Monday, January 21, 2013

Online Book Discovery: Broken or Waiting for The Next Right Thing?

I found +paidContent's recent article highlighting research on problems with the disconnect between book discovery and book purchasing to be interesting. In some ways, the problem that booksellers have is not much different than those faced by any other "bricks" oriented merchants. People browse for books in one place, and then purchase them in another, in large part shifting purchases to online channels where they can get more competitive choices for pricing and fulfillment.

However, the discovery gap between online an in-store book outlets is not necessarily what you may think. The research from The Codex Group notes that for books purchased online, only seven percent of those units were discovered online and discovered in-store only twenty percent of the time. Moreover, in-store sales account for 39 percent of units sold.

In other words, though online sales are accounting now for the lion's share of book sales, almost twice as many books are purchased in bookstores than are discovered there. In other words, lots of people are still making the journey to a local bookstore with a specific title in mind. At the same time, online portals, including those dedicated to book discovery such as Goodreads, aren't a major factor as of yet in helping people to find books worth reading.

Book industry experts in the article suggest that booksellers should up their commitment to local bookstore outlets as one logical conclusion from this research, supporting concepts such as daily deals that have been made popular via online book selling sites. But I think that this is an incomplete view of what needs to be done to improve the connection between book discovery and book sales. One key hint lies in the second-most powerful conversion channel between content discovery and content sales: author Web sites. Although visits to author Web sites or blogs account for only about 4 percent of online content discovery activities in the study, they account for about 3.1 percent of conversions from online discovery to actual sales - a conversion rate of about 76 percent.

That's by far the highest conversion rate of all surveyed sources, and it highlights the notion that having a sense of both authors and their fans is a key factor in choosing books for purchase. What this means to me is that the huge gap in book discovery is in developing the ability of people to share their enthusiasm about books in a way that makes it easy for people who they know to share their enthusiasm. Generally these are real-world relationships that create these connections, both in the retail space - trusted booksellers - and personal acquaintances. Tightening the ability of someone to move from personal influence to transactions is the real key to improving book sales.

It's notable that while Amazon dominates online book sales and is the "go-to" starting point for 66 percent of online book browsing activity, it's only reaping about 6.6 percent of sales from those visits - a ten percent conversion rate. That's the second-best rate of the surveyed sources but a distant second in the actual rate, even if the volume of those visits build their revenues. This means that there are enormous gaps in Amazon's ability to act as a trusted source of book recommendations and discovery tools.

Social media and social sharing features in ebook apps can help this process, but by and large these tools are very under-developed at this point. +Google+, Google's rapidly growing social media portal, enables users to embed links to their online Google Play bookstore in posts on that servie, along with a link to preview content from a book. This is a good example of the sorts of things that could be done to enable individual enthusiasm for a book to translate much more directly to browsing and purchasing activity. But, it's only a start - and since it's tied to one social media platform and one specific book-selling platform, it's not going to solve the greater picture of getting personal recommendations translated into transactions more universally.

A few things might help book publishers to maximize the value of trusted recommendations:

  • Standards for social sharing. While there are a lot of good experiments online for sharing book content, overall it's a rabbit warren of little ideas that just aren't scaling. If personal recommendations and sharing are the primary key to book discovery, why are there not industry-wide standards to facilitate them across all ebook discovery and sales platforms? These standards should include enabling excerpts to be read, ability to discover prices and availability and to link directly to any purchase execution channel.
  • Standards for on-demand local printing. Local bookstores are likely to remain vital if they can do a better job of matching their ability to meet demand at least as well as online stores. Print-on-demand would seem to be one of the best tools for this capability, making it far more likely that a visitor to a store is actually going to purchase things. But print on demand need not be just about picking up pre-purchased items. It's also a major merchandizing opportunity, giving the merchant data that could help them to guide the visitor into other in-store items and even to custom-tailor in-store displays, both physical and virtual, to the expected visitors coming to pick up pre-sold merchandize. If an existing customer is your best source of new business, then print-on-demand has enormous potential to build upon that concept in local retailing for books.
  • Focusing on book conversations as key marketing vehicles. If markets are conversations - the old Cluetrain Manifesto axiom that gets only more relevant as time goes on - then booksellers need more than just a few talk shows to drive conversations for their authors. There has been a marked improvement in these sorts of facilities at bookseller sites, but the general environment where people actually engage people whose interests they trust - social media - is still highly under-engaged for these sorts of interchanges. Targeting bloggers, key influencers in social media communities and other trusted peers should be focused on much more heavily by agents and book marketers as sales starters for both new and existing titles, much as other marketers use social media monitoring tools to understand where they need to engage potential audiences.
None of these are likely to be sure-fire solutions, but they do show that although the book industry has been hard at work in trying to come to terms with online book discovery, they're really just at the foothills of this process. Many of the processes required to succeed in this environment may seem to be counterintuitive, especially when it comes to brand-building, but they are necessary for any successful book publishers. Without mastery of these tools, we can expect bookselling to drift away further from established marketing channels. That may not be a bad thing necessarily, but it will represent a major missed opportunity for them to do the next right thing.
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