Monday, June 3, 2013

"House of Cards," Binge Viewing, Algorithms...and Writing

 by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
I don't usually watch a lot of television. One of the reasons is that I’m so short on time and jealously guard the free time I do have.  I don’t want to waste it on bad TV.
Then, by the time it finally trickles down into my consciousness that something is a good show, it’s probably two or three seasons in…I’m just that out of the loop. By that point, it seems useless to even try to catch up. 
But at some point, networks started realizing that if they aired old episodes online, they could snag new viewers.  My sister-in-law assured me that I’d enjoy Lost which was airing on ABC. At the time, the show's last season was about to air.  I started watching episode one on my laptop during my lunch one day.  I continued watching an episode or even more each day after that until I was finished catching up by the time the final season aired.  What’s more, I felt like I’d really followed the fairly convoluted plot because of the way I’d chosen to consume the show.  It had been a self-paced marathon.

 I’ve been fascinated by the way Netflix is approaching television with their February 1 release of House of Cards. They left the pacing up to the viewers by releasing all thirteen episodes of the season at once.  I’ve watched the series and it’s a strangely addicting process to view a show knowing you can just keep going once the credits start rolling. You want to keep watching and see what happens next.  What’s more—the show is available for you when you’re available for it.   If you’ve got a block of free time, you can watch more than the usual weekly new episode that’s allotted to viewers by the networks.
I’ve also noted, with interest, the success some self-published authors have had with putting up large numbers of books at once, or releasing books in rapid succession.  I believe this has been a contributing factor in some authors’ success…resulting in increased visibility at online retailers (specifically Amazon.) Romance writer, Barbara Freethy, released a substantial backlist very quickly.  Amanda Hocking wrote quite a few books before releasing any (she was trying to break into traditional publishing and wrote other books as she submitted, as she outlined in her post: “An Epic Tale of How it all Started.   Hugh Howey began seeing success with his first installment of Wool and was encouraged to outline the rest of the story and accelerate his output…forgoing NaNoWriMo to focus on working on Wool, as he explains in his post “The Story of My Middling Success.”   It’s also, obviously, very important to have some quality control for what you’re releasing…these books weren’t written and published in haste, but over a period of time.
Back to the television, Netflix is also being innovative by using data as part of their creative process. Greg Satall writes in “What Netflix’s House of Cards Means for the Future of TV” for Forbes: “Finally, it’s the first time that programming has been developed with the aid of big data algorithms.”  Jessica Leber for the MIT Technology Review stated in her article, “House of Cards and Our Future of Algorithmic Programming”: "(Netflix) bought House of Cards based on what it knows about the viewing habits of its 33 million users—it knew which and how many users watch movies starring Kevin Spacey and the director David Fincher, and, through its tagging and recommendation system, how many sat through other similar political dramas. It has shown different trailers to people depending on their particular viewing habits, too."
As authors, we don’t have as much data available to us as media providers like Netflix and retailers like Amazon…but we do have some, and we can make educated guesses as to other data.  We can measure reader response to titles, covers, and stories by tracking sales. We can review the highlighted sections on the bottom of our book’s sale page to see what resonates with readers.  We can study our reviews on retail sites like Amazon, and book sharing sites like Goodreads (now owned by Amazon), even if that’s painful for us (and it’s sure a lot easier if we can adopt an analytical approach to the reviews.)
As I mentioned, I’m fascinated by these developments.  I see exciting possibilities for writers…but I also see some potential pitfalls.  I’m going to post part two of this post (since this first is becoming a bit longwinded) on Friday…and I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.
What excites or concerns you about the a possible change in viewing/reading/consumer habits for entertainment?  Do you see a place for algorithms in publishing?  In the creative process, itself?