What are the most important digital change issues publishers face?
To prepare for DBW 2016, we need to decide what publishers need to be thinking about and learning about next March, when the seventh annual DBW will take place. It would be extremely limiting for that selection to be based on my thoughts and opinions alone, and we have a process in place to make sure that it isn’t. (More on that to come in the next post here.) But if we were relying on me alone, here’s what we’d be focused on.
1. Ebook pricing. Publishers get anywhere from 50-to-70 percent of the retail price from most ebook retailers. Unlike the print world, where price-setting must take place before the book comes out and is, because the price is printed on the book, very hard to adjust, ebook prices can be changed quickly and frequently.
Pricing variation has historically been the province of the retailer. In the physical world, markdowns were almost never shared: the retailer voluntarily gave away part of their margin to gain market share or to build customer loyalty.
In the agency world that four of the Big Five have now created (with Penguin Random House almost certain to follow on), pricing is not only mostly controlled by publishers, they are the direct beneficiaries of higher prices and lose margin if prices are lowered.
It is true — and the indie authors who like it better when Amazon is in control rather than the publishers often point this out — that publishers have almost no experience with pricing and the impact of changes. But it is also true that the retailers, who do have more experience with it, have different objectives than publishers. Retailers want a competitive advantage against other retailers and, as part of that, they want to build customer loyalty. Publishers want to maximize revenue for each SKU, build awareness of authors, and use one book by an author or in a series to sell other titles under the same brand.
Publishers are starting very near zero on knowledge. How does discounting one title in a series affect the audience’s likelihood of getting started with it and then buying other titles at higher prices? If a book is in the news, is the right strategy to raise the price (to maximize revenue) or to lower the price (to get better market penetration on the back of the news). And is the strategy the same if the story is about the book, rather than the book being about the story? Do pricing strategies need seasonality rules, and how is that different across genres or topics?
All of these are things publishers will have to learn by a combination of experimentation, archiving of information, and analysis. A complicating aspect of this is that the market itself is still changing: a person’s ebook purchasing habits today, when they’re new to it, may change over the next couple of years, as they become more sophisticated consumers. This is a moving target but a very important one. And there is one person who stands out as having looked at this more closely than anyone: Dan Lubart, who owns Iobyte Solutions, and who previously worked for HarperCollins and now is at Hachette.
2. Building direct customer knowledge. What is knowable about audiences through listening and analytical tools today is stunning. It is critical to do audience research on a constant and ongoing basis. Publishers need to keep formulating theses about who their audiences are, then doing research to find where they hang out online and what words they use when they talk about the things the publisher wants to engage them about.
The customer knowledge is essential to do first-class search engine optimization, but it is even more important for a publisher that wants to do any kind of “campaign”. Buying keyword exposure is an exercise in constant experimentation, measurement, and management no matter what you do, but starting a campaign without doing the core audience research is simply wasteful. And what is true of ad campaigns is also true of earned media and traditional marketing campaigns. This is the marketing equivalent of “measure twice, cut once”. Don’t waste time, money, and effort doing something that research could have told you in advance wouldn’t work.
3. Building direct customer contact. Near as we can tell, the big publishers have been building email lists for years. There’s a Shatzkin Files post from the Fall of 2011 citing Tor.com’s having mailed to hundreds of thousands of people the month before, with a very high open rate and getting an extraordinary percentage of those to “take an action”.
But building lists and managing them for maximum effectiveness are two quite different things. And even more complicated is a next-generation challenge: getting publisher lists and author lists working in tandem. It would seem like a win all around for publishers to organize authors whose audiences are similar to email across their lists to everybody’s benefit. But it is easy to see why authors (or their agents or business advisors) would be reluctant to dive into something like that, or to want some control over their use in ways that effectively forestalls collective action.
Even for lists publishers entirely own and control, there is enormous work to do segment them properly and test, test, test to find the most effective ways to use them. And engagement with customers also includes branding and interaction with them in social media and targeted web sites or landing pages that can engage potential customers (and, of course, capture their email addresses as well).
4. New protocols for author collaboration around marketing. We’ve made the point in this space before that the author’s digital presence is an important component of any book’s SEO. A publisher extending its own efforts to make its books discoverable that is not including the author web sites in their analysis is missing a component essential to the success of their efforts.
This is a complicated question that will ultimately back right up to the author’s contract, but where each publisher needs to start is with an understanding of what they want from an author’s digital presence and web site. There needs to be a best practice “ask” and there needs to be analysis of what exists to pinpoint the ways it should be improved. One very alert Big Five house we know has at least an executive or two at a high level who sees the virtue in our suggestion that a graded analysis of an author’s online presence, together with specific recommendations for improvement, should be both a standard and promoted feature for authors of being published by that house. It is hard to imagine that this won’t be normal operating procedure in a couple of years but the time to start working on it, for everybody, is now.
5. Maximizing global sales: distribution and discovery. Publishers, coaxed by global ebook distributors like Ingram, Vearsa, and others, are increasingly aware that English-language ebooks have a global market. But maximizing those sales requires both having distribution to the retailers serving each market and optimizing the title description metadata so that search “works” at many places around the world.
Part of what is required there is — say it again — more research. The search terms that work best for any book may well be different in India or Australia than they are in the US. But the challenges in getting differentiated copy posted correctly in the right places are not trivial, and things don’t work the same in Amazon and Google, let alone in local retailers in each market. We figure that the sophistication of the global ebook distributors will be increasingly useful here, but it will also be necessary for each global publisher to understand their most important markets and retailers for their books to sell most effectively.
6. Building a company-wide understanding of SEO (editorial, marketing, and sales). The understanding of SEO at most publishing houses, from our experience, is both insufficient among the most knowledgeable in the house and grasped at all by far too few people. For the most part, SEO is the province of the “marketers”, but, in fact, it might even be as important that editors and salespeople understand it. The S in SEO stands for “search” but it might as well stand for “sales” or “shelved”.
Editors who don’t understand SEO lack an important tool to direct authors, particularly of non-fiction books, to address what the audience wants. Without SEO understanding, they can’t instantly tell a “bad” title (one that won’t work for SEO) from a useful one.
Salespeople, whether they are covering brick stores or online ones, need that understanding too.
The key to optimizing for search is knowing how the audience searches. This can only be accomplished by research, and it changes with time so the research for a similar book on last season’s list can’t reliably be re-used. That will become clear as we consider the next point.
7. Allocating effort across a large backlist. The biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge for publishers, as they have historically operated and as they are currently structured, is maximizing their opportunities across their backlists. The big houses are dealing with many tens of thousands of titles. We advocate techniques that require some human application so scale techniques have to be used to pinpoint the titles worth an effort.
Although we are developing tools to help digest the external cues that might affect where the focus should be — cues from the news and social graph — each publisher has to start with a combination of knowledge of the list, intuition, and a sense that sales can be improved to pick those titles worth reviewing for better audience understanding and descriptive copy improvement. Almost certainly, titles that are more than a couple of years old will need work for several reasons: the house knew so little about SEO when copy was written; time will have changed the search terms that matter; and reviews and awards and other things from the book’s experience in the marketplace might need to be incorporated.
8. Make sure you ignore what is not important. My Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy has worked inside big companies and he urged me to add this eighth point. No company has the people or bandwidth or resources to spend time on things that are not very important. Whether you use this list of mine or make your own, be very wary of expending any energy or capital or bandwidth on anything else.
Of course, DBW itself won’t be relying just on me to make the choices of what to cover and what to ignore. I have already created a much longer list of topics than this for our Conference Council to review. We have them express themselves on how useful each potential topic is in a Survey Monkey poll. We will give our readers the opportunity to take that same poll when we describe the larger list of topics in our next post.