Sunday, August 26, 2012

How to lie with statistics

When you talk about book sales, you don't say "I've sold a million chapters of my novel."  You say, "I've sold twenty thousand books," (which each contain 50 chapters).  That seems pretty obvious. 

Last week a newspaper article about one podcast author stated that "his fans have downloaded more than 15 million episodes."  Recently I stated that my podcasts have reached about 60,000 listeners.  Now I feel puny.

Size matters.

But journalists are easily fooled.  That podcast author with his 15 million downloads has about a dozen serialized novels that contain anywhere from 20 to 40 episodes, so a listener who wants to hear one complete novel has to download 20 to 40 separate times.  Thus, 40 downloads might equal one listener.  15 million downloads amounts to, at most, 500,000 listeners — which in the subculture of serialized audiobook podcasting is still a goodly sum.

Downloads, listeners.  Apples, oranges.  Chapters, books.  Episodes, podcast novels.

For the record, my podcast novels contain anywhere from 11 episodes (Boone Barnaby) to 32 (Clear Heart).  I'm approaching my first million downloads.  From that, I calculate I've had about 60,000 listeners*.

There.  Now I don't feel quite so puny. 

*Listeners, of course, are only an approximation.  Some people download the first episode, don't like it, and then never download the remaining episodes.  Do they count as "listeners"?  After all, they listened to one episode, even if they hated it.  Others download all the episodes, then share them with several friends and family so that each download has several listeners.  And others may download several episodes but bail out before listening to all of them.  And if somebody listens to every episode of each of my 5 podcast novels, should that count as one listener or five?  How do you adjust for all this?  You can only speculate.  Which gives some justification for citing the number of downloads — at least, it's a solid figure.  But let's be clear about what it does — and does not — mean. 

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