The Book Industry's Moneyball

Some folks have asked me how I came to the idea of algorithmic culture, the subject of my next book as well as many of my blog posts of late.  I usually respond by pointing them in the direction of chapter three of The Late Age of Print, which focuses on Amazon.com, product coding, and the rise digital communications in business.

It occurs to me, though, that Amazon wasn’t exactly what inspired me to begin writing about algorithms, computational processes, and the broader application of principles of scientific reason to the book world.  My real inspiration came from someone you’ve probably never heard of before (unless, of course, you’ve read The Late Age of Print). I’m talking about Orion Howard (O. H.) Cheney, a banker and business consultant whose ideas did more to lay the groundwork for today’s book industry than perhaps anyone’s.

Cheney was born in 1869 in Bloomington, Illinois.  For much of his adult life he lived and worked in New York State, where, from 1909-1911, he served as the State Superintendent of Banks and later as a high level executive in the banking industry.  In 1932 he published what was to be the first comprehensive study of the book business in the United States, the Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931.  It almost immediately came to be known as the “Cheney Report” due to the author’s refusal to soft-peddle his criticisms of, well, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with promoting books in the United States — from authors and publishers on down to librarians and school teachers, and everyone else in between.

In essence, Cheney wanted to fundamentally rethink the game of publishing.  His notorious report was the book industry equivalent of Moneyball.

If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), you should.  It’s about how the Oakland A’s, one of the most poorly financed teams in Major League Baseball, used computer algorithms (so-called “Sabermetrics“) to build a successful franchise by identifying highly skilled yet undervalued players.  The protagonists of Moneyball, A’s General Manager Billy Bean and Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, did everything in their power to purge gut feeling from the game.  Indeed, one of the book’s central claims is that assessments of player performance have long been driven by unexamined assumptions about how ball players ought to look, move, and behave, usually to a team’s detriment.

The A’s method for identifying talent and devising on-field strategy raised the ire of practically all baseball traditionalists.  It yielded insights that were so far afield of the conventional wisdom that its proponents were apt to seem crazy, even after they started winning big.

It’s the same story with The Cheney Report.  Consider this passage, where Cheney faults the book industry for operating on experience and intuition instead of a statistically sound “fact basis”:

Facts are the only basis for management in publishing, as they must be in any field.  In that respect, the book industry is painfully behind many others — both in facts relating to the industry as a whole and in facts of individual [publishing] houses….”Luck”; waiting for a best-seller; intuitive publishing by a “born publisher” — these must give way as the basis for the industry, for the sake of the industry and everybody in it….In too many publishing operations the theory seems to be that learning from experience means learning how to do a thing right by continuing to do it wrong (pp. 167-68).

This, more than 70 years before Moneyball!  And, like Beane and DePodesta, Cheney was raked over the coals by almost everyone in the industry he was criticizing.  They refused to listen to him, despite the fact that, in the throes of the Great Depression, most everything that had worked in the book industry didn’t seem to be working so well anymore.

Well, it’s almost the same story. Beane and DePodesta have enjoyed excellent careers in Major League Baseball, despite the heresy of their ideas.  They’ve been fortunate to have lived at a time when algorithms and computational mathematics are enough the norm that at least some can recognize the value of what they’ve brought to the game.

The Cheney Report, in contrast, had almost no immediate effect on the book industry.  The Report suffered due to its — and Cheney’s own — untimeliness.  The cybernetics revolution was still more than a decade off, and so the idea of imagining the book industry as a complexly communicative ecosystem was all but unimaginable to most.  This was true even with Cheney, who, in his insistence on ascertaining the “facts,” was fumbling around for what would later come to be known as “information.”

Today we live in O. H. Cheney’s vision for the book world, or, at least, some semblance of it.  People wonder why Amazon.com has so shaken up all facets of the industry.  It’s an aggressive competitor, to be sure, but its success is premised more on its having fundamentally rethought the game.  And for this Jeff Bezos owes a serious thank you to a grumpy old banker who, in the 1930s, wrote the first draft of what would go on to become publishing’s new playbook.

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