I got a 100% Read Ratio at Medium – but who cares? Counting our readers in a social media world.

Don’t get excited. The 100% only covered 32 views. But still, it’s 100% isn’t it?

Here’s the issue:

Between 1992 and 1995  I  was a busy writer. I published two novels, edited an anthology of stories, and wrote a handbook for creative writing teachers. All appeared in print, and each book sold in several different ways with different levels of royalties – bookclub, library, education, trade, hardback, paperback, UK and the World sales, US and Canada sales… I can’t remember them all. Once or twice a year my agent sent me royalty statements which I found completely incomprehensible, but eventually cheques would appear so that I knew some people somewhere were buying my books. I never really understood, though, how many people that might be, although as a former book-seller myself I was always aware that a certain number of remainder copies would also be languishing unsold in storerooms around the globe. And my earnings were not huge, so I’m guessing that, like the vast majority of authors, I didn’t sell very many at all. Another way to find out how many might be reading my stuff is through Public Lending Rights, because in the UK we’re lucky enough to get a tiny royalty from library loans once a year. And then there’s the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society, which collects payments for authors from various usages of their work such as photocopying and digital reproduction and also provide annual statements.

After 1995 I was distracted from writing by the need to earn decent money and I only produced one more book (in 2004) along with a number of academic papers which, of course, very few people ever saw, but this year I once again have a title out with a major publisher. It’s available in hardback, paperback, ebook and, I’m told, a free plain text edition which has not yet appeared. It came out in September and already friends are asking me how many copies have sold. They ask this because they don’t know that my publishers will calculate this number just once a year, on 31st December, after which at some point they will send me a statement to be followed later, I hope, by a cheque. After quite a few years of commercial inactivity I no longer have an agent, but at least that means I get to keep 100% of however much it might be. More than nothing, I hope.

Anyway, what I want to get at here is that while the traditional print writer part of me soldiers on in general ignorance of who, if anyone, is buying my new book, the social media part of me is taking a keen interest in who, if anyone, is reading my other writings. And I certainly do know the numbers for that. Like many bloggers, I have access to a huge array of statistics, demographics, and other numbers for every blog post I write. I also know, thanks to Google Alerts and various other tools, that an article I wrote for Aeon in the same week that the book came out reached all kinds of people in quite a few countries, and like any other Aeon reader I can see exactly how many Facebook Likes, Tweets, +1s and comments it got.

And now there is Medium. I’ve been reading Medium for quite a while so when it offered readers the chance to request an author account I was keen to get involved. I didn’t think about what this would mean in terms of statistics because I was simply keen to join the Medium crowd, but I’ve discovered that it’s another whole new statistical world.  This is how it works:

Medium boils down your stats to some very simple numbers: how many people have seen your post; how many of them have read it; and the resulting read ratio – e.g. if 4 people viewed it but only 2 people went on to read the whole thing, the Read Ratio is 50%. The last column shows how many people recommended the post to others. At the time of writing this article I had experimented with just 4 posts. The screenshot below shows the accumulated stats for all four posts for the last 30 days. As you’ll see, they’re not massive.

mediumstatsWhat’s especially clever is that by clicking on the post title you can separate out the stats and see just the numbers for that post. I’ve done this below for ‘I love my digital life’, my first post. You can see that it got most hits at the start but it’s still picking up the occasional read here and there. The others, in comparison, spiked early but then tailed off, although the Jack Dorsey post has maintained some regularity  (This is probably due to the publicity for Twitter’s IPO) even though the numbers are minuscule.

statslovemyMedium aggregates all these statistics and automatically generates links on its homepage to articles which are currently trending, just like on Twitter. There are lots of other interesting features too, such as making it easy to collaborate by sharing drafts behind the scenes, and commenting on articles once they’re live. It’s great, really.

It’s all great. But it’s a very long way from living in general ignorance beyond an annual publisher’s royalty statement, and marks quite a significant culture change beyond the obvious one that you’re not remunerated in money at Medium, but in statistics. And I’m starting to pay too much attention to these figures which are now passing judgement on my work every minute of the day. I can’t stop looking at them even though they are mostly meaningless. For example, 2 of my 4 posts at Medium got 100% Read Ratios. Woohoo! But wait, the numbers are tiny. They don’t mean anything at all.

wordpressstatAnd sometimes stats are downright misleading. Last summer, after years of using Typepad, I set up my first WordPress blog. For quite a while I was confused by the fact that on the front page WordPress displayed the number of people ‘following’ the blog, and it was quite a lot. Wow! What a huge number of readers I had suddenly acquired! And everyone could see! Fantastic! But no. The number shown does not represent the people who choose to follow my blog. It’s made up of those people plus my Facebook Friends plus my Twitter Followers. That’s naughty, WordPress. But I still display it because it gives me a nice warm glow.

But wait! What’s all this talk about numbers?  I’m not a statistician! I’m a writer! Every day I spend hours crafting and revising pieces that are meant to convey what I want to say as accurately and fluently as I am able. In the past, I’d find out once a year roughly how many people may have accessed a book, and if it was a magazine or newspaper article I would simply never know nor expect to, since a paper’s distribution numbers tell you nothing about the number of readers of each individual piece. But now, online, I do know those numbers. I even know how many only viewed at Medium but didn’t go on to read. At Aeon I know my article got 26 comments, 329 Facebook Likes, 160 RTs on Twitter, and 38 G+s. And because I recently re-published my last book book on Kindle and GooglePlay, I can get real-time information about their sales too.

It’s distracting. It makes me think too much about how to increase my stats and it eats into my creative time. It’s an extra hurdle to leap in a world where writing is as hard to do as it ever was, yet it’s one that’s very hard to ignore. I don’t like it but I can’t stop looking. This new ability to count our readers and gather all kinds of demographics about them is fascinating and we’re very lucky to have it but how will it affect the way we write and publish? That’s yet to be seen.

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