Take a Fresh Look: Marketing & Promotion Strategies for Book Publishers
Find out what Regina, Ryan Gosling, and Bundling have to do with book publishing, and other sales and marketing tips shared by industry experts at ABPBC’s recent professional development day in this guest post from MPub Candidate Paulina Dabrowski.
On Thursday September 11th the students in the Masters of Publishing program were given the opportunity to sit in on a seminar put on by the ABPBC (The Association of Book Publishers of BC), which focused on marketing and promotional strategies for Canadian publishing.
Bruce Walsh of the recently re-branded University of Regina Press (formerly Canadian Plains Research Centre Press) gave an inspirational keynote address on how to stand out in a crowded marketplace, including pioneering the first reality tv show on publishing.
Joanna Karaplis, marketing and communications manager for BookNet Canada, provided insights into the latest BookNet Canada publications and research on marketing to the Canadian book buyer.
And after a collegial lunch at Steamworks, the attendees dug into the nuts and bolts of working with a sales rep and bundling eBooks.
The professional development day concluded with a roundtable discussion on the questions, frustrations and lessons learned by the members and presenters in attendance.
For those readers interested specifically in the “how-to” component of the day, here’s a recap of the session run by Kate Walker, sales rep and former owner of Ampersand, and Cheryl Fraser, VP Ampersand Inc. and manager of the gift division for the agency.
Everything you ever wanted to know about working with a sales rep but didn’t know what to ask
Kate and Cheryl have decades of experience in the industry and have worked with booksellers, librarians and specialty customers, authors and publishers. They described being a sales rep as follows, “we work with everyone in the publishing company, connecting book publishers to their customers, and customers with book publishers. Our goal is to get the books publishers acquire to the right customers in the perfect markets.”
In order to do this efficiently sales reps work hard to be good mediators. They spend most of their time communicating the right information from publishers to booksellers and back, and in order to do this they are constantly reading, and keeping updated on the book world. They need to keep track of which books are selling, which books are winning awards, and predict needs before they arrive. Kate describes sales reps as “adaptable chameleons” in that they must be responsive to the customers or book publishers’ needs.
Utilizing sales reps effectively can save publishers a lot of time and money. Sales reps have a more personal relationship with book buyers than publishers, and they use this in-depth knowledge to place books where they will sell. Sales reps create and distribute lists on “hot topics” making it easier for book buyers to see a single collection of comparable titles from multiple publishers (books by First Nations People, for example). They make it a priority to visit and build professional relationships with book buyers, creating what Kate refers to as a “bankable trust relationship”, which is a huge benefit to publishers both immediately and for future productions.
Kate and Cheryl also took the time to explain ways of creating good relationships with sales reps. Many times this relationship begins at sales conferences, when publishers present their books for the season. It’s important for publishers to be prepared and speak clearly. Reps will be asking what they know their customers will ask so they expect presenters to know intimate details such as the author’s hometown, or sales history for previous books by the author. Kate notes, however, that it’s important not to make “promises” to sales reps about acquiring information they are missing in their presentation. It’s better to come with a thorough knowledge of the book, and enthusiasm to get sales reps excited. Publishers should know the competition as well as comparable titles, and be open and honest with sales reps as to where the promotion money will be focused, as well as be transparent about any pre-arranged special sales.
The next stage in an important publisher-to-sales-rep relationship is to keep the doors of communication open, and to share information about updates with the book such as pushed release dates, nominations for awards, or upcoming events. It’s also important for book publishers to have easily understandable terms of sale and distribution channels.
In planning author events, it’s important for the publisher to do their research. They have to ask themselves:
- Who is this event for?
- Is the author prepared and do they have the right personality for the event?
- Where will the event be held; private spaces offer intimacy but public spaces open the event to potential new audiences.
- It’s also important not to forget attention to detail; does the event have a microphone available, will the event need seating, does the date conflict with any holidays, will the publisher provide extras such as food and wine?
- And, which channels will be used to advertise the event? Sales reps can assist with this type of planning, after all who doesn’t enjoy a good party!
Cheryl also explained the dynamics of the “gift market”. Gift books are fun and exciting, but not all books one might give as a gift are appropriate for the gift market. To give an example of the differences, below are two books by photographer Philippe Halsman.
The first is a coffee table art book, it’s large in size and is filled with Halsman’s well-known jump photography alongside accompanying text that share the stories behind the photographs. The second is a smaller, simpler book; a photo interview with Salvador Dali that is quite silly and playful, meant to share with the reader the many faces of Salvador Dali and his famous mustache. The first book, Jump Book is a great book to give as a gift, but the second book Dali’s Mustache is a book made for the gift market.
How gift books are bought by buyers differs in many ways from how other trade books are bought. Gift book buyers are really focused on the visual. They want to see the book, hold the book, place it by their cash registers and see how it looks. It’s important for gift sales reps to have physical copies of the books to bring to their customers. Authors are much less important, and the focus is all on the visual appeal of the subject matter. It’s no surprise to hear from Cheryl that her top sellers last season were books on Ryan Gosling, Cats, and Darth Vader.
The gift buyer also heavily relies on the print catalogue, which led to an interesting discussion about the use of electronic catalogues. But I’ll save that for another post.
After a short break, Mary Alice Elcock gave the final presentation before the roundtable discussions.
How to Bundle Up: Making the Most of your Bundled eBooks
Mary Alice is a MPub alumni who is VP of Marketing and Publisher Relations for BitLit. BitLit is an app that allows publishers to offer eBook editions to readers who have purchased a print copy. To quote Mary Alice, BitLit “connects readers to books, and connects publishers to readers”. BitLit’s main market are hybrid readers, ones who read both print and eBook, as research has shown more readers are beginning to fill this middle category.
- Out of 120 million people who own eBooks only 4% are eBook only readers.
- Their studies have shown that 48% of people would pay more for a print book if it came bundled with the eBook.
- Currently less than 1% of customers have purchased both the print and eBook edition of a book, which means there is no cannibalization of sales for publishers if they decide to bundle.
BitLit bundling pricing is typically done in one of two ways. In all cases the bundling is available after point of purchase, but publishers have the choice of offering the eBook as a free add-on which is the case for about 25% of the books BitLit currently has bundled, or the eBook is offered for around 75% off the cover price.
Bundling gives publishers great opportunity to create extra net income. Mary Alice provided example pricing of a book and its net income in print, eBook, and bundling.
BitLit can currently be downloaded (for free) on Apple and Android devices. The user opens the app, takes a picture of the cover which is then recognized in BitLit’s system. To claim the book, the user takes another picture of their name written in capitals on the top of the copyright page, which BitLit uses to match with the user’s name on the credit card they provided in their sign up. Once the book is claimed, the user is given a link to their eBook if it is provided for free by the publisher, or the user is offered the eBook for the discounted price which they can then purchase. The reader can then choose to read the eBook on any of their eReading devices including Kobo, Nook, Kindle, or iPad.
For being only 2 years old (and local to Vancouver) BitLit has already made some major waves in the publishing world. There are currently 20,000 books available to bundle and many authors have fallen in love with the cross-media platform such as well-known horror writer Joe Hill (son of Stephen King).
BitLit’s next big move is a project called “Shelfie” which will save book lovers (and book hoarders if you’re like me) tons of time. Users simply take a picture of their book shelf and “Shelfie” will find all the books which are currently available to bundle, so there is no need to search titles one by one!
Download the BitLit app and follow them on Twitter for the latest news and giveaways.
While you’re at it follow Ampersand on Twitter for great book lists and news and BookNet Canada on Twitter for industry news and reports.
Overall, the ABPBC professional development day was a great opportunity for sharing and learning about the realities of the book publishing industry.
Paulina Dabrowski is an MPub candidate, avid reader, occasional knitter, and master of microwave meals. You can find her on Twitter @paulinkaaa_d
First Bytes Free: How (and Why) to Create Effective Digital Book Samples
By Michael Leyne
Brick-and-mortar bookstores have grown scarce over the preceding decade, while online retailers have prospered. This presents challenges and opportunities for small Canadian trade book publishers. Although it is harder to find any given book in a physical store, publishers have an abundance of online resources for book promotion, including the ability to emulate the in-store browsing experience by offering “digital samples.” There is evidence that providing digital samples can increase sales, but a survey of Canadian publishers’ online presence suggests that digital samples are a neglected aspect of trade book promotion. This paper analyzes the trend toward online book sales and the various available methods of sampling, and concludes with recommendations for how publishers can best use third-party sampling options (such as Google Books and Amazon’s “Look Inside”) and own-site HTML-based samples to increase the online appeal, discoverability, and sales of their titles.
List of Tables
List of Acronyms & Abbreviations
New Star Books
PART ONE | The Changing Retail Landscape
The Growth of Online Sales
Benefits & Opportunities
PART TWO | Current Sampling Practices
A Survey of Canadian Publishers
PART THREE | Analysis & Recommendations
Book Discovery Websites
Google & Amazon
Recommendations for Effective Samples
To Olin Winter Leyne. I look forward to sharing many happy hours with you in (real-life) bookstores, just as soon as you stop eating books.
Many thanks to Monique Sherret for providing guidance at the outline stage, and to Murray Tong for taking the time to read a late draft and offer valuable insight.
Thank-you to New Star Books majordomo Rolf Maurer, who sparked the idea for this report, and happily shared with me the wisdom gained from an inspiring career.
Many thanks to my SFU supervisors: Rowland Lorimer, whose sage counsel led to many refinements of both big-picture aspects and smaller details; and John Maxwell, who played a critical role in shaping the central thrust of this paper, and then wisely shepherded its development. I’m very grateful for it.
Finally, thank-you to my parents, for everything, and to Raina, a million times over, for the boundless love and encouragement — we make a great team.
List of Tables
Table 1: Digital Sampling Practices of Canadian Publishers
List of Acronyms & Abbreviations
AAP: Association of American Publishers
ABA: American Booksellers Association
ACP: Association of Canadian Publishers
BNC: BookNet Canada
CBA: Canadian Booksellers Association
CMS: content management system
CSS: cascading style sheets
HTML: hypertext markup language
ONIX: online information exchange
PDF: portable document format
SEO: search engine optimization
On the evening of August 23, 2013, Rolf Maurer of New Star Books received the Pandora’s Collective award for Publisher of the Year. His acceptance remarks were simple yet poignant: by way of thanks, he rattled off a list of about sixty-five Vancouver bookstores that he had patronized or done with business with over the past thirty years — the vast majority of which are now closed. While there is a glimmer of hope for Vancouver patrons of independent bookstores with the August 2013 opening of Paper Hound, the recent closures of Vancouver institutions such as Book Warehouse and Duthie’s have left a sizable hole in the local book retail landscape. Exact figures for nation-wide booksellers are not available, but it is safe to say the phenomenon is not unique to Vancouver; as a recent Globe and Mail story lamented, “bookstore closings have become so common they often pass unremarked.” 1
Readers are of course still finding and buying books, but evidence presented below shows that increasingly it is happening online. This trend has implications beyond a mere change of retailer: a recent study in the United Kingdom found that online book shopping tends to be “a more linear process” compared to the “serendipity of browsing” in traditional bookshops, with 81 percent of online shoppers saying they visit an online store looking for a specific book. 2 If publishers hope to keep (and grow) their clientele in the virtual realm, they must adapt their marketing tactics to a very different environment.
New Star Books
The first incarnation of New Star Books emerged from a loosely knit literary collective that in 1969 began publishing short fiction and poetry in the “Georgia Straight Writing Series,” a literary supplement to the Georgia Straight (at that time a radical underground weekly newspaper). The group broke away from the Straight in 1971 and formed the Vancouver Community Press. In 1974 it was renamed New Star Books, and in 1990 Maurer became publisher. Today, New Star publishes about six to ten titles per year. The list is a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, with an emphasis on politics, social issues, and local history and culture. 3 Sales are generally steady but modest; as Maurer says, New Star is “mostly interested in books that are not particularly mainstream.” 4
For the two-and-a-half years up until May 2013 Maurer was the sole employee, and as of September 2013, he was again working solo. To manage the tremendous workload, he employs a number of freelance editors and designers on a book-to-book basis.
Like most presses of a similar size, New Star has a limited budget for marketing and promotion. The bulk of it is dedicated to sending out copies for review in various newspapers, magazines, and academic periodicals. New Star also runs print ads in BC Bookworld, and occasionally in niche publications such as BC Studies. Further marketing efforts include email newsletters (to roughly 1,800 subscribers), blog posts at NewStarBooks.com, readings and book launches, and attendance at events such as Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences and WORD Vancouver.
To spark further sales of certain titles (particularly those whose initial reception was not as robust as desired), New Star has in recent years posted PDFs of entire books for free download. They are not heavily promoted or easily found on the website, but if one navigates to the page for, e.g., Islands of Resistance: Pirate Radio in Canada, there is underneath the bibliographic information a small link titled “Download the PDF,” above a “Look Inside” icon. Ten books are currently available, but Maurer has not detected any noticeable sales impact, positive or negative.
New Star’s experimentation with offering PDFs free online was borne partly of a curiosity in the potentials of online promotion, and partly of a recognition that readers are not finding books like they used to: it is more difficult than ever just to find a bookstore (or a newspaper), let alone a specific title from a small press such as New Star.
As shelf space vanishes and the Internet approaches global ubiquity, it is now imperative for publishers to go beyond dabbling in online book marketing, and begin to develop robust online marketing initiatives. Major multi-national firms have spent untold millions of dollars building digital warehouses and proprietary sampling widgets (which will be discussed below), but there is a relatively simple and inexpensive way for small Canadian publishers to enhance the presence of their wares online: by providing online book excerpts, or “digital samples.”
What follows is an analysis of the rapidly changing book retail sector (Part One), a description of the online digital sampling landscape (Part Two), and a proposal for how small-to-medium trade publishers can develop HTML-based digital samples in the hopes of aiding book discovery and promotion (Part Three). Although many of the examples and circumstances discussed throughout are specific to New Star, the proposal is broadly applicable to most publishers. By ensuring all its titles are easily found and sampled online, a small press will be able to increase the visibility of and interest in its titles, and maintain its sales in a changing marketplace — if not increase them.
Part One: The Changing Retail Landscape
Maurer’s list of extinct bookstores is, while an admittedly unscientific survey, reflective of an acknowledged trend. Upon its closing in 2010, the owner of Sophia Books lamented “there is no room for independents [in Vancouver].” 5 The subsequent closure in 2012 of four Book Warehouse locations certainly did not prove him wrong. 6 As Kevin Williams, the publisher of Talon Books, has noted, “It’s really hard to have your books on the shelf anywhere in the city. If people want to buy our books, often they have to come to us.” 7
With the rise of Chapters and Indigo and its consolidation into one entity (henceforth referred to as “Chapters/Indigo”) in the late 1990s–early 2000s, the ranks of independent bookstores in Canada were “decimated,” 8 a development that has since, by all accounts, only worsened. A 2010 wire article noted the “rash of independent bookstore closings in recent months and years” across Canada, the result of increased pressure from Chapters/Indigo and online retailers; 9 more recently, a Globe and Mail article noted the “enormous challenges” facing book retailers. 10 In a Publishers Weekly article assessing the state of Canadian publishing in 2012, the president of the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA; since absorbed into the Retail Council of Canada) called it a “really, scary dark season” for retailers; although he claimed membership in the CBA had not dropped off precipitously, the article noted further closures of prominent stores in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, due to the familiar bugaboos of cost increases, price competition with online retailers, and the continued rise of ebooks. 11 As one publisher succinctly put it, “We have to work with the fact that there are fewer bookstores.” 12
In Canada, Chapters/Indigo dominates the diminished bookstore environment that remains — as of 2011 they accounted for about half of sales, 13 and up to 70 percent of sales for some publishers. 14 This is especially problematic for small presses like New Star: while the buying decisions of independent bookstores are often more content-driven and motivated by personal idiosyncrasies, large chains focus on sell-through rates, leading to an emphasis on mainstream titles 15 — titles for which New Star is largely unable to compete, due to a relative lack of resources. 16 This was not such a problem when there were more, healthier independents; as Maurer explains, if you could sell a title into at least one independent store, you could then leverage that fact to sell into more stores — now, a rejection from Chapters/Indigo shuts off a vast swath of potential shelf space. 17 As ECW Press co-publisher David Caron put it, “The hardest part is that [Chapters/Indigo will] pass on a title entirely. … But for a lot of people, Indigo is the only game in town.” 18
Their status as “the only game in town” results in Chapters/Indigo influencing not just the types of books that are produced and where they are available, but also the very conditions under which publishers are willing and able to sell their books. The favourable terms of sale that Chapters/Indigo extracts for itself then compel many publishers to impose more onerous terms on smaller retailers, as Maurer explains:
Publishers do compete on content … but we also compete on terms. The mainstream of publishing, however, has decided to eschew that competition. They have conceded terms, effectively, to the dictates of the large retail sector. And they have compounded the problem by insisting on tougher terms with the independent sector, which pays ten to twenty percent more per book, and has to pay the supplier in (typically) half the time. This has exacerbated the “competitive advantage” of the chains, and more than anything else (rent; e-books; Amazon) has led to the destruction of the independent sector — to the cost of publishers and writers as well as readers/consumers. 19
To make matters even worse, space in the large retailers is increasingly being given over to non-book items. As part of a recently developed strategy, Chapters/Indigo stores will shelve fewer books and more “designer gift and lifestyle products,” which CEO Heather Reisman hopes will increasingly be inspired by books — e.g., throw pillows embroidered with quotes from children’s books. 20 Reisman claims the diversification will bring more potential book buyers into stores 21; Lorimer, however, sees this as a sign of the beginning of the end for the company. 22 In the first quarter of 2013, revenue of Indigo Books & Music fell 8.1 percent. 23
In the United States (which accounts for approximately 15 percent of New Star’s sales 24), observers such as Mike Shatzkin and Joseph Esposito consider the demise of traditional bookstores a foregone conclusion. 25 It is not all doom and gloom though: in 2012, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) reported an 8 percent increase in sales from independent bookstores, and membership rose from a historical low of 1,401 members in 2009 to 1,632 members. 26 Much of this renewed vitality can likely be attributed to the demise of the national chain Borders (which closed in 2011), and the growing trend toward “buying local” undoubtedly played a part as well. 27 But it is too early to proclaim the unqualified resurgence of the indies: ABA membership is still down 30 percent over the past decade (from about 2,400 members in 2002), and many of the stores that remain are resorting to filling budget gaps through unorthodox measures such as online crowdfunding campaigns. 28
The Growth of Online Sales
The causes of the changing book retail landscape are debatable — most of the sources cited above attribute the decline to the rise of ebooks and online retailers and increased costs for commercial space, while Maurer’s analysis focuses more on the consolidation of the retail sector. 29 But regardless of the causal link, an increasing proportion of books sold in North America are now purchased online.
In the United States, online sales represented 8 percent of books sold in 2001. 30 By last year, they accounted for 42 percent; 31 if you consider dollars spent rather than units sold, the figure is 45 percent. 32
A report commissioned by Canadian Heritage found that online book sales accounted for just 4 percent of total book sales in Canada in 2004, with brick-and-mortar chains and independents combining for 64 percent. 33 The same report examined the sales of eleven literary presses (a category that would include New Star) from 2003 – 2006, and found that online sales increased from 2 percent of the total in 2003 to just over 6 percent three years later, while the proportion of sales via “chain bookstores” fell from about one-third to about one-fifth over the same period. 34 As of 2012, BookNet Canada reports online sales at 25 percent of the overall market, while the share of bookstores is down to 37 percent. 35
Buying a book online is a fundamentally different experience than buying a book “in real life.” Wandering the aisles of a great bookstore is not just a romanticized notion — there is good reason to believe that nothing sells books quite as well as books: in the estimation of McCabe and Henry,“serendipity and discovery generate as much as two-thirds of UK general book sales.” 36
In Canada, a number of studies have established the vital role of bookstores, beyond mere vendors, as generators of sales and awareness of books. In a 1996 survey of readers exiting Canadian bookstores with Canadian books in hand, only 29 percent of respondents said they visited the store to purchase a specific book; 63 percent of purchase decisions were made in the store. 37 A survey the following year expanded the purview to purchasers of all books, not just Canadian ones, and found that while 72 percent of respondents “had intended to purchase a book” when they entered the store, 60 percent of them decided in the bookstore which title to purchase. 38 A 2005 survey of Canadian book buyers suggests that impulse purchases account for 42 percent of Canadian book purchases. 39 More recently, the results of BookNet Canada’s The Canadian Book Consumer 2012: Annual Report indicate that impulsive book-buying — whether it is “title-planned, timing-impulsive,” vice-versa, or a true “impulse purchase” — varies by retail channel, with the three categories of impulse purchase accounting for over 80 percent of book purchases at grocery stores and other “non-book retail outlets,” about 70 percent at chain bookstores, and about 60 percent of purchases online and at independent bookstores. 40
Closely related to the role of bookstores in generating impulse buys is their role in creating awareness of titles. In the 1996 study cited above, 39 percent of purchasers were unaware of the title they had just purchased before entering the store. 41 By 2012, according to BookNet Canada, only 21 percent of buyers of print books became aware of books purchased through in-store displays. 42 Online discovery was the chosen method for 21 percent of print-book buyers and 44 percent of ebook buyers. 43 When “awareness factors” are broken down by method of purchase, an obvious yet important distinction is revealed: the most popular awareness factor for buyers at brick-and-mortar outlets is, by far, “in-person” (which includes in-store displays and personal recommendations), while online buyers are almost twice as likely to become aware of a book online (about 55 percent) versus in-person (about 27 percent). 44 The most recent Bowker report also breaks discovery down by format: the most popular way to learn about print books is to stumble across them in a brick-and-mortar store (“in-store display / on-shelf / spinning rack”); for ebooks, “friend / relative recommendation” is number one, followed by “read excerpt / sample” online. 45
A crucial feature of the bookstore browsing experience, and one that is difficult to replicate online, is the simple act of picking up a book, examining its cover, and perhaps flipping through its contents. “The best way to sell books,” according to Jane Friedman (HarperCollins CEO from 1997 to 2008), “is to have the consumer be able to read some of that content.” 46 It is a simple but important observation, and is confirmed by a study in the UK that found “the opportunity to pick up and leaf through books are important qualities for consumers, and are absent from the online book buying experience.” 47
Despite the move to online sales, McCabe and Henry believe that “bookshop customers are far more likely to purchase a book they have seen displayed physically than those featured on an e-tailers’ website” — however, they go on to note that “they are also more likely to buy a book because they were able to look inside or read an extract.” 48 Bowker’s 2010 PubTrack Consumer Research Panel found that the second most popular reason a consumer chose a book (after “Cover/jacket description/testimonial appeals to them”) was “Looked through book, and liked it.” 49 According to Laing and Royle, even many online shoppers end up purchasing a chosen title in a physical bookstore because of a “desire to check the book physically — to pick it up, leaf through, and check the contents.” 50
It should come as no great surprise to publishers that people want to look at a book before buying it. Unfortunately, in Canada there are now fewer opportunities for publishers to simply get a book into a store: independents are disappearing, and bookstore promotions are now “just as likely to feature blankets, teapots, [and] owl bottle openers” as books. 51 Given the shrinking independent sector and Chapters/Indigo’s diversification into the throw-pillow market, it seems likely that online sales, and hence online discovery, will continue to grow. Much is lost in the online book-buying experience — a browser tab simply cannot recreate with high fidelity the joys of a bookstore. But if that is where people buy books now, than it is important for publishers to offer readers some means of digitally “browsing” a book. As author David Balzer says, “you have to somehow replicate that experience of stumbling upon a book in a bookstore.” 52
Benefits & Opportunities
It is tempting (and common) to predict disastrous implications for publishers with each freshly shuttered shop; McCabe and Henry argue that “the single most effective technique for dismantling the physical book sector would be to accelerate the closure of bookshops.” 53 Bookstores have long been a critical link in the publishing supply chain, serving as the primary customer of publishers and the primary retail venue for readers.
As suggested by Maurer’s analysis above, publishers seeking to bolster the independent sector could offer retailers better terms. A publisher acting independently would be required to suffer immediate short-term financial pain, in the hopes of contributing to a more vibrant retail sector that will eventually return long-term gains to the publisher. However, since any single small publisher represents only a tiny percentage of a store’s stock, this tactic would be most effective if small publishers acted in concert — but any collective action would likely attract accusations of collusion, as happened with the ebook price-fixing antitrust case in the United States. In an industry reliant on razor-thin margins, this is a challenging path.
Regardless, the shift to online sales need not be calamitous for publishers, and in fact offers some advantages. Publishers can continue to supply the remaining bookstores while recognizing and adapting to the increased role of online sales channels. At the very least, this means better promoting their books to the growing numbers of online shoppers; for the more ambitious publisher, the opportunity exists to sell directly to customers via the publisher’s website.
Selling online allows the collection of useful data about customers and their behaviour. For publishers selling through Amazon.ca, Business Reports allow the tracking of traffic to a publisher’s various titles and the conversion rates of viewers, 54 data that would only be available from traditional retailers if they were to install surveillance cameras and closely watch the actions of browsing patrons. Publishers selling directly from their website can track the same data and more: using software such as Google Analytics, publishers can learn what devices buyers are using, how long they are spending on the site and what they are looking at, which other titles they have shown interest in, and where they are located; email addresses can be collected and, if permitted, added to the mailing list. All of this information can be used to tweak the website and marketing efforts, learn what readers respond to, and generate more sales.
Another benefit of selling online is the chance to bypass “one of the most difficult aspects of the publishing business”: returns. 55 The standard practice of essentially selling books on consignment is a major problem for publishers (and others in the book trade). According to Woll, the practice distracts publishers, reduces cash flow, inflates inventory levels, and adds cost to the entire publishing process, particularly in warehousing and fulfillment — while return rates for small presses are generally less than those of the bigger publishers, they still account for approximately 11–13 percent of books sold. 56 In the New Star office, significant floor space — already at a premium — is occupied by stacks of returned books, which are often dog-eared or scratched just enough that they can not be resold except at remainder-bin prices. Selling directly to the consumer means never fearing that in six months a retailer will return books en masse, potentially damaged and unsalable, for credit or a refund.
There are compelling motivations for publishers to undertake “the more aggressive use of the Internet as an online marketing and sales channel.” 57 The most enticing reason may be the increase in profit margins — as Woll explains, “If you sell directly to the consumer, without the need to involve middlemen, you don’t have to give away discount to those intermediaries. You can sell your book for full price and record all of the proceeds as your revenue.” 58 Given that the trade discount is generally around 50 percent, this can result in a significant increase in per-unit revenue. There are other costs involved, as Woll notes — notably shipping and direct marketing costs — but it is standard practice to charge buyers for shipping costs, and conducting the marketing online, where the buyers are already, is much cheaper than traditional print-based marketing efforts. 59 There are also costs associated with setting up an ecommerce-enabled website, but the majority of Canadian publishers (New Star included) have already done this. 60
Thompson’s Characteristics of New Technologies
John B. Thompson lists several characteristics of “new technologies” that allow publishers to “add real value to their content.” 61 In the context of selling books online, these characteristics can enable publishers to not merely attempt to recreate the in-store browsing experience, but to enhance it.
Ease of Access: Online bookselling largely erases “certain spatial and temporal constraints.” 62 Interested readers can buy books anytime from virtually anywhere, regardless of the location or business hours of retailers, or the number of physical copies of a book in a given store. As of 2010, 98 percent of Canadian households had broadband access, 63 and Maurer believes that New Star’s audience is particularly active online. 64
Updatability: Compared to printed material, where changes to a text require another print run, online content can be modified “quickly, frequently, and relatively cheaply.” 65 Digital samples can be posted early in the book production process and then updated to their final published form, or a new excerpt may be selected for feature based on current events or the conversation generated by the excerpt.
Searchability: It is possible to search inside a printed book using the table of contents and index (or simply leafing through the pages), but of course an online search engine is “infinitely quicker and more powerful … and can be extended to much larger quantities of content.” 66
In the context of the wide-open internet this presents challenges to a publisher trying to stand out from the field, but it also enables readers to quickly find what they are looking for on a publisher’s website and even within the full text of a book, if a publisher partners with Google Books (which will be discussed in some detail below). McCabe argues that “consumer behaviour is highly directed online.” 67 When people are searching for a particular book or type of book, ensuring that a title’s promotional material is easily searchable is a critical step in directing that consumer behaviour to the desired location.
Portability: As Thompson notes, unless it is device-dependent, vast amounts of online content can be reproduced and transferred to or accessed on devices including personal computers, smart phones, tablet computers, ereaders, and so on. 68 Of course most print objects are highly portable as well, but internet-enabled devices can store vast numbers of books and access infinite amounts of online content — e.g., book excerpts — with little burden to the reader.
This portability also allows online excerpts to be easily shared with friends and family around the globe. In an article that notes the continued importance of “social discovery,” Andrew Rhomberg observes that “we are now able to send quotes, snippets or samples (first 10%) of an (electronic) book with ease to those to whom we are recommending our books, which we could not have done in the day of the printed book.” 69 His parenthetical qualifiers need not apply; by offering them online, publishers enable the sharing of digital excerpts of any length from ebooks and print books.
Intertextuality: This refers to the ability to “give a dynamic character” to the “referential function of texts,” by providing hyperlinks to sources cited, other books, external resources of any kind, and online sales venues. 70
Multimedia: The ability to offer multimedia features that can not be printed on a page “enable[s] content providers to add real value,” e.g., by adding more photos or streaming videos to supplement a book’s content. 71
Interest and Sales
The two pioneers of digital sampling — Amazon and Google — have reported encouraging effects on sales. Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature boosted sales for participating titles (and will be discussed further below), and early adopters of Google Book Search saw the sales of backlist titles increase. 72 In touting the benefits of its book digitization projects, Google “emphasizes the marketing benefits to copyright holders,” arguing that the endeavour increases the visibility of backlist and “lightly marketed new titles” 73 — which, it is safe to say, encompasses the entire catalogues of most small Canadian publishers.
Whether a publisher opts to sell online via Amazon or their own site, digital samples make books easier to find and peruse. Because “the content of the book is separable from the form,” publishers can “dissociate browsing from the turning of printed pages in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.” 74 The separation of content and form takes on far greater profundity in the consideration of the eBook market, but it is germane to the online sale of print books as well: the content of a print book can be easily and accurately represented digitally — and even enhanced — in order to entice buyers. By embracing online book sales and digital sampling, small Canadian publishers can to some degree unshackle themselves from the turbulent, Chapters/Indigo-dominated realm of physical bookstores. The next section considers various book sampling practices, from Internet behemoths to tiny Canadian trade publishers.
Part Two: Current Sampling Practices
When Amazon launched the “Look Inside the Book” feature in 2001, one of the participating publishers said that “helping [Amazon’s] customers crack the spine is simply smart marketing.” 75 Two years later, Amazon launched an enhanced version of Look Inside called “Search Inside the Book,” which allows users to search within a certain book or across Amazon’s entire digital catalogue and then view a limited preview surrounding the results. 76 Publishers were “guardedly cooperative;” some feared the service would hamper book sales by offering free content, and the Authors Guild objected to titles being featured without the author’s explicit consent. 77
One week after the launch of Search Inside, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the program was “driving increased sales”: sales growth for participating titles was 9 percent higher than growth for titles not participating. 78 After a full year, that number had dropped only slightly, to 7 percent. 79
The company has not released related sales figures since, but today the Search and Look Inside widget is a robust and prominent feature, easily identified by either a bright yellow arrow or a blue triangle and the words “Look Inside!” on the cover image of a book. After uploading a PDF that conforms to Amazon’s specifications, publishers are promised “Improved Search Results” and “Point-of-Sale Sampling” that will “help customers to discover and sell more of your books.” 80 Of the one hundred “Best Sellers of 2013” listed at Amazon.com on September 23, ninety included Search and Look Inside functionality. 81 Interestingly, at Amazon.ca on the same day, only three of the top ten and fifty-six of the top one hundred had Search and Look Inside enabled 82 — this may be a result of Canadian publishers lacking the resources or inclination to participate, or it may be simple chance.
With the rollout of Google Print in 2003 (since renamed Google Books), Google’s ambition to digitize and make accessible all the information in the world set its sights on the world’s print books. Through its Partner Program and its (highly contentious) Library Project, Google digitizes and indexes books, so that if a searched term appears in a book it will be included in the results, with a several-page excerpt and links to online retailers. 83 Unless a publisher agrees to include more, the excerpts are limited to two pages before and after the search term, and displayed text cannot be copy-and-pasted, to help “ensure that a book’s content isn’t copied illegally.” 84
Nevertheless, in 2005 both the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) sued Google for copyright infringement. The AAP settled in 2012; Publishers Weekly observed that it became evident during the AAP proceedings that the publishers “never really disagreed about the potential benefit of Google’s index,” but wanted to retain greater control over the contents of the program; one expert on the case said that publishers “invested a ton of time and money fighting something that they realize now really isn’t a problem.” 85 A federal judge dismissed the Authors Guild case in November 2013. In deeming Google’s digitization project to be “fair use,” Judge Denny Chin said that it provides “significant public benefits” by giving books “new life,” and “generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers.” 86
Publishers can make their wares available through Google Books by joining the Partner Program and sending Google a physical or PDF copy of their book. Search results from the book will then display the book’s title and author, and an excerpt highlighting the search terms. If users click on the book they will see a “limited preview … just enough to give them a taste of the book, as if they were browsing in a bookstore or library.” Printing and text and image copying functions are disabled in the preview. Sales links are clearly visible in a sidebar — if the publisher sells directly from their site that is the top link, followed by links to major retailers such as Amazon or Chapters/Indigo and, if an ebook is available, the Google Play bookstore. Partners can also embed the preview on their own website, and access detailed analytical reports about traffic to their books. 87
Google does not provide data on Google Books’ impact on sales, and in the pitch to publishers to join they stop short of promising an increase in sales, instead promising, under the heading “Drive Book Sales,” to “make it easy for users to go from browsing to buying.” 88 They do, however, offer this (undated) quote from Kate Tentler of Simon & Schuster: “15.3% … [of] web surfers who clicked on a Simon and Schuster book in Google Books either bought a book or went to the Simon and Schuster web site and, for example, subscribed to a newsletter. Conversion rates for other search engines languish around 1-3%.” 89 Oxford University Press also claims that partnering with Google has increased traffic to their site and boosted backlist sales. 90 In a recent paper from Duke University, one author claims his sales ranking at Barnes & Noble improved by 85 percent after he partnered with Google Books, an experience the paper’s authors claim is “typical for participants.” 91 In a 2006 analysis of Google Book Search, Travis notes that book sales in the United States were up “markedly” since the program began, and “thus far there is little evidence that any printed books have suffered lost sales because Google has made them searchable.” 92 On the contrary, Travis argues, “the service appears to have had a very positive effect on the sales of books it has included to date.” 93
Book Discovery Services
There are a growing number of dedicated book discovery websites. The sites discussed below were chosen because of repeated references that appeared in the course of researching this report; while none of them have achieved the ubiquity of Amazon or Google, they are worth noting, as they speak to the increased perception of online book discovery as both a challenge and an opportunity for publishers.
Goodreads: Their recent acquisition by Amazon has recently thrust Goodreads.com and its 20 million members into the spotlight. 94 The site was conceived as a marketing service for publishers, who have been using its “firm foundation” for that exact purpose “for some time.” 95 Although it does not currently feature book excerpts, it is not inconceivable that Amazon will integrate its Search or Look Inside the Book features into the site, further enhancing its marketing potential.
Scribd: Originally a place to make documents accessible to the public, Scribd.com now has a “vast treasure trove of documents,” sees 10 million unique visitors monthly, and is increasingly being used by trade publishers to promote books: in July 2013 “marketing activity” on Scribd was just “a gleam in the eye” of American publishers, 96 but on a recent visit (October 1, 2013), the twenty-five “documents” displayed on the homepage were all trade books (twenty-one of which were from HarperCollins). Each book offered excerpts, available to anyone, and for a monthly subscription of $8.99 readers can access unlimited content on the site, 97 which could develop into an attractive marketing tool and revenue source for forward-thinking publishers.
Bookish: Bookish.com was developed by Penguin Group USA, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster, and launched in February of 2013 with the aim of “provid[ing] as many pathways to [book] discovery as possible.” 98 The cover images of the majority of titles on the homepage feature prominent “Read a Sample” icons, which open a widget (embeddable on other sites) that displays anywhere from one paragraph to a couple chapters of text in plain, uncopy-able html, and a large “Buy” button. Any publisher is welcome to submit titles for inclusion, with the proviso that all data be submitted via an ONIX 2.1 data feed. 99
49thShelf: Two Canadian sites deserve mention. Produced by the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), 49thShelf.com “mak[es] it easier to discover Canadian books” by hosting editorial content and a searchable database of over 60,000 titles. 100 On a recent visit (September 24, 2013), none of the nine titles on the homepage offered excerpts, but it is possible to include them — all of the tiles on 49thShelf are drawn from BNC’s Biblioshare system, 101 which supports including excerpts in the ONIX metadata.
Wattpad: Margaret Atwood’s high profile releases on Wattpad.com have increased its profile as of late. 102 Although it is primarily a platform for self-published writers to share their work in serialized installments, American publishers are beginning to use it for marketing purposes. 103 Wattpad offers intriguing possibilities for small publishers to develop online fanbases by serializing the digital release of titles, perhaps in advance of the print release, and gain potentially useful feedback about various aspects of a book.
As of 2004, foreign-owned publishers operating in Canada accounted for at least 59 percent of domestic sales. 104 Of the major firms identified by Lorimer, 105 excerpt practices of the four foreign trade publishers — and Harlequin, one of the largest Canadian firms — are discussed below.
HarperCollins announced plans to create a vast digital catalogue in 2005, and by August of the following year had digitized 10,000 titles at a cost of several million dollars, with expected annual costs of at least a million dollars. 106 The most notable feature of the project was the new “Browse Inside” widget that, similar to Amazon’s “Search Inside” and Google Book Search, “allow[s] readers to replicate in cyberspace the experience of going to a bookstore and flipping through a few pages before buying a book,” includes supplementary marketing material such as interviews, tour schedules, photographs, and reading group guides, and can be embedded on other websites. 107
Initially Browse Inside was limited to the front matter and the first few pages of each chapter. 108 Access to most titles is still restricted, but there are now a limited number of “Full Access” titles that offer the entire contents of the book for preview. 109 While browsing, a reader can search inside the book; share links to the preview using almost 350 different social media tools; buy the book from Amazon, Indigo, or a list of independent retailers sorted by state or province; install the widget on their own website; and sign up for email notifications about the author’s promotional activity and new books.
Browse Inside is accessible by any visitor to the website, but the content of the preview cannot be downloaded, copied, or accessed by external search engines — as Friedman said upon the launch of the feature, “HarperCollins is taking a leadership role on the digital front … while, first and foremost, protecting our authors’ copyrights.” 110
Detailed sales figures are of course unavailable, but there is evidence that excerpts boost sales: in a presentation to the 2008 International Digital Publishing Forum, Leslie Hulse (Vice President of Digital Business Development) reported “print sales increases of 30% and 250% for specific titles using [HarperCollins’] Browse Inside functionality.” 111
Padgett Powell is the author of six novels, including Edisto, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and two collections of stories. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Paris Review, as well as in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Sports Writing. He has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Rome Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He lives in Gainesville, where he co-directs and teaches at MFA@FLA, the University of Florida’s creative writing program.
Powell was interviewed by Elliot Reed, an MFA@FLA student, during a walk through Barr Hammock, a wet prairie outside Gainesville, on the lookout for cottonmouths.
ER: Talk about writing your indigo snake story. (Tangled Up in Indigo, Garden & Gun, April/May2015.)
PP: It took fifty years, three years, and ten and a half hours to write. Fifty looking by myself for snake to no avail, three looking with professional help, ten and a half hours to write up the total of the fifty-three-year ordeal.
ER: What story will take up the next fifty years?
PP: I’ll write the second chapter of the indigo book.
ER: What is the second chapter?
PP: An indigo I captured died in captivity. She was to have laid eggs for propagation of the species. I had a foreboding when I captured her and in fact had a night alone with four gravid females to be sent the following day to Auburn. I made a movie of the snake I captured, the one who died in the lab, for her posterity. Then she died and for a goodly while they did not tell me. When I heard, I was distraught. She had been named Padgette, for me, her captor. They said, “Hey, man, it’s okay, this happens in nature too.” I said: “This did not happen in nature. This happened at Auburn University.”
ER: What will be the third chapter?
PP: I won’t ever complete Chapter 2, “Padgett killed Padgette.” You think you could write that?
How did you come to the indigo story?
You read that in the indigo piece, which we are now perversely calling Chapter 1.
ER: There’s a snake.
PP: Well, get him.
ER: I’m trying.
PP: You’re standing on a stump. You’re not trying.
ER: But he’s poisonous.
PP: He won’t be if we can make a moccasin sandwich of him. What is your favorite sandwich?
ER: I think it would be pate and fusilli and anchovie, but good pate is not–
PP: A moccasin sandwich is better than pate and fusilli and anchovie. Hard to prepare though. Easily the best sandwich I have ever had, close second the whole-bream sandwich with soft white bread.
ER: I heard they did a study where they took a fake boot on a stick and stepped on cottonmouths with it and the snake only struck around one out of three times that a boot stepped directly on it.
PP: You are supposed to fry the moccasin live, as crabs and lobsters are boiled live. They are harder to handle than the crab. Also, they tend to curl up when they hit the oil. Moccasins are rather benign-acting, really. The vipers in general are, because of the firepower.
ER: What’s that making all that commotion in the duckweed?
PP: Sounds like a snake with a frog. Nope. It’s baby alligators. They’re striped when they’re young. Hear that? That little oinking? That’s a baby alligator.
ER: Does that mean there’s a mama nearby?
PP: Yeah, and you’d find her, too, if you get in the water.
ER: There was a bird there a second ago and now there’s not a bird there. The bird is in the death roll. It’s been taken under by the gator.
PP: There’s your bird. Got free of the death roll. (Points to heron flying in to land.)
ER: Talk a little about a formative nature experience you’ve had.
PP: I once took a live grill in a canoe through the Okefenokee swamp. Kept it hot in the boat for a week. Baking a cake. After a week it was still gooey. When the moccasin curls up and stiffens from the cooking you can’t get him straight again to lie nicely in the bread. A good long Italian loaf or baguette is what you want. Matched to the snake–you know, three-foot snake, three-foot bread. The snake must be cooked very hard to dissolve the bones some and make sure the organs are fixed.
ER: You don’t gut it?
PP: You can’t if you are cooking him live. Would you want to try to gut one alive? Didn’t you tell me your uncle let you get bit by a copperhead? A moccasin is a copperhead to the third power.
ER: Why do you have a trebuchet in your yard?
PP: My daughter was running with a handy Lake City boy and she got him to build me one.If you ever get access to one, throw a milk jug filled with gasoline. Tie a rag wick about a foot from the jug, something that won’t blow out. The mushroom cloud from the explosion will be perfect, black, and the size of a two-story house. Environmentalists who see this will drive to go get more gas. People will pee in their pants a little and laugh with each explosion. They will make suggestions for loading the trebuchet faster.