Knowledge and expertise in a hybrid world
In her address to the Booksellers Association Conference, Ursula Mackenzie, President of the Publishers Association, outlined a strategy for stronger alliances between publishers and booksellers.Predicting the future has always been a dangerous game, but I am willing to put my marker down for a hybrid world, with a mixed economy of physical and digital reading. Some recent statistics from the US are interesting - a year ago 70% of ebook consumers said they read exclusively in the digital format, while one year later that number has dropped by 10% to 60%. And ebook growth is slowing dramatically - in September 2011, growth was still 101% year on year, but by April 2012 it was only 37%. Even 50 Shades - originally a self-published ebook as we all know - has split equally between print and ebooks in the US.
So how will we all need to operate to cope with this hybrid future? The most important thing for both publishers and booksellers alike is to keep as close a bond as possible with customers, which means offering them what they want as efficiently as possible. Bookshops need excellent websites with easy fulfilment, ideally offering both ebooks and physical books, but with physical being the most important. Consumers are driven by ease of purchase, so facilitating a straightforward process, perhaps with added rewards and incentives for customers to set up accounts, will make it easy for them to order online and more importantly on a regular and repeat basis.
Sophisticated websites that offer help with choosing books and an easy ordering process do not come cheaply. At Hachette we have developed a sophisticated underlying website architecture for the whole group, but with tailor-made individual front-ends. Is this an approach that the BA could adopt, investing in a single and effective underlying engine that could then be used by any bookshop but personalized by them?
The biggest risk that booksellers face is losing physical sales to online retailers, particularly as so many people are going online to download ebooks. The UK has more online shoppers than anywhere else in the world. We want to be able to shop without leaving our living rooms at least some of the time, and none of us can afford to ignore this. Consumers want choice, and successful booksellers will be supportive of customers who want to read electronically, ideally having at least one member of staff who is really good at all the different bits of hardware and software so customers don't feel awkward or disloyal about e-reading and instead come to you for advice. While they are there, they will ideally browse in the shop and ask for recommendations - which leads me on to my next main point: expertise.
One of the things that fascinates me about the world of digital reading is the way in which it tries to replicate the experience of reading a physical book, and how impressed we are when it manages to come close - with page turns, for example. Millions have been spent developing book recommendation websites; Amazon has all the data imaginable but still a lot of the time when it makes its suggestions they are very wide of the mark. None of them are a patch on a local bookseller who knows his customers. Create a clear identity for your shop, and develop trust in your recommendations perhaps by making some of them very selective and making your choice of the best book to read very obvious. Daunts in Marylebone High Street did an entire window of one of our titles - The Devotion of Suspect X - and sold over 600 copies from that one store. Perhaps take the process even further by having a card in the back of each copy of those few selected titles that you are really pushing with a couple of recommendations for what to read next, reinforcing the credibility of a bookseller's judgements.
Your advice as booksellers is reliable - in strong contrast to a lot of so-called reviews online. There has been a lot of coverage recently for the controversy surrounding sock-puppetry - people posting favourable reviews of their own work and bad ones of competitors', under fake names - and also entire businesses set up to sell glowing reviews for self-published books posted online for $95 each, or bulk purchase of eight reviews for $495. One woman who was employed to write these reviews was quoted as saying she thought some of the books sounded interesting but she didn't have time to read them because she was writing 17 "reviews" a week! Inevitably this will lead to a loss of confidence in the validity of online reviews, and surely then people will value honest bookselling - a judgement that can be trusted.
What can publishers and booksellers do to help each other?
- Social media: if we need to communicate more easily and effectively with lots of individual shops, should we be using social media more effectively? In the US there are some powerful and influential tweeters who are actually bookshops - and in the UK too - Mr B's Emporium has almost 3,000 followers. We need to be thinking of extending our range of online communication to link authors, publishers and bookshops more effectively.
- People still love physical books, but they need to be a joy to experience and to cherish. So even with this hybrid world leading to smaller print-runs, we as publishers mustn't let production standards fall, in fact books probably need to become even more desirable as physical objects.
- As a publisher, we are happy to offer support in genres where individual bookshops don't have a depth of knowledge. Sometimes niche areas represent a real opportunity, for example science fiction and fantasy, and publishers can advise on and help to manage a core stock range in a particular genre.
- Consumer insight is now recognised to be enormously important, and the internet can provide a wealth of information about consumer buying habits. Publishers are trying to reach out to readers, but booksellers have the closest contact with them. How can we share this consumer insight and maximise the advantage to both publishers and booksellers?
- Finally, I would like to emphasize the importance of focusing on positive messages. A big new book is announced, and there is a tendency for some booksellers just to bemoan the fact that they won't be able to sell it as cheaply as the supermarkets. This is an incredibly negative message and some of the time it must just drive people to these cheaper outlets. When the RedGroup in Australia went into administration, the Chief Executive was all over the media blaming its demise on people buying books offshore from places like the Book Depository - it was widely covered, and offshore sales shot up as many who had never heard of the Book Depository began to make use of it.
We are not a dinosaurs, and we should refuse to share their fate.
Ursula Mackenzie is CEO of Little, Brown