Know thy reader

From The Bookseller:

With the levelling off of e-book sales, many have begun to wonder whether the book publishing industry will be spared the kinds of disruption experienced by other sectors of the media industries. But the digital transformation of the book publishing industry was never fundamentally about e-books anyway: e-books turned out to be just another format by which publishers could deliver their content to readers, not the game-changer that many thought (or feared) it would be. The big question that the digital revolution posed to book publishers is just as pressing today as it was a decade ago: it’s the question of how publishers understand who their ‘customers’ are, and how they relate to and interact with them. 

For most of the 500-year history of the book publishing industry, publishers understood their customers to be retailers: publishers were a B2B business, selling books to retailers, and they knew very little about the ultimate customers of their books, the readers. The digital revolution has forced publishers to think again about this model and to consider whether there might be something to be gained by becoming more reader-centric. This fundamental shift in publishers’ self-understanding is likely to be one of the most significant and enduring consequences of the digital revolution in publishing. 

But how does a publisher actually become more reader-centric? Over the last decade or so, many publishers have come to realize that one of the most effective ways to make their businesses more reader-centric is to build their own dedicated databases of readers so that they can interact directly with readers via email. Building a customer database can be a slow and laborious process, but with focus and creativity, a publisher can grow a list remarkably quickly: one senior manager I interviewed at a large US trade publisher explained that they had decided to build a customer database in a particular area of their publishing programme and, using a combination of paid ads, partnerships and sweepstakes, they succeeded in getting half a million people to sign up in the first year alone.  Having these email addresses and customer information in your own database is much more effective than relying on social media and gives you much more control, as you are not reliant on the algorithms of social media companies to determine which posts get fed through to people’s news feeds. Moreover, with emails to readers, you can get a much higher level of engagement than with many other retail goods, in part because many readers have an emotional connection with authors whose books they enjoy and they want to know more about any new books written by their favourite authors.  The benchmark for email open rates is 20%, but the open rate for emails relating to books by brand-name authors can be as high as 60%.

But it’s not just mainstream pubishers who are using digital technologies to establish direct relationships with readers: some start-ups on the margins of the publishing field have taken this much further and are pioneering new kinds of publishing that integrate reader input into their decision-making processes. One example that will be familiar to many in the publishing world are the crowdfunding publishers, Unbound in the UK and Inkshares in the US.  While many people think of crowdfunding as an innovative way of raising capital (and it is), the real genius of crowdfunding is that it is an audience-building machine. The crowdfunding model means that every new author brings a few hundred new readers into the system – their friends and family members and the people who have a particular interest in the book they’re proposing to write, and the book goes ahead only when enough readers have pledged their support for the project. Crowdfunding models like Unbound and Inkshares are creating a new kind of relationship between authors and readers in which readers are not simply the buyers of books but, rather, their co-creators. At the same time, they are building networks of engaged readers that enable them to capture customer data rather than leaving it for Amazon to hoover up. By using crowdfunding to create a system of reader curation, they are turning the traditional model of publishing on its head.

. . . .

The real opportunity that the digital revolution opens up for publishers is that, for the first time in the long history of the book, it is now possible for publishers to do something they could never do before: build direct channels of communication with readers and do it at scale. This is a central feature of the digital transformation in publishing, and those publishers that succeed in making their businesses more reader-centric, learning not just how to market more effectively to readers but how to listen to them too, are likely to be the ones that will ride the wave of the digital revolution most successfully in the years to come.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Leveling off of ebook sales? Email lists? Reader-centric? Crowdfunding?

PG is certain that the author of the OP (and the book shown below), an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge is an intelligent and probably likeable guy, but PG was a bit surprised while reading the OP that The Bookseller (and, presumably, its readers) will think that anything described is actually new information or insight about the book business these days.

A bit of ebook history for those who may not know or remember it:

  • While ebooks predated Amazon ebooks, for all intents and purposes, as a meaningful segment of publishing, ebooks didn’t exist until Amazon started selling ebooks and inexpensive ebook readers. (Widespread adoption of small digital screens on phones definitely helped as well.)
  • As a classic example of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, the creative executives and companies that drove the dynamism, growth and profitability of print publishing, bookstores, newspapers and magazines during the second half of the twentieth century didn’t understand how important electronic media would become and how quickly electronics, including digital electronics and digital networks, would replace print as a means of written communication to audiences large and small.
  • Jeff Bezos moved to Bellevue, Washington, rented a house with a garage and became entranced with the potential of web commerce in 1995. He decided that books were a great product to sell online because of the large worldwide demand for literature, the low unit price for books, and the huge number of titles available in print. That decision started a business that would upend the business empires of the great publishers of New York, then move on to disrupt traditional bookselling and publishing around the developed world.
  • At the same time Amazon was going public in 1997, Barnes & Noble sued the company, claiming it wasn’t the the world’s largest bookstore, but was, instead, a book broker. Bezos settled out of court and kept going.
  • Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio would have been much smarter to use the money he paid his lawyers to buy Amazon stock because $100,000 invested in Amazon on the day it went public would have been worth more than $120 million as of May 2020.
  • Sometime in the summer of 2009, executives at the highest levels of Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster started meeting secretly in the private dining room of a Manhattan restaurant to develop a strategy to prevent Amazon and other ebook retailers selling their ebooks at a discount from list price.
  • At the time, these five publishers were producing 48% of the ebooks sold in the United States.
  • In December, 2009, Apple’s senior VP of Internet Software and Services contacted these New York publishers to set up secret meetings for the purpose of discussing ebook pricing.
  • Apple planned to unveil the iPad on January 27, 2010, and start shipping iPads in April. As part of the launch, Apple wanted to announce its new iBookstore that would include ebooks from the major publishers.
  • The Apple VP told the five publishers that Apple would sell the majority of e-books for prices between $9.99 and $14.99, with new releases being $12.99 to $14.99, substantially more than Amazon was charging.
  • Apple planned to use the same “agency” model which it used in its App Store for distribution of e-books. Apple would be a sales agent and the Publishers would control the price of their e-books in the iBookstore. Publishers would pay Apple a 30% commission on each sale.
  • Apple didn’t want Amazon to be able to sell ebooks at a lower price. The agreement between Apple and each of the big publishers would include a so-called “most-favored-nation” or “MFN” clause which allowed for Apple to sell e-book at its competitors’ lowest price. If the big publishers allowed Amazon to discount prices, Apple could discount them an equal amount and take its 30% commission from that price.
  • The Big Publishers concluded that, if Amazon didn’t play ball, their ebook customers would simply buy iPads and buy their ebooks at the iBookstore. Finally, there was a powerful enough tech company to take on Amazon in the ebook game.
  • On the day of the iPad launch and the announcement of the iBookstore, including an announcement of Apple’s ebook pricing, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Apple CEO Steve Jobs why people would pay $14.99 for a book in the iBookstore when they could purchase it for $9.99 from Amazon. Jobs replied that “The price will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy.”
  • This public statement expressed the terms of the agreement. The big publishers, acting in concert, would jointly force Amazon to increase its e-book prices with the threat to cut off Amazon’s ebook supply. If Amazon refused to increase prices, Apple would be the only place to buy ebooks from the major publishers that controlled most of the book marked. If Amazon knuckled under and raised its prices, Apple would face no price competition.
  • The United States Justice Department and 31 states filed suit against Apple and the five conspiring publishers for violating longstanding US antitrust laws. Three of the publishers settled the claims on the date the suit was filed, admitting they had violated the law. The other two publishers settled the case prior to trial, also admitting wrongdoing.
  • News reports stated that the publishing executives had not consulted their own attorneys about whether their actions were legal or not. (PG notes that any law student who had completed more than three weeks of a one-semester law school antitrust course would have known that this scheme was a clear-cut violation of the law. No legal gray areas available for this hot mess.)
  • After a trial, Apple was found to have wrongfully violated US antitrust laws. Apple appealed the decision as far as it could go and lost. Apple was forced to pay $450 million in damages for its wrongful actions.

And the OP describes ebooks as “the wave of digital revolution” as if this is new information.

PG believes that no one would dispute that Amazon is by far the largest outlet for independently-published ebooks anywhere in the world. Amazon does not break out indie ebook sales in its own accounting reports.

Veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin, estimated that, between 2011 and 2013, self-published books grew from nothing to almost 30% of the book units sold in the US. This growth coincided with a period during which ebook sales also increased rapidly.

The Alliance of Independent Authors estimated that in 2016, in the US, fewer than 1200 trade-published authors who debuted in the last ten years earned $25,000 a year or more, compared to over 1,600 indie authors who earned $25,000 per year or more.

In 2020, ALLi reported that 8% its members had sold more than 50,000 books in the prior two years.

An Enders Analysis in 2016 found that 40% of the top-selling ebooks on Amazon were self-published.

PG won’t say the ebook and indie revolutions are over, but will say that the trends of the last ten years have undeniably been moving towards more ebooks and more money for indie authors. Any industry statistics that limit themselves to ebooks sold by traditional publishers are missing the majority of the overall market.

PG further suggests that for most authors, indie or traditionally-published, a dozen legitimate positive reviews on Amazon are worth more than a signing at your local Barnes & Noble.

The author of the OP is promoting a book he recently published.

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