The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.
Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.
“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.
I'm not so sure about this. Does anyone really want the publishing industry to give readers what they want? I know that I don't want what I want--I want what I don't yet know I want. Sure, I'm always happy to sink my teeth into a nice crime novel when I know it's going to satisfy me in a particular way. But the whole point of literary fiction, and really the only thing that separates it from commercial fiction, is that it provides a new way of seeing. You're not supposed to know you want to read it. You're supposed to be surprised.
Increasingly, the publishing industry can't stand surprise. It is bad for the bottom line. And the idea that the Times would suggest that the industry's unpredictability is a problem really makes me want to give up, and just scawl my novels on bar napkins and staple them to phone poles.
What the publishing industry really needs to do is to give up the idea, cooked up at some point during the buyouts of the 1990's, that putting out books can be as profitable as any other business. Perhaps it can, but dammit, it shouldn't. Books should be a labor of love, and a decent way to make a decent living, at best.