Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 2—Higher sales

This post is the second in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. This post describes how Open Review led to higher sales. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and increased access to knowledge.

Before talking about sales in more detail, I think I should start by acknowledging that it is a bit unusual for authors to talk about this stuff. But sales are an important part of the Open Review process because of one simple and inescapable fact: publishers need revenue. My editor is amazing, and she’s spent a lot of time making Bit by Bit better, as have her colleagues that do production and design. These people need to be paid salaries, and those salaries have come from somewhere. If you want to work with a publisher—even a non-profit publisher—then you have to be sensitive to the fact that they need revenue to be sustainable. Fortunately, in addition to better books and increased access to knowledge, Open Review also helps sell books. So for the rest of this post, I’m going to provide a purely economic assessment of the Open Review process.

One of the first questions that some people ask about Open Review is: “Aren’t you giving your book away for free?”  And the answer is definitely no. Open Review is free like Google is free.

Notice that Google makes a lot of money without ever charging you anything. That’s because you are giving Google something valuable, your data and your attention. Then, Google monetizes what you provide them. Open Review is the same.

In addition to improving the manuscript, which should lead to more sales, there are three main that Open Review increases sales: collecting email addresses, providing market intelligence, and promoting course adoptions.

Email addresses

After discussions with my editor, we decided that the main business metric during the Open Review of Bit by Bit was collecting email addresses of people who wanted to be notified when the book was complete. These addresses are valuable to the publisher because they can form the basis of a successful launch for the book. 

How did we collect email address?  Simple, we just asked people like this:


During the Open Review process we collected 340 unique valid emails address. Aside from a spike at the beginning, these arrive at a pace of about 1 per day with no sign of slowing down.


Who are these people? One quick way to summarize it is to look at the email ending (.com, .edu, .jp, etc). Based on this data, it seems that that Open Review helped us collect email address from people all over the world.


Another way to summarize the types of people who provided their email address is to look at the email suffixes (everything that comes after @). This shows, for example, which schools and companies are most represented.

Just collecting 340 email addresses was enough to significantly increase sales of Bit by Bit. And, in future Open Review projects, authors and publishers can get better at collecting email addresses. Just as Amazon is constantly running experiments to get you to buy more stuff, and the New York Times is running experiments to get you to click on more headlines, we were running experiments to collect more addresses. And unlike the experiments by Amazon and the New York Times, our experiments were overseen by Princeton’s Human Subjects Institutional Research Board.  

We tried six different ways to collect email addresses, and then we let Google Analytics use a multi-armed bandit approach find the best one. Here’s how they compared:


These differences are not huge, but they illustrate that Open Review websites can use the same kind of conversation optimization techniques that are common on modern, commercial websites. And I’m confident that future Open Review projects could be have an even higher rate of email sign-ups with additional design improvements and experimentation.

Market intelligence

In addition to collecting email addresses, the Open Review process also provides market intelligence that helped tailor the marketing of the book. For example, using a tool called Google Webmaster you can see which parts of your book are being linked to:


From this information, we learned that in addition to the book itself, people were most interested in the Open Review process and the chapter on Ethics. Then, when we were developing marketing copy for the book, we tried to emphasize this chapter.

Using Google Webmaster, you can also see which search terms are leading people to your book. In my case, you will see that 9 of the top 10 terms are not in English (in fact 48 of the top 50 terms are not in English). This is because of the machine translation process, which I talk about more in the post on increased access to knowledge. I was hoping that we would receive more organic search traffic in English, but as learned during this project: it is very hard to show up in the top 10 in organic search for most keywords.


In case you are curious, গবেষণা নকশা means “research design” in Bengali (Bangla).  

A final way that this market intelligence was helpful was in selling foreign rights to the book. For example, I provide this map of global traffic to representatives from Princeton University Press before they went to the London Book Fair to sell the foreign rights to Bit by Bit. This traffic shows in a very concrete way that there was an interest in the book outside of the United States.




Course adoptions

Finally, in addition to email addresses to help launch the book and market intelligence, Open Review accelerates course adoptions. My understanding is there is typically a slow ramp-up in course adoptions over the period of several years. But that slow ramp-up would be problematic for my book, which is freshest right when published and will gradually go stale over time. Given that the lifespan for this edition is limited, early course adoptions are key, and Open Review helped with that. I know of about 10 courses (list here) that have adopted the book in whole or in part during the Open Review process. This helped prime the pump for course adoptions when the book went on sale.

In this post, I’ve tried to describe the business case for Open Review, and I’ve shown how Open Review can help with collecting email addresses, gathering market intelligence, and speeding course adoptions. I think that purely on economic terms Open Review makes sense for publishers and authors for some books. If more people explore and develop Open Review as a model, I expect that these economic benefits would increase.  Further, this simply economic analysis does not count the benefits that come from better books and increased access to knowledge, two things that both authors and publishers value.

This post is the second in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit. You can also read more about how the Open Review of Bit by Bit led to a better book and increased access to knowledge. And, you can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 1—Better booksMatthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 3—Increased access to knowledge >>