Two thoughts: what was one book business may divide by format and backlist may be the neglected marketing opportunity
It’s a busy week for us this week, with BookExpo America in town. We have our all-day Publishers Launch conference on Wednesday, May 29, and a solid two days of appointments on Thursday and Friday. I have the time today to present two ideas we’ll be touching upon at the conference and that I’ll be asking about in those meetings and it seems worthwhile to do so.
Although the tools for making complex ebooks are getting better and more ubiquitous, a point that will be driven home by Aerbook’s Ron Martinez’s presentation at Pub Launch, there is still not much evidence that ebooks sell much outside those which are narrative reading. I believe our panel of illustrated book publishers is going to tell us that they don’t pin their hopes on digital editions but rather on finding more effective ways to continue selling printed books. It will be interesting to hear whether the companies that have identifiable verticals, which means, among other things, retail establishments that aren’t bookstores might be persuaded to sell their books, see this differently than those with more general lists. Of our four publishers, Quarto and Rodale have clear verticals, Abrams is still mostly about art books (although they have more limited output in verticals), and Dorling Kindersley is perhaps the most general and referency of the group.
Although it is helpful to all publishers to be vertical, or audience-centric, it will be increasingly necessary for those whose sales don’t move to digital. The pressures on publishers who are distributing more than half their output as ebooks will be different, but they won’t include the urgent necessity of constantly finding new outlets for their wares to be shown and sold.
And even with the tools getting easier, making ebooks out of illustrated content is going to require much more individualized attention from the creators. Just mastering the long list of vendors and their capabilities that Martinez will outline is no small task. Decisions will have to be made about what devices and platforms to optimize for. Publishers of novels don’t have those complications.
So publishing narrative reading and publishing any other kind of book increasingly look like two separate businesses to me.
I’m also aware of two data points that define an opportunity publishers may not be sufficiently aware of: ebooks make it much more productive to market the backlist.
Data point number one is going to be presented at Pub Launch. Dan Lubart of Iobyte Solutions and HarperCollins is going to show a slide that makes it clear that titles a year old or more hit the ebook bestseller list more often than titles in the first week or two of their life.
The second data point comes from a consulting job we’re working on. We’ve interviewed some publishers about their digital marketing efforts. And we’ve learned, from a small sample, that their budgeting practices squeeze out backlist marketing just as much today as they did before the ebook revolution began.
So what is happening to make the sales that Lubart will document is not because of marketing, it is because of circumstances and availability. In the print world, circumstances can’t have the same impact because there often is no availability.
With ebooks, once they’re loaded into a retailer’s system, they’re always available.
It seems like a slam dunk that every publisher, particularly the larger ones with the biggest backlists, should be developing techniques to scan for opportunity (could be reflected in sales “deltas” from week to week; could be reflected in today’s headline news to somebody with real knowledge of the backlist, particularly the non-fiction backlist) and capitalize on it.
This has been one of the core approaches taken by the relatively recent entrant, Open Road. Since so much of their publishing list is comprised of backlist and so little of it is new titles, it was sort of a natural for them to think differently about allocating marketing effort and dollars. They market to the day on the calendar, not the day of publication.
I suspect we will see staff with the title “backlist digital marketer” pretty ubiquitously before long. We’ve found that even in some houses that organize their marketing efforts by vertical, the backlist is being given short shrift. There should be a lot of “notes to self” being written when Lubart presents his slide about backlist sales.
Another of our Pub Launch panels is comprised of people who have the words “business development” in their job title, which we put together because such a job title hardly existed just a few years ago. Maybe by next BEA we’ll be able to put together a panel of backlist marketers.