How are you connecting with your customers?

Figures-1607182_1920The people who actually buy and read books are still mostly nameless and faceless individuals from a publisher’s point of view. This, despite the fact that there are plenty of opportunities for publishers to establish a direct relationship with consumers. I’m not necessarily talking about selling direct; I’m referring to the opportunity to build a relationship with the people who open their wallets every day for your products.

This isn’t something that’s limited exclusively to ebooks, btw. In fact, the publisher-consumer relationship can be built via print books as well.

What’s the first thing consumers see when they open one of your books? Most of the time it’s the book’s title page. What a waste. If you just bought a book and are about to start reading it, do you really need to be reminded of the title? I’m sure this violates the core of The Chicago Manual of Style and a slew of other publishing references but what’s wrong with publishers offering a simple “thank you” message on that first page? Something like:

Thanks so much for your purchase. Be sure to register your book at for free membership in our reader club where you’ll get early access to new titles and opportunities to meet your favorite authors.

Step one is to convert that anonymous consumer into a real person. But don’t just make some lame request for them to hand over their email address. You’ve got to give them compelling reasons to connect or they’ll simply ignore you.

I mentioned “early access to new titles”. What does that mean? I’m suggesting that publishers offer samples of new publications exclusively on their website or via email through free membership programs. Amazon typically doesn’t offer the ebook or e-sample till the print book publishes. Why not take advantage of the period between when the sample is ready and the book is released to encourage consumers to join your membership program or visit your site? And if you do this, be sure to remove all DRM from those samples; after all, the goal is to encourage sharing of that content, not lock it down.

I also mentioned how a reader club could provide ways for consumers to meet authors. Author webinars are one option and you could make them available exclusively to members. Those tend to be one-way conversations though, so how about adding a few more intimate virtual events with no more than 10-12 attendees? Lucky winners would be randomly drawn from the membership base and earn the opportunity to interact with authors via Google Hangout or any of a number of other virtual platforms.

Exclusive content is another way to drive consumer engagement. Would your authors be willing to create short articles, videos, etc., that are shared via the membership program? I realize every author won’t be on board with this but the ones who will are the authors who understand the importance of connecting with their readers.

This sort of program could be used to drive more sales through all channels. If you’re interested in building a better direct channel though you could also offer a variety of discounts and other incentives to get consumers to buy from your site.

It’s amazing that in 2016 most publishers still act as if there’s no benefit in establishing a relationship with their readers. The reality is these same publishers are missing out on opportunities to expose more of their content to readers who already bought from them. And as the saying goes, maintaining an existing customer generally leads to a better economic outcome than trying to find and sell to a new customer.

How “Send to Kindle” can help neutralize Amazon

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.52.39 AMPublishers who sell ebooks direct to consumers typically do so in EPUB format. That’s because most publishers are still wedded to the false sense of security DRM provides and EPUB offers a popular DRM solution. Contrast that with Amazon’s format, MOBI, where Amazon is the only company who can apply and manage MOBI’s DRM’d files and settings.

A former colleague of mine and I used to get a kick out of reading the many painful steps readers are forced to go through when buying DRM’d EPUB files direct from publisher websites. It’s not uncommon for the process to require more than a dozen steps to proceed from buying to reading. Most of the process has to be endured once again if the consumer decides to start reading the same book on another device.

Click here or here to see the many hoops one must jump through to install DRM’d EPUB ebooks on one device as well as read them across multiple devices. It’s no wonder when you search for help on the topic the most popular links aren’t how to manage the process but rather how to remove the DRM and eliminate the associated headaches.

More and more publishers are starting to realize that DRM is pointless but they’re still missing out on one of the biggest opportunities of all: Putting their DRM-free ebooks into a reader’s Kindle library.

It’s no secret that Amazon dominates the ebook marketplace. Most readers have built a substantial Kindle library and the last thing they want to do is create a new library outside the Kindle ecosystem. They simply want all their books in one place.

Amazon’s Send to Kindle functionality has been around for quite awhile and I believe it’s one of the most underutilized services available to publishers. The Send to Kindle email option lets publishers push non-DRM’d ebooks directly onto a consumer’s Kindle bookshelf. I’m sure it was originally designed for documents other than ebooks but I think it’s time for book publishers to take advantage of it for their ebooks as well.

In addition to simply selling EPUB or PDF ebooks, why not provide readers with the MOBI version and push them directly onto their Kindle devices and apps? All you have to do is ask the reader for their unique Kindle email address and then have them enable inbound emails from your domain. Once that’s in place you’re able to place the ebook on their shelf just like Amazon does.

Once you’ve established that direct relationship with the consumer and their Kindle account, why not ask them if they want to opt in to receiving future related ebook samples from you? They’ll no longer have to search for similar books from your list as you’ll be able to automatically push samples to the reader’s Kindle bookshelf as they’re published. Take it a step further and make your samples available via this service 30 days before they’re available anywhere else. Get even more creative and offer a random free ebook prize to some number of lucky winners every month. There are plenty of ways to make Send to Kindle work for you and your customers.

It’s all part of creating a compelling reason for readers to come to you, the publisher, rather than always relying on retailer partners. Used wisely, the Send to Kindle service can help neutralize Amazon’s dominance while also helping publishers establish a better direct relationship with their customers.

My 2016 ebook marketplace hopes and wishes

Sylvester-1097596_1920Rather than speculate on what might happen in the ebook sector this year I thought it would be wiser to simply list the developments I’d like to see. So although some, and perhaps all, of these are a long shot, here’s my short list of hopes and wishes for the ebook market in the New Year:

Less DRM – Publishers continue to be their own worst enemy with digital rights management. It’s part of what makes it so hard for publishers to create an effective direct channel and it provides nothing more than a false sense of security. As I’ve said before, if a reader really wants to unlock and share an ebook there are a number of freely available DRM-removal utilities that are just a few clicks away. Plus, most readers have no idea where their mobi and EPUB files are stored on their devices; those who do know the location probably already have a DRM-removal tool on their computer.

Better direct-to-consumer options – Once a publisher abandons DRM it suddenly gets much easier to create a frictionless direct-to-consumer (D2C) solution. And of course I’m not suggesting publishers should abandon retailers. But it’s time for publishers to diversify their channel strategy and focus more on the one channel they have 100% control over: their D2C channel. As I’ve said before, don’t assume “if you build it, they will come.” You need compelling reasons for consumers to buy direct (see here, here and here, for example).

New, sustainable unlimited ebook subscriptions – My Oyster subscription expired a few days ago, consistent with the sunset plans Oyster announced a few months ago. Oyster itself is about to expire soon, the victim of an unsustainable business model. The all-you-can-read subscription model is not dead though. I’m convinced the way forward is with topic verticals such as sports, religion, cooking, etc. They need to offer more than long-form book content and they need to focus on building community. Think “membership” and the old AMEX line, “membership has its privileges.”

Better notes and annotations, outside the book – I’ve read quite a few ebooks over the years and I’ve highlighted a lot of passages. I’ve also added notes to several, but not as many as I should have. The reason I haven’t annotated more is because I know those notes are stuck inside the book. I want a quick and easy way to export my highlights and annotations, collate them into other documents and make them fully searchable. For example, I’d love to see ebook applications embrace Evernote functionality, making it super easy to sync all my highlights and annotations to an Evernote folder.

I hope we see progress on all of these fronts in 2016 and I hope that the New Year is a wonderful one for you, your family and your organization.

The ebook value proposition problem

Money-256319_1920My youngest daughter asked for a Harry Potter boxed set for Christmas. As I wrapped the heavy, bulky package I kept wondering why she didn’t opt for the ebook collection instead. On Christmas morning I learned why: each title in the boxed set comes with a new cover. Actually, they were supposed to have new covers but we got the wrong box, so the heavy, bulky package is about to be returned.

My daughter reminded me that ebooks are often inferior to print books. In this case, she values the ability to showcase her collection, something you just can’t do with ebooks. When we finally get the right set I’m sure she’ll smile every time she looks at the box on her shelf.

Let’s compare that to the ebook experience. My collection is a library buried deep within my iPad. When I look at my iPad I don’t smile…I just wonder if it’s fully charged for the day ahead. And although services like Goodreads can fill the digital void and help you show off your print and ebook collection, I stopped logging books there years ago; Goodreads can never replace the serendipity and conversation-starter capabilities of a physical bookshelf.

DRM and publisher pricing models also often make print more attractive than e. DRM prevents me from sharing a book with a friend or passing it along to a family member when I’m finished with it. Also, the the new agency pricing model means that consumers often only see a small savings between the e price and the print price. In some cases publishers are asking consumers to pay almost the same price for the e edition which clearly has no COGs, comes with plenty of restrictions and offers nothing more than a print-under-glass experience.

In short, most ebooks suffer from a value proposition problem. To address this situation publishers need to rethink their digital value proposition and invest in innovation.

Regarding value prop, publishers need to understand who is buying their content and how it is being used. For example, if the ebook is simply a digital alternative to the print version, offering nothing more than a print-under-glass experience, they might want to consider employing the digital companion model I described last week.

Innovation is where the real future opportunity lies though, and I’d like to illustrate that with a product that seemed to reach the end of its innovative life long ago maps.

Remember when GPS devices became affordable several years back? They brought an end to wrestling with enormous maps that required an origami degree to fold back into their original state. Then smartphones hit the scene and their built-in sensors made dedicated GPS devices obsolete. Google Maps on your phone showed you where you were and gave you turn-by-turn advice on how to reach your destination. It seemed as if there were no more innovation opportunities for maps…and then Waze arrived.

Waze brings the power of community to mapping and navigation. Thanks to Waze I see real-time warnings for debris on the road, stalled vehicles on the shoulder or congestion to avoid. Before I hop on the interstate I make sure Waze is up and running. And because Waze is community-based I try to be a good community member by contributing as much information as I consume.

The next time you think about your digital content strategy, try to avoid looking at everything through the simple, restrictive lens of print-under-glass. If maps can continue to evolve I’m quite certain books will as well.

Using ebooks to connect with indirect customers

Colorful-791927_1920Low website traffic and a lack of existing customer engagement are some of the most common reasons book publishers aren’t pursuing a direct-to-consumer (D2C) model today. They’ll point out that almost nobody comes to their site, so they question the value of investing in a D2C solution.

That’s a great point and one that shouldn’t be ignored. But it’s also a problem that can be solved and it starts with leveraging the indirect business every publisher participates in today.

I’ve suggested before that each book a publisher sells, print and digital, should include a prominent message to consumers encouraging them to connect directly with the publisher. I’m not talking about those lame “register your purchase with us” pleas that offer no meaningful benefit to readers. Just as you have to offer consumers a compelling reason to buy direct instead of from Amazon, you also have to give them a compelling reason to stop by your website and start a dialog with you, the publisher.

One bold way to do that is to offer the free e-edition of the book a consumer just purchased from a retailer. Let’s say you just bought a print book from a retailer but you also like to read ebooks in the Kindle app. Would you be willing to give the publisher your email address in exchange for them giving you the Kindle edition of that same book for free? I would.

Here’s how it would work… When I open my print edition I see this message on the very first page: Thanks for buying this book. Please visit to get details on the free Kindle edition awaiting you.

Readers go to that web address and are asked to scan and email the receipt from their print purchase. They’re also asked to provide two email addresses. One is for future promotional e-mailings from the publisher and the other is the unique email address Amazon provides every Kindle customer; there’s an opt-in process for both, of course, so publishers can only send messages and ebooks after consumers have agreed to receive them.

If you’re not familiar with the Amazon-generated email address it’s something you should familiarize yourself with. It’s a terrific way to quickly send files to your Kindle app/device for future reading. For example, the Kindle app on my iPad mini uses this email address: I’m fine sharing that with the world because Amazon also offers a simple way of preventing spam being sent to that address: In order for emailed content to make it onto my device I first have to approve the sender’s email address. So the opt-in process from the publisher says something like, “Be sure to enable messages from in your Kindle settings.” Once that’s in place the free content can be sent and will automatically appear on the customer’s device.

You’re probably wondering about the authentication process. How do you prove a consumer really bought the book before you send them a free e-edition? As I mentioned, you ask them to scan and send their receipt. That requires someone on the publisher’s end to verify, of course, although I could see a programmer creating a fairly simple app that automates most of this verification step. Till then it’s something an intern or other resource would need to handle. You’ll also want to filter out the scam artists who digitally modify one receipt after another to game the system. Perhaps a limit of X books per year per email address is built in till you’re comfortable with the volume and flow of redemptions.

As you process these requests you’re building your direct email list and opening countless new marketing doors. For example, why not turn this into a way of delivering future ebook samples directly to consumers? Let them select the topics, authors or genres they prefer and use the send-to-Kindle functionality to push samples of new books before they’re published. In fact, make it more special by providing the samples direct to consumers days or weeks before the sample are available anywhere else. Maybe this becomes part of a larger membership program consumers can join.

Finally, in order for this to work the ebook (mobi) files have to be sent in a DRM-free format. After all, the only way an ebook can be DRM’d in the Kindle ecosystem is for Amazon to lock it down. If that scares you, consider this: Anyone who wants to dig into their device’s Kindle folder to find and share unlocked mobi files is more likely to simply grab a tool like Calibre and break the DRM on their entire ebook library. DRM provides publishers with nothing more than a false sense of security so it shouldn’t be the reason to ignore this opportunity.

It’s time for publishers to start leveraging all those indirect sales and establishing a direct relationship with their customers. This is simply one way of accomplishing that goal and I hope it leads to more D2C experimentation in the industry.

Direct-to-consumer: Can you change buyer behavior?

Shopping-cart-728408_1920I recently visited a mid-size publisher to discuss direct-to-consumer (D2C) strategies with their sales and marketing leaders. Towards the end of the session I was asked the most important question of the day and it’s something publishers pursuing a D2C solution need to carefully assess: Can we really change buyer behavior?

The point is that most consumers are trained to buy from Amazon. Further, those same consumers don’t want to bother with multiple bookshelves and accounts. Once you start buying from one ebook retailer you tend to stick with them.

I’m an Amazon Prime member and that means Amazon is the first place I look to buy just about everything. Heck, we even “subscribe” to dog food on Amazon for our three basset hounds, so I’m a textbook example of a consumer who’s been trained by Bezos & Co.

My answer to the question was simple: No, you can’t change buyer behavior…unless you can truly offer a compelling reason for consumers to buy direct.

Simply adding a shopping cart to your catalog pages won’t cut it. You’re also not going to make a dent trying to beat Amazon on pricing, so why create a race to the bottom?

In order to change buyer behavior you’ve got to think about how you can offer something consumers won’t find anywhere else.

I told this publisher’s sales and marketing leaders they need to envision a product assortment that showcases items not available on Amazon or any other retailer. I’m talking about short-form content that complements their books, video material that’s only offered on the publisher’s site, and yes, even some full-length ebooks that aren’t distributed through traditional retailer channels.

Samples are another way of creating a compelling D2C solution. Publishers should super-size the samples they offer on their site. Make them longer than the ones consumers can get elsewhere and, when possible, add elements to make them richer as well.

Timing of samples can also be leveraged. Why not make those samples available earlier and exclusively on the publisher’s website? One of the things that frustrates me about upcoming titles is how the sample isn’t available till the book publishes. Why? OK, I know the goal is to have a coordinated launch date so that title rankings will all benefit from a synchronized release. Fine, but let me grab the sample before publication and backorder the title so I don’t forget about it. Publishers, you should offer samples exclusively on your website a month or so before the book actually publishes. Attract consumers and train them to come to you for the sample, not the retailer.

For publishers willing to acknowledge that digital rights management (DRM) only provides a false sense of security, sell your ebooks without this annoying limitation. Also, provide all formats to consumers when they buy direct (e.g., EPUB, mobi and PDF). Leverage services like Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” to push your D2C books onto the consumer’s Kindle bookshelf.

Turn all these services into a club readers can join then focus on surprising and delighting them every step of the way.

I admit this isn’t a model for all publishers. If your title list is wide and shallow, offering only one or two titles each on a large number of topics, you’ll never make this work. But if you cater to a particular genre or subject and your title list has plenty of depth you’ve already got the foundation for a compelling D2C solution.

Also, don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to build and maintain D2C momentum. You need to plan a steady stream of exclusive content offerings and services, just as a magazine publisher creates an editorial calendar. Don’t assume you flip a switch, offer a few exclusive items and you’re done. This requires an ongoing commitment of dedicated resources.

If you’re one of those publishers with a deep foundational list you have two choices: You can either diversify your channel strategy by investing in a strong D2C model or you can sit back and let the big retailers determine your destiny. I strongly believe those who choose the former will be in a much better position to survive and thrive. 

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) starts with building community, not owning the sale

Directory-881420_640More and more book publishers seem to be focused on building a better direct relationship with consumers. Some of these direct-to-consumer (D2C) efforts are well thought-out while others are nothing more than publishers following the crowd.

How else do you explain so many publisher sites that are simply catalog pages with the option to by print or ebooks direct? What’s the compelling reason for someone to come to the site? Even if they find the site why would a consumer consider buying direct rather than from their favorite retailer?

It reminds me of the old days when everything was driven by seasonal (print) catalogs. The accounts insisted on having enough lead-time to promote titles, so the summer titles were presented the previous fall or winter. The print catalogs were then left behind with the buyer as evidence of the sales call presentation.

Most of today’s publisher websites are nothing more than the digital version of those seasonal catalogs. And since there’s no compelling reason for consumers to discover and explore them, many of these websites are ghost towns.  Publishers create them and then wonder why nobody visits or buys.

Here’s something most D2C-focused publishers overlook: It’s virtually impossible to change a consumer’s buying habits. The larger my Kindle ebook library, the less likely I am to buy my next ebook from a retailer not named Amazon, and that includes an aversion to buying direct from the publisher. It’s that wonderful retailer walled garden phenomenon; and those walls are something publishers helped create by insisting on locking their books inside DRM.

So if that spiffy website is unlikely to generate direct sales why does it exist? If your answer is “to increase discovery”, do yourself a favor and study the results of a Google search for your top titles, series and authors. If your pages aren’t among the top search result links you’re kidding yourself with the “discovery” justification. The top results are the ones getting all the clicks.

Rather than trying to change consumer buying habits and owning the sale, publishers should instead focus their D2C efforts on building community. Publishers own the relationship with authors, so as a publisher, what are you doing to build community around your authors? What are the top three reasons are you giving consumers to come to your website?

Btw, authors are just one component. Many publishers have popular series or dominate a specific genre. What are you doing to build community around that brand or genre?

It’s OK to still offer direct buy buttons on each title’s catalog page but your D2C buy buttons should be offered alongside buy buttons for all the popular retailer sites.  That includes buy buttons for print as well. Let the consumer decide where they want to buy and don’t force them to hunt for your product on a retailer’s site.

If publishers don’t spend the time building this community with consumers, who will? The retailers aren’t going to do it. Their focus is way too broad.

So although most publishers missed out on the opportunity to go direct in the digital era, there’s still plenty of time to establish a strong consumer relationship by using your site to build and foster community. Just be sure to keep your priorities straight and focus on community first and owning the sale second.

Lessons from one publisher’s aversion to ebooks

I recently did something that I haven’t done for more than five years: I bought a physical, print edition of a book. For myself. I didn’t want to, but I had to. The publisher made me do it. The story behind my purchase offers lessons for all book publishers, but especially those who have yet to embrace the ebook market.

I’m a huge baseball fan and when I heard that Hal McCoy, a legendary sportswriter, recently published a book about his career covering the Reds, well, I had to have it. If you take a quick look at that link to the book on the publisher’s website you’ll see they only sell a print edition there. A quick look on Amazon shows that print is the only option online as well.

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That made me stop and double-check the pub date. It’s 2015, after all, and surely every publisher offers e-editions of their frontlist, right? I’ve apparently stumbled across one of the remaining publishers who is still stuck in the 1990’s. 

Not to worry… I figured I’d just run out to one of the many local brick-and-mortar stores and buy a copy there. No dice. There’s not a single copy of this book to be found at any of the local stores.

Amazon offers it at 21% off the publisher’s list price though, and since I’m a Prime member I’ll get it in a couple of days. So here we have a small boutique publisher who is contributing to their own market limitations. In this world of digital abundance they prefer to live in the era of physical scarcity.

Why print-only? It’s hard to assume they haven’t found a viable way to quickly, easily and inexpensively create EPUBs and mobi files. Not only are there a variety of simple tools for this but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of outsource providers willing to do it for a song.

Is it fear of cannibalization? Perhaps. But is that such a bad thing? I’d argue in this case that the number of potential customers who aren’t buying the print edition because it’s not available far outweighs the number of customers who might opt for a cheaper e-version over of print.

Here’s a radical idea: Charge 50% more for the e-edition. So that $19.99 print book lists for $29.99 as an ebook. Even after Amazon applies their consumer discount the publisher still makes more than they do on any print copy sale. Btw, I paid almost $16 for the print edition through Amazon but I would have gladly paid $29.99 for an e-edition, if only they’d offer one.

The publisher wouldn’t have to stick with a permanent digital list price that’s 150% of the print list. Maybe they could just have it set that high for the first 30 or 60 days, for example. The key is to measure the results, see what can be learned from the combination of print and digital sales and adjust accordingly.

Here’s another radical idea: Sell the ebook direct exclusively for 30 or 60 days. After that initial period offer it through all  theother ebook channels. (Yes, I realize this means the publisher has to renegotiate terms with distributors.)

As a consumer I admit that I’m not a fan of paying more or having to go through some crazy DRM process on a publisher’s website when I buy direct. But in this case I’d be willing to live with both of those situations.

At the very least, how about this?: Offer me an e-sample on the publisher’s site so I can start reading the book while I wait for the print copy to arrive. And please don’t lock that sample…make it easy to copy and send to others; after all, it’s a marketing tool for the publisher and the author.

Measuring the negative impact of Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Still think DRM is good for IP owners? Have you bought into all the fear, uncertainty and doubt to believe DRM protects sales by keeping freeloaders away from your content?

If so, I’ve got a report you need to read. It’s one that came out late last year but didn’t get a lot of publicity.