Just before the world changed, about five months ago on February 18th, we wrote in this space about two initiatives that made sense for all publishers to employ to raise revenues and profits.
One was Ingram’s Guaranteed Availability Program (GAP), which connects their Lightning print-on-demand capability to their ability to ship within 24 hours, delivering just about any quantity of books to justabout any account in the world. With just about any return address you want on the package. By mid-April, it was clear that the supply chain was already adjusting.
The other was Open Road’s “Ignition” marketing program, a highly automated way to sharply improve the performance of ebook titles. The tactics employed include metadata improvements, pricing adjustments, search-optimized discovery that brings in tens of thousands of new readers every day, 8 unique newsletters touching millions of consumers (about whom more and more is known every day), and an array of genre-specific websites that funnel readers to books they love. Building this capability involved many thousands of ebooks tracked across millions of consumers for more than five years.
Both of these capabilities required tens of thousands of titles, millions of dollars of focused investment, and laboriously constructed system support to build. Ignition required a commitment to build an automated marketing effort that works across many thousands of titles. This is not a good fit with a publishing business model that has always focused on a few new titles, not the thousands on the backlist, with dedicated efforts that are largely driven by hands-on human marketers.
It is not likely that any publisher, even the very biggest ones, could build what Ingram and Open Road have created. But beyond whether they could, it is even less likely that they would. It took Ingram seven years to make Lightning Print efficient and tie it to “third party distribution”, the ability to ship the book “as” coming from somebody else. And Open Road, by dedicating massive marketing resources to build an automated capability that hardly connects at all to the marketing that publishers have always done, built something that it is almost impossible to imagine any of the biggest publishers shifting their focus to attempt.
The timing of the February 18 piece was accidentally prophetic. The world of publishing pretty much shut down less than a month after it was written. It is evident to many publishers that Ingram’s GAP capability has been a lifesaver. In a recent week, five of the top ten New York Times paperback bestsellers were being printed by Lightning. Those publishers know that they wouldn’t have been able to grab those sales with the normal book supply chain.
Just as dramatic, but less apparent, is that Open Road’s Ignition, at the forefront of digital marketing, was also developed to take advantage of digital discovery and purchase, which produces enormous additional value in these pandemic times. Open Road built an enormous digital-first audience and a host of proprietary data-driven tech-enabled tools that allow a small team of marketers to promote tens of thousands of titles every month.
For partners who enter the program, Ignition delivers 100% uplift (on average across a bunch of titles) via its digital marketing capabilities. Marketing techniques that were building a unique business before the current crisis are only more effective now, as consumers are shifting their spending to online retail by choice or necessity..
Indeed, sales at Ignition are up 75% in the four months since we published that first piece. Forced lockdowns are good for online sales, and especially good for ebook sales.
What may be a bit surprising is the number of publishers who haven’t discovered either of these programs yet, even though all indications are that we are still a long way from ending this crisis and probably viewing a permanent shift in shopping habits. Since getting printings done and books shipped is a daily headache, the motivation for a publisher to get their arms around the Ingram tools that enable five of ten bestsellers arises on a daily basis.
It is not as obvious on a daily basis that every publisher would benefit from using the Ignition marketing system, but it is just as true.
Publishers market manually. They use humans to examine their metadata and change it. They assign titles to marketers, who are charged with making them more visible to buyers and today that means online visibility for online buyers. They are experts at “publicity”, which means getting their titles featured to other people’s audiences. They have, to varying degrees, built lists of book consumers they can address directly with newsletters and emails. Some have “vertical” websites that give them billboards to feature their books.
But all of those devices are applied book-by-book by human marketers who are directed, intentional, intelligent, and extremely limited in how many moves they can make and how many titles they can touch. And, therefore, very expensive.
This is a very poor match even for a publisher with 5,000 or 10,000 titles on their backlist. The publishers’ standard approach is not at all useful for lists of 20,000, 30,000 or 50,000 titles. And that’s why what Open Road has created, the only truly automated book marketing program in the industry, is of such extraordinary value. And unless two or three very big publishers get together to build something that will require millions of dollars and years of work as a joint effort, that will not change.
Open Road’s system also works best for every title in it if they keep adding titles to their mix. It is in some ways counterintuitive, but true, that the more titles they have to work with, the better they can do for the ones they already have. Publishers like Grove Atlantic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt started with a few titles in Ignition, but the more they saw the results, the more titles they put into the system. Part of what drives them could be that while Open Road delivers more ebook revenue on their titles, they take nothing from their print sales, although the marketing efforts that lift ebook sales also lift print book sales. Those remain entirely with the publisher.
For a variety of reasons, the biggest publishers have been the slowest to join the party. For one thing, Ignition is designed for large and difficult-to-manage backlists. Even though it works for new titles as well, it performs a function — marketing backlist — that publishers with enormous lists built over decades always got along without. The reflex reaction of a publisher seeing the virtue in marketing backlist (and, in the online sales era, everybody does) is to do it the time-honored way: allocating scarce (for backlist) marketing resources where they would seem to provide the most benefit.
And then applying manual effort.
As the publishers’ lists continue to grow longer and the brick-and-mortar share of business continues to diminish, it is only increasingly compelling to drive digital sales increases through a channel that is growing. Any publisher with 5,000 titles they control that are getting almost no sales today — and many large publishers could claim that distinction — is simply refusing to spin flax into gold if they don’t throw those non-performing titles into Ignition.