I peak over the shoulder of a well experienced trade publisher – she, or he, may work in a mid-sized imprint of a major group, or in some independent or even a boutique house -, with a few screens at the desk, a pile of recent charts and market reports to the left, and a smartphone to the right, the latter peeping regularly with some alerts that try to distract the attention of that publishing pilot from writing a paper on the house’s consumer strategy.
She understands that even traditional readers – in their majority urbanites, well educated, over 40 – have seen their ‘mobile time’ rising from modest 26 minutes in 2012 to over one hour in 2017. Among the new generation – we call them ‘Millennial Book Lovers’ -, that ‘mobile time’ has also doubled in the past five years, consuming now almost 3 hours per day.
The reporters from publishing trade media have alarmed her this past January, that – in Germany –over 6 million book buyers, or customers, have disappeared over the same period of five years, bringing the maximum audience for publishers to 30 million, in a total population of around 80 million.
Our dear German colleague should sigh in relief, as the loss has been much bigger in Spain – with a market decline of over one third since the economic crisis of 2008. Only exports into Latin America held many houses afloat, accounting for up to half of all sales. And yet, the slide seems to continue, after some cautious news lately. Italy, too, has been shaken severely, but here, some solid bottom seems to have formed recently, if at the price of huge consolidation among trade publishers.
Even in Holland, traditionally a rock, or better: a dike to hold back the sea and its gushes, numbers show how the market for books has gone down continuously for ten years. More relevant for our publisher though are the shifts in sales channels and consumer habits. Books sold online have increased, and so have e-books for some years. A spectacular shift, happening at an amazing pace, comes from library loans, and from subscriptions.
We need to pay attention to many such trends at once, she says while pushing the smart phone a little further away, to escape the distraction.
We need to stick to our bread and butter, she argues now, to the rare books that hit the top of the charts, the well-established authors, well, we even need the copy-cat income, or other cheap thrills, to simply secure a continuous income. Experiments are not only risky and costly, at the worst, they may be a distraction altogether. And if the total number of copies sold may decline, some modest price raises can compensate the moderate loss easily. Book readers are affluent.
Flipping through the reports to her left, she feels comforted by that pattern of lower volume sales, compensated by increased turnover in countries as diverse as Germany, Great Britain or the Netherlands.
Oh, and a little more action in the children’s and adult department also never fails entirely, as the numbers show.
But woop. What is this? A Youtuber makes the number 1 bestseller – in fiction! In Germany! How is this possible? It is not even a real book, is it? The gamer needed a second author to help with the writing. A call to the market research agency confirms that they had intercepted a few early indicators on social media. But a number 1 in fiction? Oh, and the book seems to be out of stock, anyway. Well, not entirely. And where is it sold exactly? In bookstores? Amazon does not seem to be in the lead here. Really? How to find out? The Youtubers’ Facebook pages show not a single entry in a few months. No easy answers are available.
That Youtuber is a video person in the first place. But aren’t those videos really silly? Why on earth did they turn that into a book? Can we call on our bloggers, and what do our influencers say? We have started to talk to influencers, we did! But it turns out, they don’t know. Lately, we had read about video picking up on Social!
As the publisher turns around in a surprise move, I, thus far the invisible observer in the back, I get caught her gaze, as if I held a smoking gun in my fist.
In fact, I don’t. But I seize the opportunity of the moment to ask a question that is nagging me for some time: “What do you have, my dear publisher, in terms of content, of formatted stuff, of salable products, and as free goodies to draw attention, that you can feed into all those pipes and channels and platforms? How many bits and pieces can you sell for under 3 Euros or Dollars or Pound Sterling? How much audio do you have to make a little noise – and how much visuals that are fun to share? And how good are you at using that material, to generate customer leads, and learn, ideally in real time, what produces echoes, and what vaporizes? Oh, and what do you make of insights like ‘audio books’ are consumed by more men than women, while e-books are a women readers’ domain? And how much deeper are you prepared to go, when it comes to understanding your growing number of target audiences?” Well, these were more questions than only one, I admit.
What, for instance, is a publisher’s pitch to an airline, for licensing their new audio book titles for in-flight streaming? And what is the deal in compensation that they want to propose to the authors, and their agents?
Did you just say, Madam or Sir, that following so many tracks at once, all the time, is too challenging, too costly, too chaotic? That you cannot afford to burn even more money with interns doing time on Facebook, that in the end never sell books in any tangible ways, anyway?
Your competitors like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Audible will fill the gap willingly.
That brings me to my other question to the publisher: Who on your staff and around your own house report back, in some structured way, on what they read, or how their kids operate their smartphones. You understand what I mean. You have hired all those curious minds and eyes, who are all doing ‘social’ every day, I their leisure time! Some of them might feel flattered if they would be asked for their experience. Did you ask them already?
I admit, this will never be an orderly process, at least for some time. But right now, my inkling is that a lot of truly critical information sits in drawers and on hard disks, underused, if noticed at all.
We see, day by day, how publishing is getting ever more segmented. From formerly three distinct sectors, trade or consumer versus educational versus professional or academic, we have moved into an ever-thinner slicing of the cake that used to be served in the business of books.
Today, the top tier of blockbuster bestsellers is increasingly governed by agents. On the other end of the scale, in trade, self-publishing has formed an expanding segment, that increasingly follows its own paths to consumers. Here the new big entrants come into play. All around, you can find highly integrated ecosystems, not just Amazon, but platforms turning into cross-media aggregators like Wattpad Studios. They frame all the multiple conversations of people. To make it worse, those ecosystems are currently splitting up and specializing: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp. You can bet that while you watch, more are to emerge soon.
Where, and how, can you find your room to breathe, and operate, and bond with your customers, the readers!
To charm the consumers and readers in those competitive economies of attention, it will not be good enough to go simply after the familiar faces, that are “traditional readers and book buyers”. You will not build your community of readers in the lazy thought of harvesting just the low hanging fruit.
Instead, a dramatic stretch will be required, to not loose on the core audiences, while having eyes and ears and minds wide open to identify, in the center of any publishing organization, what is going on out there.
In a new “the winner takes it all” competition, which has already extended into publishers’ traditionally territory, one must be alert to where the stories play, in which formats, how trusted knowledge can team up with the right points of access, and the convenience provided by some merchants of such content.
The old as much as the new business models will need to find hybrid ways of exploitation, centered not on the middle men, like publishers or retailers, but on the authors, and the consumers.
Playing with the numbers provides the single most important set of navigational tools in such an environment. But for (trade) publishers, it will often be rather small sets of data, and not the ‘Big Data’ that telecommunication operators, consumer goods businesses or the global platform creators can generate and analyze. Publishers’ comparative ‘small’ data will for some time be brought to life by people – by staff, in the organization, when it is organized in efficient ways.
Charming readers, on a basis of juggling with well-founded insights often forms a critical competitive advantage in turbulent landscapes. This is not a privilege of a few corporate giants.
Data have become a commodity. Reading those numbers is the challenging exercise. You and your teams can learn these skills. The findings can be turned into a competitive difference in deciding the outcome of the game you are in. Left and right, new and often much smaller initiatives show how it works. Indeed, it does work.
The collection of examples, hints and observations in this article draws particularly on data and insights from around a dozen of market research organizations and publishing professionals from across Europe, especially Nielsen BookScan (on United Kingdom, Spain and Italy), Centraal Boekhuis (The Netherlands) and Media Control (Germany), the Federation of European Publishers, IG Digital of Börsenverein (Germany), as well as the GlobalWebIndex (reading and mobile), who presented them at the Publishers’ Forum on April 26 & 27, 2018, in Berlin.