Why shop at a brick-and-mortar bookstore?

Coke2Do you still shop at your local bookstore? I typically go once, maybe twice a year, and the last time for me was December 2015. I made a rare summer visit to my local B&N this weekend in search of books for my almost six-month-old grandson, Jasper. No matter how good Amazon makes their “Look Inside” feature, it will never replace the experience of flipping through a children’s book, especially those with pop-ups, pull-tabs and other fun elements you find in so many children’s titles.

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and there were at most 10-15 other shoppers in the entire store. That got me thinking: What are the compelling reasons to shop at a physical bookstore? The “buy local” movement is a nice feel-good for consumers but it’s not a viable long-term strategy for brick-and-mortar stores.

Despite my love/hate relationship with Amazon over the years, I admit that I currently buy almost all my books there. Thanks to Prime, my wife and I spend a lot on plenty of other Amazon products every month too. That’s the beast we consumers created and it simply replaced another beast that preceded it: the formerly powerful combo of B&N and Borders superstores.

It’s sad to watch B&N shift square footage from books to seemingly anything other than books. I get it that they need to find a new path forward but I’m amazed at the many book discovery and sales opportunities they’ve ignored or overlooked.

This particular B&N had been completely remodeled since I last visited it in 2015. Despite all the signage it took far too long for me to locate the two sections I wanted to visit after finding my Jasper books. Why isn’t there an in-store mobile app designed to quickly help me find my way, sort of a virtual replacement for all the in-store personnel that used to assist you at every turn? GPS and in-store sensors are more than good enough to help consumers navigate a superstore. Plus, there’s a data collection opportunity these stores are missing out on; publishers would likely pay big bucks for reports quantifying consumer time spent in front over various promotional campaign types (e.g., end-cap vs. front-of-store vs. free-standing displays).

Why stop there though? Since they know I’m in the store, why not allow me to opt in to exclusive deals, customized for my interests, delivered via this mobile app and which expire as soon as I walk out the front door? This could limit the showrooming practice where consumers sample in the physical store but end up buying, sometimes via their phone, while they’re still standing in the aisle.

While I was feeling bad for brick-and-mortars I felt even worse when I picked up a couple of recent publications from the blockbuster “For Dummies” series. I had the pleasure of spending a few years working at the publishing house where the series was created and expanded and I think what we said back then is still true today: Everyone is a dummy about something.

Branding was always such an important consideration for those yellow-and-black covers but you discovered the one-of-a-kind content personality when you flipped through any of the hundreds of successful titles. That’s no longer the case. The two I picked up had morphed into generic-looking covers and, surprisingly, plain vanilla interiors. The once playful heading fonts are gone and so too is that powerful message, “a reference for the rest of us.”

Like any publisher of a highly successful series, I’m sure the Dummies team felt the time was right for a refresh. I think they made a huge mistake with their new approach though. It would be like Coke switching to blue cans or McDonalds ditching their golden arches.

Once upon a time the Dummies books would be showcased, face out, in a four-foot-wide display at your local store. Those covers were so powerful individually but made an even stronger impression when 20 of them were aligned in a chain-wide promotional campaign.

The newer Dummies books mostly blend in with the rest of the white noise on the shelf. Given the scope of that series, I see that as yet another missed brick-and-mortar opportunity, particularly since impulse-buying seems to happen more in the physical store than online. Consumers will no longer be drawn to the bright yellow-and-black covers that once served as a foot traffic magnet within the local bookstore.


Here’s where innovative publishers need to focus

Idea-48100_1280There are a number of key attributes successful publishers will be known for in the future. These core capabilities will be very different from the ones that have led to the modern empires of the Big Five.

Some attributes will remain the same, of course. For example, it will always be crucial for publishers to acquire, develop and produce excellent content. But the services and capabilities that surround and complement the acquire/develop/produce core are what will matter most.

With that in mind, here’s my short list of what will separate tomorrow’s publishing leaders from all the rest:

Being data-driven – Remember the old days when Ingram data was the only source of industry-wide sell-through information? Then Bookscan hit the scene and it felt like we moved from the Stone Age to the Information Age. I’m not talking about this kind of data. Bookscan and other retailer sell-through numbers are lagging indicators. They represent what happened yesterday, last week or last month. The successful publisher of tomorrow wants to know what’s happening right now and where the trends are leading. Real-time website analytics, heat maps, email open/click-thru rates…that’s where the actionable data can be found today but most book publishers treat them as secondary information sources at best. A publisher who thinks they’re data-driven today might adjust plans for a book scheduled to publish six months from now based on sell-through data they studied from last month. Tomorrow’s data-driven publisher will alter the free content on their website this afternoon based on information they gathered this morning.

Breaking free of containers – Why are publishers focused on lagging indicators? Because they’re stuck in the era of containers. They’re producing books, magazines or newspapers and they measure everything based on those containers. It may not be obvious but the container model is slowly fading away. Please don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying books are going away. Print books will still be produced for a long, long time. But the way content is being consumed is shifting to a more digital, container-less model. Think about that last bit of content you read on your phone. Did you care whether it was originally produced for a newspaper, a magazine, a blog, a website or a newsletter? Probably not. What mattered most is that the content covered a topic that matters to you. Innovative publishers need to think more about highly relevant content streams rather than content containers.

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) – I vividly recall talking five years ago with a Big Six executive about the importance of creating a vibrant direct-to-consumer channel. She rolled her eyes and said they’d never do that because they prefer to let their retail partners handle the consumer connection. I feel somewhat validated now as I see that same publisher experimenting more and more with D2C. It’s not just about capturing all the revenue. The data and resulting opportunities to do some very powerful things with that data are what make D2C such an important model. That, and the fact that you become less reliant on middlemen who control your destiny, ought to be reason enough to focus on D2C.

Owning and leveraging the list – The most important piece of data every publisher should own is the customer name and email address. This is what makes D2C so special. Securing names and emails isn’t as easy as simply making a sale. You’ve got to earn the consumer’s trust by having them opt in to your future marketing campaigns. Too many publishers who have built a D2C channel simply become data hoarders, gathering names and emails but never doing much with them.

Building the funnel – One of the biggest reasons publishers don’t go direct is that they feel they’re unable to attract enough traffic to make it worthwhile. That’s because they’re not applying the funnel model. You start by offering plenty of outstanding free content on your site. Once visitors arrive and they like what they read you have the opportunity to connect with them via free newsletters, for example; rather than waiting and hoping they come back, offer to continue sending outstanding content right to their email inbox. Part of this step includes asking them to opt in for other offers and information from you. As the funnel narrows from top to bottom, you’re leading these consumers along a path loaded with all your terrific content, some of it free and some of it paid.

This isn’t for everyone. For example, the Big Five are simply too reliant on the existing ecosystem, unwilling to risk alienating certain channel partners and built upon a very rigid container-based creation and distribution model. The Big Five will remain large, just like B&N and Borders did for many years after Amazon arrived. But then Borders went away and in order to survive B&N evolved from a bookstore to a gift shop.

The smaller players though, the ones who focus on a particular topic, vertical or audience are the publishers who are best positioned to embrace the attributes described above. And as they do they’ll find themselves in a far better world with a direct connection to customers and the ability to serve those customers with more than just one or two types of container-driven content.


Another way to monetize ebooks

Coins-948603_1920In today’s market there are typically two methods for ebook distribution: free or paid. I’ve said before that one day we’ll see an ad-subsidized model take hold. Purists generally reject that concept, saying they won’t let advertisements interfere with their reading experience. That’s fine. They can pay full price but I’ll sometimes opt for the cheaper (or free) ad-subsidized version.

There’s another option that could become popular one day and it will be almost as as frictionless as the free model.

Are you familiar with Google’s Opinion Rewards app? I learned about it a couple of years ago and now I use it to buy three or four ebooks per year. Once the app is installed on your mobile device you’ll get periodic notifications asking you to respond to a survey. These questions can feel kind of creepy as Google uses the geo service in your device to ask specifics about stores you recently visited, for example. It takes about 10 seconds to answer and each survey nets me anywhere from 10 to 50 cents, sometimes even more; I usually end up with $10-$12 in my Google account every two to three months and I always use it to buy an ebook in the Google Play store.

With that in mind, imagine a service where you can download all the ebooks you want, for no charge. The content is locked and it becomes accessible as you answer a survey question every few pages. Or maybe you answer a few survey questions at the start of each chapter. Either way, rather than cash or credit card, you’re paying for the ebook with your data and opinions.

Again, this model isn’t for everyone. Privacy freaks will definitely choose the traditional option, paying full price to avoid sharing more data or opinions.

In order to make this happen we’ll need an ebook application and platform that supports a survey-driven business model. Google would be the logical choice as they could easily integrate their Opinion Rewards service in their ebook app. I doubt that will happen though as Google has expressed almost zero interest in the ebook marketplace. Doesn’t it seem as though they only released an ebook application because Apple has one?

In order for any company to offer this option they’d have to place a high value on the survey data. That means they’d either use the results to improve their own business (unlikely) or sell the anonymized results to others (more likely).

The key difference with this model for publishers is that they’ll earn only as their content is read. So if most users download the book then lose interest after a chapter or two, that’s all the survey income the publisher will earn; this pay-as-you-go model scares the heck out of most publishers because they’d rather get full price up front and not worry about whether the content was engaging or if readers finished the book.

There’s a huge ecosystem of free ebooks today. Publishers and authors typically give these books away and hope some number of readers will buy the next title in the series or another book from that author. A pay-as-you-go model, which doesn’t really force the user to open their wallets, could become a more viable option, helping authors and publishers better understand how their content is being consumed.


A new take on ebook windowing

Window-941625_1920Ebook windowing is a technique designed to prevent ebooks from cannibalizing print book sales. The original thinking went something like this: Release a new title in print format only, thereby preventing e-cannibalization.

The result? Frustrated consumers. If you’re an ebook reader there’s nothing worse than realizing a digital edition doesn’t exist for that new book you recently discovered and were ready to buy. These days it seems the lack of a digital edition isn’t the result of publisher windowing as much as publisher ebook indifference.

I think it’s time to reconsider the windowing model, but with a twist.

Rather than offering print without digital initially, why not offer that ebook exclusively on the publisher’s website? For the first 30 days, for example, the ebook is only available as a direct-to-consumer option from the publisher. Most ebooks are ready for download before the print book anyway, so this is a new way of taking advantage of the print manufacturing and distribution delays. When the final version is ready to send to the printer the publisher can make it available for purchase as an ebook on their site. The e-exclusivity period expires when the book is off the press and in stores a few weeks later.

Two of the big challenges with this approach are:

  1. Making sure consumers are aware of the initial exclusively direct availability
  2. Getting consumers to change their buying behavior

Neither of these is easily overcome but both are critical for a successful direct-to-consumer strategy. They also require a long-term commitment, so don’t expect game-changing results initially.

The awareness obstacle starts with creation and careful management of a customer list. Email newsletters are critical and they must contain valuable information and insights, not just one promotional message after another. This isn’t just about emails and list management though. A publisher needs to be committed to building community with their audience, giving them reasons to come to their site on a regular basis, etc. Many publishers have an allergic reaction to this approach; these publishers will never create a successful direct channel.

Raising and maintaining consumer awareness is hard enough, but changing consumer buying behavior has a much higher degree of difficulty. If you’re a Kindle reader and you’ve built a large e-library with Amazon you need a compelling reason to buy your next ebook from somewhere else.

The direct sales model eliminates the retailer and enables the publisher to keep a larger chunk of the revenue. In many cases this means the publisher nets 100% of the selling price vs. only about 50% when the ebook is sold through a retailer. So why not pass a portion of that difference along to consumers? A 40%-off deal during that initial direct-only stage might be a compelling enough reason for some of those Kindle loyalists to consider buying direct instead, especially if the Kindle price ends up being close to list.

I realize this strategy won’t put a dent in Amazon’s ebook dominance. But over time it can enable publishers to build a stronger direct-to-consumer business, the benefits of which include knowing who your customers are, being able to market directly to them and gathering analytics about their reading behavior.


U.S. book publishing industry stats from Nielsen

Business-925900_1920Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 is in the rearview mirror but there were a few noteworthy tidbits gleaned from the event. Some of the more important facts and figures were shared by Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper his state-of-the-U.S.-market presentation.

Although you can argue Nielsen’s data isn’t complete and it’s therefore far from perfect, it’s one of the few resources available for market trends and analysis. With that in mind, here are the most interesting points I saw in Jonathan’s presentation:

Self-publishing and the Big Five are crowding out everyone else – According to Nielsen’s data, from Q1 2014 to Q1 2015, self-published books have grown from 14% to 18% of the overall market. In that same period the Big Five’s share has grown from 28% to 37%. Meanwhile, the rest of the market, all the large, medium and tiny publishers, have seen their share decrease from 58% to 45%.

The print/e split is now roughly 74%/26% – Plenty of articles have been written about the plateauing ebook market. Most publishers report ebooks represent anywhere from 15% to 30% or so of total revenue. According to Nielsen, the current state of equilibrium is closer to a 74%/26% split. That ratio varies widely by genre, btw, but it’s worth looking at your own rate to see how it compares to the overall industry average.

Price drives ebook interest – According to Nielsen’s consumer survey, almost 60% of respondents said they’d choose e over p if the savings is at least $4 for the former. Additionally, approximately 50% said they’d do the same even if the ebook is only $2-3 cheaper than the print version. So as publishers wrestle back consumer pricing via the new agency model, driving ebook prices up, it’s clear they’re inadvertently (and sometimes deliberately) nudging consumers back to print.

Consumer prefer print and e, not or – 49% of consumers surveyed said they bought print and ebooks in the past 6 months vs. 42% who only bought print and a paltry 9% who only bought e. Just because a consumer buys ebooks doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned print. This is a huge opportunity most publishers are overlooking. Why aren’t there more digital products that complement print rather than assume the ebook is replacing the print one?

Amazon dominates subscriptions too – It’s been hard to find data on the all-you-can-read ebook subscription market but Nielsen is finally shining some light on the model. And just as they do pretty much everywhere else, Amazon is crushing it. First of all, according to Nielsen only 5% of consumers have signed up for any ebook subscription solution, so the market remains small. Kindle Unlimited led the way with the largest chunk of market share, jumping from approximately 40% in January 2015 to almost 60% in April. Scribd and Oyster were tiny players by comparison in that period, and they’re only getting smaller. Given their teensy share of a small segment, it’s no wonder Oyster is going away soon.

Btw, this was the first year for the Fair’s Business Club option and I hope it’s not the last. The Business Club was a terrific location for quiet meetings, away from the traffic and noise of the hall floors. It ranked high in serendipity value as well: I bumped into and met with at least a handful of other attendees I might not have crossed paths with otherwise. Highly recommended.