and commoditized.
Oprah's Book Club works because books, like Oprah, stand at the cross-section of the human condition and entertainment. It works because Oprah knows her viewers, and to her viewers she is a tastemaker. O: The Oprah Magazine has always had an impressive book review section, with cohesive editorial direction. The first iteration of the Book Club itself, featured as a recurring segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show, highlighted works – often by women, often fiction, often overlooked, not necessarily contemporary – that were emotionally resonant with viewers. (It's no coincidence that at the center of the Venn diagram between viewers of The Oprah Winfrey Show and leading book-buyers is a robust and crucial market: middle-aged women.) Oprah brought authors onto her show, promoting personal narratives that ran parallel to the written work; she encouraged the creation of 3-D book clubs in viewers' homes, to foster community and dialogue.
This is partially why the attempt to create a book club on Facebook feels a bit off. Oprah's best product has always been Oprah; Mark Zuckerberg's best product is Facebook, not Mark Zuckerberg. Mark Zuckerberg is a very smart software engineer; he is a successful, innovative, and controversial American entrepreneur; he is a philanthropist. He is not a tastemaker. His audience is anyone.
Plus, taking to Facebook to discuss anything seems like a misguided idea; discussing an entire book there sounds even worse. The page for "A Year of Books" is already a perfect example of why. The most recent post, announcing The End of Power as Zuckerberg's first pick, politely requests that participants "please keep all conversation relevant to this book." Honest attempts to talk about the book are crushed by the stampede of some 700 comments that range from requests for a discount on Amazon to the astute observation that an audiobook version costs about the same as a pack of cigarettes. This is no more a book club than an online helpdesk or the bleachers at a basketball game. A stream of comments is not a conversation.
So Facebook is not a book club. But Facebook is also not bad for books. Needless to say, I tend to be in favor of anything that gets more people buying, reading, and talking about books. The End of Power quickly sold out on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble's website after Zuckerberg's announcement. The book has received modest attention already, but the boost in sales was probably a very nice surprise for its publisher, Basic Books. The author is quoted in the New York Times as having been "flabbergasted."
This all makes for a delightful anecdote, but Facebook's capacity to influence the publishing industry is more than just driving sales. Some have suggested that Zuckerberg's book club is the first step toward the development of an online marketplace, which seems plausible enough. Surely there's no reason why Facebook can't unroll an online bookstore, with an complementary e-reading platform to match. But Facebook doesn't need to create a new internal platform, or even a new feature, to start raking in – and potentially capitalizing on – an extremely valuable and rare resource: data on book readership.
Book publishing is a notoriously mysterious industry, and it has a data problem. This is both a necessity and a disadvantage, and it reflects the industry's dueling identities: as a cultural force, and as a business. On the one hand, the industry needs tastemakers, not algorithms, to usher good writing, new ideas, and new voices into the world. (This is not always perfect; publishing has a diversity problem, too.) I used to work in publishing, on the agency side, and can speak firsthand to the importance of human judgment. For books that are pleasurable to read, not simply informative, you need human talent, effort, and taste. If publishing were a wholly data-driven, consumer-led industry, we would all be reading short-form Mad-Libs with photographs of women on the cover.
Oprah's best product has always been Oprah; Mark Zuckerberg's best product is Facebook, not Mark Zuckerberg. He is not a tastemaker. His audience is anyone.
Still, there's a hole where the data should be. Publishers create, warehouse, and distribute books, but they're missing the final step: ownership of the marketplace. This gives them all the encumbrance of the supply chain with none of the denouement. If publishing companies were also successful retailers, they would have easy access to information on their audience. Instead the industry has point-of-sale data, provided by Nielsen's BookScan, which offers little insight into where–whose hands–books actually end up. Market research is tricky for creative industries, not to mention prohibitively expensive. As a result, much of what gets published is based on intuition, taste, and faith that people will be interested in books akin to prior bestsellers. Publishing is a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats industry: popular books buoy and fund the quieter, more literary ones. We need them all.
Data could be useful to publishers in many ways: establishing realistic print runs, sharpening targeted marketing efforts, even helping inform the flow or focus of more formulaic books. But this is where the publishing industry gets lost in the dark, and is reliant on third-party tools to track its own success metrics and business insights. Nielsen's BookScan is extremely expensive, but it's an unrivaled incumbent and people pony up. Next Big Book has taken a stab at providing analytics for publishers, correlating point-of-sale with social media data on a per-author basis. But it appears that they don't have much to add, either – the dashboard displayed on Next Big Book's marketing site shows some disappointing "key metrics": Facebook Page Likes, Twitter followers, Instagram likes, Twitter mentions, and Goodreads ratings. The dashboard is pretty, but it's not insightful; it's a time-saving aggregation of information that any person with an Internet connection can find for free.
By contrast, technology companies collect an insane amount of data on user behavior and user demographics. It's safe to assume at this point that anything you explicitly share with an app (your birthday, the number of people in the social network you've authorized access to in order to find friends) or do in the app (how quickly you abandon a book, what you save and aspire to read versus what you actually read) is being recorded and stashed in a database. This is great from a product development standpoint; controversial from a moral standpoint; and potentially nightmarish from a content-creation standpoint.
At the moment, Amazon–especially with the acquisition of Goodreads–knows a whole lot about readers' habits: their purchases, libraries, and conversations. But Facebook has always been a leader in personal-data collection, and so easily has the potential to pinpoint where reading fits into its users' lifestyles.
There has been talk of Facebook becoming a one-stop shop someday: the app you open whenever you need to buy, see, or say anything. There's the potential for a secondary marketplace here, too: very personal, granular, and potentially influential user data. Mark Zuckerberg's book club may be just an unambitious, unambiguous book club, but it's resting on a goldmine of powerful, hard-to-come-by information. Whether Facebook collects this data strategically or not, such information could be very useful for the publishing industry. Like Nielsen BookScan or Next Big Book, the publishing industry might even be willing to pay for it.
Transparency around data collection–what's collected, who can see it, and what it's used for – is a bit of a pipe dream. With the present fervor for data has come a push for that data to stay proprietary, to be hoarded: even data that isn't particularly relevant to a company's core business goals is often squirreled away, just in case. (Grease for the ever-possible pivot.) But publishers provide the books that fuel "A Year of Books," just as users provide the data that fuels Facebook. It wouldn't take much for data about readers, about people–in a spirit not dissimilar to the kumbaya of an Internet-wide book club–to be open to those who generate it, and available in some capacity to those who might need to rely on it.
This will never happen, of course. When people hang out in privately owned spaces on the Internet, it effectively throws a barricade up against sociological inquiry. Plus, if the predictions about a Facebook marketplace ring true, then books are a perfect first foray: Facebook can sell to a book club of book-buyers, while simultaneously creating a database that's highly valuable to publishers. It seems unlikely that this information will ever be shared, or free–but I suppose it's not Facebook's responsibility to be a tool for the publishing industry, generous as that would be.
Though his platform falls short in sustaining a conversation about books, Zuckerberg has shown that he can start one. For publishers, Facebook should be considered as more than just a booster platform. For readers, the most generous, benevolent thing Zuckerberg can do now is encourage people to move the conversation he's started somewhere else. Just as the consolidation of data on a single platform can be unwise, there's no need to stuff all of life's small pleasures into one comment thread. When in doubt, turn to Oprah: she held up the books, but viewers happily threw their parties without her.
[Image via AP]