25 ways to generate better online book sales:

After almost 3 years back in publishing - returning from ecommerce (Borders.co.uk) - I’ve discovered that there are masses of opportunities for publishers to improve the way they sell online. This list represents some of the best and most easily achievable ideas. Some require no investment, some require cultural and personnel change but the common themes are entrepreneurism, tactics and optimisation - 3 vital characteristics needed to be successful at ecommerce, whether as a retailer or vendor. The ecommerce world is cutthroat and competitive and with the ever-increasing volume of product flooding the market, it’s vital for publishers to understand what happens to their product data when it hits the web, whatever device that happens via, and what influence they can exert over that data to improve discoverability, competitiveness and conversion rate, as well as ensuring that they are using appropriate and well-configured digital marketing techniques to maximise sales. There's still a place for making a YouTube video but unless it's driving measurable sales and you understand how and why, think again. 

1. Optimise your synopsis information for specific keywords – try the tool, Scribe. It’s designed for non-technical people to optimise text without compromising editorial integrity www.scribeseo.com - publishing and SEO can mix, trust me.

2. Understand the latest SEO trends and rules. One of the biggest problems retailers face is that presented by the Google Panda and Penguin search algorithm updates. Duplicate content (and piracy) is a big SEO no-no - all retailers feature duplicate content. The game is constantly changing.

3. Supply retailer-specific synopsis data to avoid duplicate content issues and to test conversion rates of variations – testing requires the support of the retailer as they’ll need to supply analytics data.

4. Optimise your synopsis information for display on the web, using best-practise reading structures. Think bullet points and lists, F-structures and summary-first techniques.

5. Ensure title and subtitle fields are well-formed pieces of data that facilitate discoverability. In the case of most retailers this data will form part of the URL and appear in <H1> tags on the page – getting it right is vital for good search performance.

6. Sounds obvious but use ONIX to its full potential – most publishers don’t utilise all the fields. The framework is designed with discoverability in mind. 

7. Ensure your eBook synopsis is format-relevant – if the synopsis is for an ebook, edit it with that in mind. It’s no longer enough to just rip the synopsis from the AI or the back of the book to use as metadata.

8. Embed hyperlinks to promote other titles in your eBook files, especially by the same author – note this has to be retailer-specific.

9. Try Pay With a Tweet to distribute free book samples on your website and in your marketing. 

10. Use Amazon Marketplace to sell direct-to-consumer, especially consider this if you have the capability to connect to their great API and fulfillment isn't a pain.

11. If you can’t sell directly from your corporate site, connect to an affiliate programme run by your favourite retail partner. Drive sales and extra margin. 

12. Often the publisher’s own website can rank highest for a book, simply because they are the first people to display the product online (a bit of SEO helps too). Remember this and ensure your landing page is as well presented and structured as possible.

13. Read Google’s Zero Moment of Truth research. It will change the way you think about online shopping and ecommerce. http://www.zeromomentoftruth.com/

14. Monitor your product’s performance. If you don’t understand how it’s working online, you can’t improve it. These days releasing data (and your product) into the world and waiting for sales figures is not enough. Most retailers are focusing their business online, even if they have stores, and so an ever-increasing amount of data is available if you just ask. Why not explore the data supplied in Google’s partner programme dashboard – that’ll give you a great deal of insight into how people are engaging with your books.

15. Get analytical and get your staff to be analytical. Improving your online book sales requires an analytical mind. You need to be able to understand how your product is displaying and any issues associated, how it performs in search and most importantly, how discoverable it is. You also need to be able to understand and interpret the effect your efforts are having on sales.

16. Be tactical – if a competitor product is a penny cheaper, adjusting your price can make all the difference. We live in a world of comparison shopping. In a personal experience, a product I have worked on jumped from 1200 to the top 100 in Amazon's charts overnight using this approach alone.

17. Check for competitor editions – if you’ve sold or bought rights for a book, make sure that other publisher editions aren’t appearing in territories they don’t have the rights to sell in. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens and the potential damage to sales this could cause, especially if the competitor edition is cheaper.

18. Use your website more. Most publishers have websites that let you create landing pages. Your book listing is great, but why not create a few page variations that are optimised for specific searches? You could include links to PR and multiple retailers as well as links to free sample downloads.

19. Think contextually. These days, digital marketing is all about placing your product in the right place at the right time in a position your target audience is going to see without altering their browsing habits. Use YouTube via Adwords. If someone’s searching for a specific recipe on YouTube and your cookery book features a similar recipe, show them an ad. It’s simple, measurable, scalable and cost-effective. And if channelled towards a retailer, can form part of your marketing spend negotiations.

20. Join the blogosphere and I don’t mean start a blog. If communicating with key bloggers isn’t part of your PR strategy, you are doing it wrong. Good bloggers have influence and audience and are becoming more savvy by the day. And they all need content. Build your own network and email lists and incorporate communicating to these people into your core PR and marketing activities.

21. Set up and monitor a hashtag on Twitter for all key releases and promote  that in your marketing and even in your product. Let people talk as they read.

22. Use Facebook ads to market to Facebook pages. Facebook ads that drive users to Facebook pages to perform specific conversion goals have considerably better conversion rates than those which drive users to external sites. Keep users in the eco-system they are already in and are familiar with.

23. Acquire data. In every piece of digital marketing you run, whether running a competition with a partner or a social media drive, are you always getting data? Direct to consumer is the future and to win that battle, you’ll definitely need data, and as much of it as possible.

24. Get mobile. Not just as an afterthought. Make good samples available to Smartphone users, make sure your website works well on mobile, consider mobile-specific marketing (most big ad networks can differentiate by platform / device).

25. Think about the book’s jacket in terms of the web, not just in terms of print. Is the text legible, will it look good at around 300px wide, 72dpi, what happens to the spot UV layer when it’s in web form, are there any print-specific finishes that will need adjusting for online display?

And a bonus – numbers 26, 27 and 28...

26. According to Google research, the average customer uses 10.4 resources to influence their buying decisions online. I’m not convinced the number is that high for books but it’s worth thinking about the concept. Have you provided enough supporting material and content to ensure you can send that customer over the tipping point to transact. And, is that information available easily via search? Think press coverage, product reviews, blog posts, twitter activity, the author’s own presence online, video, consumer reviews and much more. 

27. For the socialisers amongst you, check out the new social channels Branch and Medium to see what's around the corner in social media. These channels have been created by the guys behind Blogger and Twitter.

28. Consider Quora. If your book is non-fiction and answers questions from 'what's the best recipe for lasagne?', to 'when was Michael Winner born?', Quora can be a marketing channel for you. 

Hopefully that's all useful. I'm happy to carry on discussing these topics so let me know what you'd like to see next:

1. 25 techniques to improve the success of your digital marketing

2. A particular topic introduced in this list in more detail

3. Another 25 ways to boost your online book sales


Nick Atkinson




Great discussion & thanks for the feedback!

NickAtkinson7's picture

Thanks for the feedback on this post, here and via Linkedin and Twitter. And special appreciation goes to Spadron who has humbled me greatly by translating the post into Spanish and sharing it with the industry there. This is exactly why I love working in digital.

To address some of the specific points above... Generally, there is a bit of jargon associated with this type of work. It's reasonably specialist and there is terminology that is daunting to get to grips with, but much can be achieved through self-education and an understanding of the basic principles can be achieved by most people. I'm not a computer scientist, I'm a marketer at heart, but I know that I need to supplement my marketing instincts with a sound technical base in order to deliver results in this era of bookselling. 

On SENbooks comments I am in complete agreement. There was nobody more disappointed than me when Borders went out of business and I think that a world without bookstores is a poorer place indeed. I also believe that if this battle is eventually won or lost on price that  we'll all lose, even Amazon and Apple. Price and margin are what fundamentally facilitate a publishers ability to first exist and then to publish quality. If price and margin continue to be slashed, publishers won't be able to invest in quality and online bookstores will be filled with reams of self-published dross (I acknowledge there is much good self-publishing). The less revenue made from publishing, the more editorial, production, R&D budgets get squeezed, the greater the risk on quality becomes, and the poorer the consumer experience becomes. We can't ignore that digital is here and is tectonically affecting our industry but there are going to be new ways that the physical world can co-exist with the digital world and new channels are emerging for bookselling. I believe those models that are successful won't be based on the nostalgic bookstore experience though. They'll be entrepeneurial and probably niche. The traditional high street model of high stock-holding, slow churn rates and slim margins is ultimately broken and it hasn't been proven that simple product diversification will fix that.

On to Thad's comments. I'll take the numbered approach too. And it's great to hear from such a pioneer of our industry...

1. It's a good point. I'm not really suggesting that every publisher can achieve a deep understanding of SEO but any publisher that has even one marketer should be aiming to be aware of basic SEO principles. SEO can also easily be outsourced and tools like Scribe, mentioned, are there for non-techical people to begin using SEO techniques. For big publishers, SEO is absolutely essential - this is no longer a luxury item. It sounds stern but the skills required by marketers working in publishing are changing so I think it's up to publishers to ensure their staff adapt. It's something I'm passionate about.

2. Again, I agree, working with ONIX is not a beginners task, unless access to ONIX comes via a good interface, but certainly building native ONIX files is a highly technical process. In terms of retailers, I again agree, but I'd counter by saying the more successful retailers commonly expose more fields - there does seem to be a bit of correlation here. It's impossible to build a good bookstore online without using as much data as possible to aid the consumer's discoverability experience. At Borders.co.uk, we supplemented ONIX data with Librarything tagging data to add a contextual, semantic tag-driven user journey, which was incredibly dynamic and intuitive. 

3. It is - I think I'm referring to key retailers rather than for everyone. If that is unachievable, then at least creating product information specifically for eCommerce would be a good start.

4. As far as I know, Apple is the only company likely to reject a title if links went to a different retailer. But it's bad practise anyway and won't deliver conversions. Ultimately most internet-enabled devices have a browser so looking forward, linking to a landing-page which a publisher has committed to maintain is probably a more accessible solution. In many cases though, publishers are producing specific ePubs for specific retailers, particularly Amazon and Apple and when this is the case, internal links to other titles in the retailer space, or in the case of Amazon, a link to the author-landing page, will perform better. One thing we're definitely seeing with eBooks is a real commitment from consumers to buy other books by authors or in series that they like. This approach feeds that sales funnel.

25 ways to generate better online book sales

There is an awful lot of work, not to mention jargon, in this piece. Most Bookshops are run by 2 or 3 people, we aren't all the size of Borders or Amazon with teams of staff. If we all head blindly down this e-book, digital sales world our Town centres will be the poorer for it. As for always aiming to be a 1p cheaper than the next person, the race to the bottom in pricing will drive profit and good business out of the sector. I don't wish to give up browsing in a Bookshop and chatting to well informed staff and fellow customers for the next electronically generated recommendation.   

Great post. Shared with spanish publishers


First of all, congrats for this fantastic post. We thought it was so useful for our publishers, that we decided to translate it and share it trough our Blog Conexión Publidisa.

We will be honored if you check our translation and evaluate it.


Thank's again for sharing great content for our industry


25 ways to generate online books sales

I go for door #3: "Another 25 ways to boost your online books sales" because these 28 are so very good. There have been numerous posts similar to this, but none containing as much insight into the real challenges and opportunities. Lots I'd never thought of: Thanks for that.

A few comments: 

1. I agree with your #2 "Understand the latest SEO trends and rules" but as with several of your recommendations the reasonable counter is: How is the average publisher going to do this? As someone who has been studying SEO for more than 5 years as part of a range of studies I still feel like a rank amateur.

2. "Use ONIX to its full potential". Renee Register and I have been exploring this as part of the work for our new "The Metadata Handbook". As with SEO, learning how to use ONIX at full potential is a daunting task, not suited to the amateur. But most annoying is that the major online retailers only display a small subset of the available ONIX fields, and do so inconsistently.

3. While I think have specific content for the major retailers is a great idea, the amount of work involved to implement this is daunting, I think particularly for the larger publishers.

4. "Embed hyperlinks to promote other titles in your eBook files, especially by the same author – note this has to be retailer-specific." This one has been bandied about by others and I agree that it's a great idea. Is it your experience that online ebook etailers vett these links to ensure they don't link to a competitor? Apple does, do others? What if the link goes to the publishers own site, which then links to multiple retailers.


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