There are two aspects of the business that ebooks should really change.
One is that ebooks can really enable increases in sales of the backlist.
The other is that ebooks will really enable sales outside the publisher’s home territory.
The second piece of this hardly even requires much effort. At a conference called Camp Coresource hosted by Ingram two weeks ago, Mary Cummings of Diversion Books, which last year launched a romance-only eBookstore app, EverAfter Romance, reported just short of half of EverAfter’s app users are coming from outside the “home” (US) market. Of that 49 percent, only about 6 percent come from the UK and Canada. Of course, Diversion owns world rights on many titles. And the rest of the world has far more than half the people, even far more than half the English speakers, in the world. So the US is still responsible for far more users per capita, but that’s really of secondary importance. Getting half one’s customers from markets that would have been very hard to reach ten years ago — without any extraordinary efforts — is a very new thing.
This global reality comes up in another frequent current discussion. The big publishers are suggesting that ebook sales have plateaued, perhaps even declined. Amazon says “not true”, that ebook sales are still rising. Some analysis, such as what is done by Data Guy for Author Earnings, says that the publishers’ big books are losing ebook share to the indies, primarily relying on data scraped from Amazon to make the case. The most commonly-offered explanations are that publishers’ success forcing higher ebook prices for their titles, combined with a decline in new converts to ebooks (who are inclined to “load up” their devices when they first start reading digitally) account for the apparent trend.
But the comparison can also be skewed. All Amazon sales from outside the US that are not made through a local Amazon store are credited to the US store. And when Amazon distributes indie ebooks, they always (or at least almost always) have global rights. So it could well be the case, and often is, that the publisher-ebooks that are being compared to the indie-ebooks are working on a smaller territorial base for sales. There is an apples-to-oranges problem that makes it difficult to compare Amazon sales of indie ebooks to those from publishers.
The point to capture is that just having ebooks for sale around the globe can bring markets to a customer’s door, wherever the book originated. Any rights management policy that prevents an ebook from being on sale anywhere is likely to be costing some sales.
The backlist challenge is trickier and the results might not be as obvious. Two of the biggest drivers of ebook sales are discovery in response to search and the amplified effect of existing sales momentum in bestseller lists and retailer recommendations. (“People who bought this, bought that.”) A power law distribution seems inherent in ebook sales. Those that sell develop sales momentum; those that don’t remain hidden and buried.
But a lot of that has to do with metadata. Publishers have been getting better and better at writing the descriptive copy that determines whether search engines identity them as an “answer” to the right queries. That means that as you go back in time, the copy is less and less likely to be useful for the purpose.
And there are some realities about budgets and effort allocation in big companies to take into account. The lion’s share, and that means more than 90 percent, of budgets and internal effort allocations for marketing go to the current frontlist. The backlist has many times the number of titles as the frontlist, so a much smaller amount of money and assignable labor is spread over a far larger number of titles. On a per-title basis, there have hardly been any resources available for backlist. And since backlist sales of ebooks have not generally been robust, predicting the ROI necessary to increase those budget allocations requires courage. Or foolhardiness.
Then there are corporate political realities. New books have advocates. There are the editors in the house who signed them and whose careers will be affected by how well they do. There is a publisher for each imprint watching the imprint’s P&L, firm in the belief that very few backlist books can move the needle but that every new title can. And the publishers and editors are also the ones who know the books and tell the marketers what they’re about and (too often) who the audiences are for them.
And, on top of that, publishers often count on backlist sales to be the most profitable precisely because they don’t have to allocate marketing spending or staff time to those books. There sometimes seems to be a fear operating at publishing houses that starting to expend marketing effort on backlist is opening a Pandora’s Box which would compromise the most profitable aspect of their business.
But there are hopeful signs that this is changing.
Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, keynoted the recent annual meeting of the Book Industry Study Group by underscoring how S&S has changed its approach to capture backlist opportunities. Reidy made the point that between print bought online and ebooks, more than 60 percent of the company’s sales came from Internet channels. She said that at S&S’s weekly marketing meeting, which I’m sure was almost exclusively frontlist-oriented until very recently, they are now looking at their books “through a lens of daily opportunities”. That could include noting it if a book is listed for a prize or mentioned on a TV show or in a tweet by a celebrity. The chances that a book will be discovered by somebody searching for the book that way are multiplied if the book’s descriptive copy points the search engines in the right direction.
This is an approach we first saw for ourselves at Open Road Digital Media a few years ago. Their “marketing calendar” focused on holidays and predictable events like graduations, not the publication dates of forthcoming books. Of course, Open Road didn’t have any frontlist at that time. All the books they acquired in the early days of the company were backlist for which digital rights were somehow available. They made a virtue of a deficiency. But marketing the backlist in the light of the most current “daily opportunities” is precisely the right thing to do.
It is worth noting that when Reidy spoke at Digital Book World in January 2014, she pointed to the opportunities in global. In the prior year, she noted, S&S had sold ebooks in more than 200 countries.
Recognition of an opportunity is a necessary first step and assigning human and capital resources to pursue it is the second. But the biggest publishers are also going to need digital tools to fully exploit what is now open to them. When we looked at what Open Road was doing, they had about 1000 titles in their shop, all of which had just been acquired by the team in place. They could keep them in their heads. The biggest publishers have tens of thousands of titles in their backlists, many (if not most) of which were acquired and launched by editors and publishers who are no longer in their employ. Many of them have old and out-of-date descriptive copy which is not readily updated because nobody working there now knows the book.
It will soon be seen as necessary to employ technology to monitor the news and social graph and to “bounce” the results of each “daily opportunity” off the possiblities in the backlist. It will for quite a while longer still require humans to do some targeted research into what today’s relevant search terms are and to write the descriptive copy that will respond to them, but technological assistance will multiply the effectiveness of the human efforts.
We should expect the backlists to start increasing their share of every publisher’s annual sales. And we should expect offshore ebook sales to do the same.
There are recent reports from the US and UK that print unit sales are up while ebook unit sales are down. This is being celebrated by some as an indication that book consumers are turning away from digital reading to go back to print. Perhaps because I intuitively find this so unlikely, I can think of caveats.
The presumed reductions and growth are very small and the measurement techniques are pretty crude, so there is an accuracy question. But we also know — as was referred to in the main body of the post above — that new ebook converts tend to “load up” their digital device when they start reading that way. I believe the purchases at first are somewhat “aspirational”, but then settle into a rhythm more like replacement. So ebook purchases are inflated in relation to ebook consumption early in one’s ebook-reading “career”. Fewer new ebook readers each month (which we certainly have) mean fewer people loading up.
Of course, print book sales actually rising, which is the implication from the recent data, is an independent marker that, if borne out over time, requires another explanation and that would be one that I don’t have yet.