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22 posts from September 2008

Author Questions: Sell-through Data

Checkout This week I'm all about questions authors should ask their editor/publisher.  Sunday's post dealt with distribution and yesterday's was on marketing and P.R. Today's question has to do with sell-through.  At the end of the day, sell-through is all that matters.

Sell-through data is available from a variety of sources but Bookscan is probably the most common one.  Bookscan gathers point-of-sale data from a large percentage of accounts and pulls it together to provide some very useful reports.  When looking at Bookscan data it's critical to look at both the number of copies a book sold for a week as well as how that compares to related titles.  We sometimes get hung up on whether Bookscan data represents 60% of the market, 70% of the market, etc.; what's most important isn't that percentage but rather the fact that book X is selling twice as many copies as book Y.

The critical question for an author is: Can your editor provide sell-through info on related titles?  Sell-through data on related titles is extremely helpful at the proposal stage.  Why write a book on a subject that's not selling?  That's where the comparable title data comes into play.  Then, when your book is published, will your editor be able to provide you with sell-through data on it?  Rather than having to wait for a surprise when your first royalty statement arrives, an editor with Bookscan access can give you an idea of how the book is doing right out the gate.

Just realize that not every publisher subscribes to Bookscan and that Bookscan data is confidential.  Your editor may not be able to give you a file with all the data from Bookscan but they should be able to provide enough details to let you know whether you're heading in the right direction.


Author Questions: Marketing & PR

Megaphone Yesterday I launched a new series of posts, each of which will feature a question (or set of questions) I feel authors should ask their editor/publisher.  The topic of yesterday's post was distribution and today I'm turning the spotlight to marketing and PR.

The key question every author should ask their editor/publisher is, "what sort of marketing/PR investment will be made for my book?"  The answer is likely to be something no author wants to hear.  These days, marketing is frequently limited to placement in the publisher's catalog and on their website as well as a product page on each online retailer's site.  Many titles benefit from e-mail blasts and other focused initiatives but few are promoted in major magazines and newspapers, for example.

Author platform is king.  If you're an author with an enormous mailing list, an extremely popular website/blog or someone who speaks in front of tens of thousands of people every year publishers will climb over each other to sign you to a project.

Most blockbusters are the result of author platform.  There are exceptions, of course.  William P. Young's book, The Shack, is the most notable recent example.  He was an unknown before The Shack and now has a huge platform thanks to the popularity of this excellent book.

You need to know if the publisher is assuming your platform is the key to your book's success. Ask your editor/publisher what tactics other authors with large platforms have used to drive sales for their books.  Better yet, see if any of those other authors might be willing to join forces with you.  The collective platform promoting all the books is likely to be more powerful than each platform promoting individual titles.


Author Questions: Distribution

Books2Over the next several days I plan to feature a series of posts about questions I believe authors should ask their editors/publishers.  Far too frequently it seems like the critical discussions between author and editor focus on things like writing schedules and compensation packages.  While those are certainly important subjects there are plenty of others that need to be covered as well.

The first item I'd like to suggest is distribution.  Every author should ask their editor the following question: What sort of distribution do you expect for this project?  Shelf space is at a premium.  Does the editor anticipate getting the book into the key brick-and-mortar accounts?  If so, how deep will this distribution be?  One copy per store?  Two?  More?

To be fair, at the project proposal stage, no editor can tell you exactly how many copies of your book will be at your local bookstore or across a chain.  And while conditions can change significantly between the contract signing stage and the book's publication date, the editor should be able to give you projections throughout the project.  Assumptions are made at the proposal stage, verbal/projected buys are provided by accounts 2-4 months prior to publication and then actual store/chain orders are in publisher systems within 30-45 days of the book's pub date.  Your editor should be able to give you an estimate at each stage and those estimates should become more precise the closer you get to the pub date.

Don't forget about overseas channels as well.  Ask your editor what sort of distribution you can expect for English language copies outside the U.S.  And although they may not be able to pinpoint the number of translations that are likely, they should be able to give you an idea of how similar recent publications have fared.

Don't be afraid to ask -- you never know what you might learn along the way.


Optimism vs. Pessimism

ScalesHere's a very timely article in yesterday's New York Times.  It's called "The Power of Negative Thinking" and it really resonated with me.  Yes, I tend to be overly pessimistic about certain matters but I think the article's author, Barbara Ehrenreich, is spot on with her observations.

What in the world does this have to do with publishing?  You'll see it refers to all the bestselling self-help books that promise "if you believe in it, you'll get it."  The reining champion of this genre is, of course, The Secret.

As Ehrenreich says later in the article, "consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite."  The most important statement she makes is towards the end where she says, "The alternative to both is realism — seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty."  Amen.


How the Kindle is Changing My Reading Habits

Kindle3 Now that I've had my Kindle for a few months I recently noticed a pretty dramatic impact it's had on me.  In my pre-Kindle days I'd spend my reading sessions going through a few magazines as well as a chapter or two of whatever book I happened to be immersed in that week.  The key point is that the majority of my time was spent reading books.

Nowadays I spend just as much time reading as before, but it's all centered around my New York Times subscription, my Kindlefeeder RSS feeds and either Time magazine or my most recent addition, MIT's Technology Review magazine.  I purchased and started reading three other books on my Kindle but I haven't touched any of them in at least two weeks.

So for some strange reason, I'm finding the Kindle experience to be more useful when it's focused on shorter length, more time-sensitive content.  Jeff Bezos has spoken before about our current culture's tendency towards "information snacking", or spending more time with shoter length works.  Amazon's e-reader is supposed to help us embrace longer works (like books) again, but if my experience is any indication, the Kindle (and its wireless functionality) is turning out to be yet another device that enables even more info snacking.


Extending Google's Book Search Program

Google book searchGoogle's Book Search program isn't exactly new but how many times have you used it?  When I'm searching for something I usually just start with Google's default web search.  If I'm looking for a book (or the contents of a book), well, I go to a bookseller's site.

Although it's hard to beat an in-person "flip test" with a book, Amazon's Search Inside the Book feature offers perhaps the best online alternative. But that's just one vendor and I don't believe Amazon has opened it up as a service to other websites.  As of yesterday, Google is doing just that with their Book Search program -- here's the official announcement.

Whether or not this is significant depends on a couple of things including who adopts it and how flexible Google will be with the feature set.  The announcement already talks about a number of websites that have either already implemented this service or plan to shortly.  That's great news as it should enable each of those retailers to offer a Search Inside service like the one Amazon has enjoyed for many years now.

I'm more interested to see what non-retailers will do with this opportunity, including publishers.  If this becomes a truly open system it could lend itself to all sorts of interesting implementations, beyond simple limited search access to 20% of the book.  For example, what if publishers could create a subscription service that provides access to 100% of the book?  That's where flexibility comes into play.  As more websites implement this service Google will receive more requests to enhancement it.

In short, I love the idea and I'm anxious to see if it evolves into something much larger.


Part Six: Bookstores vs. Online

Search box This is the wrap-up post in my recent series of suggestions for how the brick-and-mortar stores could better compete with the online retailers.  Parts one through five can be found here, here, here, here and here.

My final suggestion is actually two-in-one: widgets and browser search add-on's.  I don't understand why the major brick-and-mortar chains don't have widget programs.  See all those covers in the left column of my blog?  They're displayed using the LibraryThing widget.  Every time I read a book I add it to my LibraryThing collection.  The widget randomly displays six titles from my library and includes links to buy the books from...Amazon.  Everyone using a widget like this creates yet another storefront for Amazon.  Why don't the brick-and-mortar retailers have a widget strategy?

The browser search add-on is a related idea.  I use Google's search add-in toolbar for Firefox.  It lets me quickly search via Google without having to go to google.com.  A quick search tells me that there's an Amazon search add-on for Firefox but the equivalent for Borders and Barnes & Noble simply don't exist.  Why is that?  Here's a chance to put your website front and center in product search results, accessible directly from a customer's browser.  Anyone who wants to add this functionality to their browser is forced to go with Amazon's solution.

Both of these ideas seem like very simple ways to extend the brick-and-mortar brands online with minimal investment costs.  These represent nothing more than simply catching up to existing online retailer functionality.  There are probably some interesting ways to further extend the capabilities of both widgets and add-on's to leapfrog the e-tailer offerings and make them even more compelling.  I'd be happy seeing either of these implemented with just the essentials though as that would be a big step forward.


Part Five: Bookstores vs. Online

Used books neon If you thought the last post in this series was controversial, wait till you read this one.  I've spent the past week tossing out ideas for how brick-and-mortar bookstores could better compete with the online players.  This is the fifth post in the series.  (For those of you who are tired of this subject you'll be glad to know I'm pretty sure I only have one more post on it after this one.)  Links to posts 1 through 4 can be found here, here, here and here.

This idea is pretty simple.  Anyone who has ever bought a book has probably also entertained the idea of reselling it.  That's why a chain like Half Price Books is so popular.  Why let eBay and specialty stores have all the fun?  Why not create a used books store within the larger store?  Don't just implement a used book program though...make it better than the other brick-and-mortar ones.  Use your existing inventory systems to create a parallel tracking program for your used inventory as well.  That's one of my biggest beefs with the other used book stores; they generally don't know what books they have in stock.  You're forced to search through the shelves after you're at the store because there's also no inventory search option on their website.

The big brick-and-mortar retailers already offer used books online.  Now it's time to look at integrating this service in the store.  Besides the logistics of implementing such a program, the biggest challenge is floor/storage space.  How do you pack even more used inventory into a store that's already bursting at the seams with new books?  The answer is to revisit the inventory investment in new titles throughout the store.  Borders is taking bold steps with their concept stores and focusing more on the high-volume titles.  I'm guessing the assumption is very few brick-and-mortar stores can hope to compete with the seemingly infinite selection the dot-coms have to offer.

The same assumption probably applies here as well.  A new store-within-a-store would probably help drive more foot traffic as well, which is always a good thing in the retail world.  And don't forget about the attractive margins associated with used product sales.  Car dealers often make more money selling a used car than a new one, mostly because they got a great deal when they acquired the inventory.  The same logic works here too, as anyone who's ever sold their used books knows all too well!


Part Four: Bookstores vs. Online

For rent OK, it's time to start pushing the boundaries on this one.  This is the fourth in a series of posts about how I think brick-and-mortar stores could better compete with online retailers.  The earlier parts can be found here, here and here.

Next up, I'd like to suggest something radical: Bookstores should create a store-within-a-store and use it to focus on rentals.  Think of it as a mini-Blockbuster that focuses on books.  For a reasonable annual fee members can rent any one of the latest Top 100 titles in the industry.

The obvious objection to this is, "we already have that...it's called a 'library'."  How readily available are the latest releases and bestsellers in your local library?  They have waiting lists for them at mine, hence the suggestion for a solution that straddles both the library and bookstore models.

It's not just about creating a new revenue model; this is also about driving more traffic to the stores.  Someone coming in to return one book for another is also likely to browse the rest of the store and potentially buy something else.


Part Three: Bookstores vs. Online

Loyalty cards In this post, the third of a multi-part series (see part one here and part two here) on how brick-and-mortars could compete better with online booksellers, I want to look at the customer loyalty program.  If you've got a tiny barcode card or two hanging from your key chain you're probably already a member of one or more of these loyalty programs.  I have six hanging from my key chain and I find some actually do encourage loyalty while others, well, not so much.

I'm part of the customer loyalty programs (also called "xxx Member", "xxx Rewards", etc.) for two major bookstore chains.  One is free and the other costs me $25/year.  The one I pay for gives me extra discounts in the store and the other one generates e-mail offers for other types of deals.  Both send me loads of e-mails but I've never found any of them compelling enough to cause me to actually go and buy something.  Since I'm not likely to pick one of these stores over the other, I'm not sure any loyalty is really being built through these programs.

So how about coming up with better, more meaningful loyalty programs?  For me, it's all about content and content accessibility.  Here are a few things that would get me excited about a bookseller's loyalty program...

First, I like the idea of access to exclusive online content.  This could be content that's e-mailed to me (the DailyLit model is an excellent one to study) or available as a PDF download from the store's website.  Next, early access would be nice.  Even a day or two can make a difference.  I was going to buy a certain recent publication anyway but the fact that it was available for my Kindle one day before it appeared in physical bookstores caused me to buy it earlier; I felt like an "insider", regardless of the fact that I wasn't going to start reading it till later in the week.

Why do loyalty programs always just have to be about one store/chain?  Why can't there be a loyalty program that includes two or more stores I shop at most frequently?  One might be a bookstore but others might be a grocery store, an electronics retailer or maybe a gas station.  Points accumulated at all these locations would be pooled together so that one month I might redeem them for a book and the next month I might use them on my gas purchase.

There are two key elements to this: customer flexibility and cross-promotions.  The airlines have always understood this with their loyalty programs, hence all the "alliances" you see across carriers, hotel chains, etc.  Why do bookstores feel they need to go it alone?  There are plenty of great opportunities to cross-promote a variety of goods and services here.

Lastly, these shouldn't be offered as one-size-fits-all programs.  Some members are probably quite happy with the benefits they currently receive.  Great.  They shouldn't have to change.  The rest of us would like to customize the program to best fit our needs.  It can be as simple as a series of checkboxes on a webpage signup screen, but customer options in a program like this could also go a long way towards the ultimate goal of encouraging more purchases.