3 important questions about digital that nobody is asking.

I was deliberating what I’d write about in my first post for Futurebook and begun by considering the hot subjects everyone is talking about – what % of sales could eBooks account in the future? Are Kobo or Apple genuinely going to give Amazon a run for their money in ebook sales? Is publishing apps a good idea and how do you make them commercially viable? Booksellers as publishers, what’s the deal with that? Does the agency model work? What digital marketing strategies drive measurable success for bookselling? All of these are great questions, which have been answered by many great minds in our industry. Can I add anything meaningful to those discussions beyond a bold opinion claiming I’ve invented a time machine and can see into the future? I definitely have an opinion and I think if you knew me you’d hopefully value it (it’s got me this far), but instead it got me thinking about all the issues in digital that people aren’t talking about. We’ve started a new quarter, everyone is fresh and back from over-indulging, our customers are thankfully once again buying New Year, New You, but there are questions, important questions and questions which need to be dragged out from under the rug and thrown into the open.

EBooks  aren’t actually that exciting, so why are people buying them?

Ok, that is a bold statement, but let’s thinks about this. It’s 2012 and digital is all-powerful. At any point in time I can Instagram my dinner and make at least 46 people a) jealous b) hungry c) feel like their life is less cool than mine. I can communicate directly with MINOR CELEBRITIES on Twitter. And last but by no means least, I can browse pictures of Jesus’ face on toast whenever I need to.  So why are we struggling so much to make a digital book look and feel like a book? I remember the overwhelming sense of disappointment, anti-climax and resignation that I felt when I first looked at an eBook, way back when, on the Iliad - a device thankfully confined to myth and legend (it had a STYLUS for god’s sake). Even now, working with a conversion supplier I’m proud to partner with, who does a good job of stretching the ePub and Kindle formats, whenever we get our eBooks back, we still often gaze misty-eyed at the print edition and wonder where the design went and that’s just on text-based product. If you are honest, you’ve felt the same way. We’ve had moments where we’ve tried to shoehorn full-colour books into reflowable epubs to see what would happen, got the files back and laughed out loud at ourselves for even bothering.

To note, one of our titles has just been announced as a finalist for a significant award for excellence in eBook publishing so I feel better placed than ever to comment on this question.

Firstly, price. It’s the big ticket item online - always has been, always will be. As long as eBook pricing is fair, people will continue to buy more eBooks. The questions are, what is fair eBook pricing? Are these sales substitutional? And, do the margins hold up when discount is so heavy? You’ll have your own sales figures to begin to answer those questions.  But price is critical. Make no mistake. Selling online is incredibly price-sensitive and the publishers and authors racking up the sales are the ones who are discovering the pricing sweet-spots within genres, categories and formats, monitoring their pricing versus competitive product and reacting accordingly. Who benefits here? The consumer, who enjoys lower priced product, conscience-free, trusting that publisher wouldn’t be so irresponsible as to make negative margin on a book (that really is an industry responsibility). I could write about price all day, but you’ve got work to do, so I won’t.

Secondly, enhancements. Were really only at the beginning of the enhancing-eBooks journey. Some argue that the content should stand up on its own and reading should be enough, but that only applies to a few text-lead categories and even then is up for discussion (think social reading etc). In food publishing, one important genre where I work, demonstrating complex techniques with a video or letting people annotate and adjust recipes represents real product enhancement and an improved experience for the consumer, as well as new selling points for our sales material. We don’t yet see a huge difference in sales between enhanced and normal eBooks but it’s only a matter of time before the shift really happens and it’s going to be a really exciting time when it does.

Thirdly content. Ok so font rendering on most e-ink screens is a little bit blocky, the Vox is a bit heavy and the iPad is an expensive way to read books, but what matters here is the content. People are still buying eBooks because publishers and authors produce the content they love. True, some of the most popular ebooks involve werewolves getting amorous with vampires, but you know what, as long as people are reading, it’s probably ok. When more of the mass-market take up e-reading, I’m confident the ebook charts will re-adjust and publishers must keep believing that this will happen.

Why am I rubbish at selling books online?

Publishers have been so focused on eBooks that they’ve neglected to develop their skills in online retail. There are bucket loads of techniques that can be employed to improve your sales and marketing team’s ability to maximize the revenue potential of any title online, from the way they spend their marketing budgets, to implementing tactical price monitoring and adjustment strategies, to driving pre-orders with the aim of charting, to designing web-specific book jackets, to constructing optimized bibliographic data. I am definitely going to write a future post about this topic and share some real techniques publishers can use, but I’ll give you an example to get you started. Take your synopsis data. Be honest for a moment, your company takes the blurb from the back of the book and that’s the synopsis you supply with your bibliographic data to retail? Hang your head. You can do better. When someone has a book in their hand in a store, a taster of the story or a descriptive summary of the content can be enough to convince them to purchase. But online it’s different, people shop in a different way. They can’t touch the textured edging you’ve given the book, they don’t look at the page extent to know it’s an epic read and many of the emotional signals simply holding a book transmits, are negated. All of this is a surprise when the book is delivered.

It needn’t be.

There isn’t usually a word limit on synopsis data so why not add some selling points, in list form, pointing out the elements of the book that the reader will love. You can also offer comparisons to other product, why is this the book they should choose? What makes it an essential read? How many hours of pleasure will it give you for the money? You want to charge more than the cost of an MP3 for your book, tell the customer why it’s worth it. And consider SEO. This is serious people. Optimizing product data is critical. How do people find your books online? Unless they are on promotion or linked to from somewhere, it’ll be via search or a dynamic product-relation engine. Optimised content, that explicitly tells those engines what you are selling, will make a difference to the findability of your titles. And this one is controversial - you want your product to show up on ‘if you liked this, you’ll like…’, then you are going to need to go shopping my friend. This is only the beginning. You can be better at online bookselling, I promise.

Where the heck is my audience? They used to shop at Borders.

Having been at Borders UK during the collapse, I’ve wondered the same thing. The truth is that book readers are still reading, many of them are even still buying books and not just reading online, but they don’t come into bookstores as much, so what next? Bold statement alert. The single biggest challenge for our industry is that for the first time in history, the onus is on publishers to sell directly to consumers. Don’t be scared, this is possible and I definitely don’t mean adding e-commerce to your corporate site unless you love managing small income streams and are desperate to talk to customers, on the phone.  Firstly customers shop where they like to shop, we can influence that decision but we’re better off leaving it to the retailers to fight it out. I know, I was one, and it gets dirty. So what should publishers do? Well, nobody will buy your book if they don’t know it exists, even if it’s on every retail site on earth. Let’s start there and accept that new ways of thinking are required. It’s no good always having to put complex marketing campaigns together for every single title (although I am a diehard fan of ingenuity and innovation in marketing for titles that suit). Your business needs marketers to create strategies that are reusable, consistent and bring success. Were replacing the magic that was co-op contribution for FOS. Two of the most successful pieces of digital marketing I ever executed at retail, with publisher co-operation, were completely free and involved one common theme – going to a space an audience already existed and participated in, engaging with the guardian of that space, listening to them about what they wanted, working with them to deliver it and giving their audience a reason to engage with your product. This approach is repeatable and helps build fabulous relationships you’ll be able to reuse over and over again. But you need multiple strategies and the next step is to think how you as the publisher can be the guardian of that audience. Digital is the key here. You undoubtedly have the content, which by the way the internet loves, so why not think about how you can use it online to hook people into a community that you can invest in growing. People like insider knowledge, they like to be close to authors and there is nobody better placed to link these things together than publishers. I’d encourage everyone to at least consider, in 2012, picking one niche they publish into and tasking their marketing team to build a community in that niche. This is a change from their normal job of marketing titles book-by-book and something that will take patience, care, time and investment, but if it safeguards your access to audience in a world of diminishing shop windows and isn’t that a good thing?

You’ve made it this far? Thanks for staying with me and I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. I’d love to hear what you, the Futurebook reader thinks. You are my peers. I respect you greatly. I’m passionate about driving new ways of thinking into what is a traditional industry at heart and I believe that the sharing of ideas, peer-to-peer communication and looking for the questions people aren’t asking are some of the ways we’ll all improve.




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