Closing the Gap Between Publishers and Readers

Tim BrandhorstBy Tim Brandhorst, Deputy Director, Book Publishing, American Bar Association

The keynote speaker at January’s Digital Book World Conference, Razorfish’s Global Social Media Lead Shiv Singh, gave an exciting list of what will be knowable about readers in the future. We’ll be able to tell what a reader of an e-book is reading at any given instant; how many pages she’s read; where she dropped off; where, geographically, she’s reading; and what factors influenced her purchase in the first place. And on and on.

It’s the kind of data an acquisitions editor would kill for. Imagine being able to work with an author to “fix that spot between chapters 4 and 5 where you are losing your readers,” as Singh put it; or to be able to know that most people read a certain kind of book at the office, or at home, or while commuting, in order to be able to make better decisions about content and packaging; or to know that nearly all purchasers of a certain title or certain author’s books learn about it in one specific way, or from just two sources, etc.

It’s a potential gold mine.

Only one problem. E-book retailers are going to know this information. And it’s looking like publishers, long in the dark about consumer behavior, are going to stay in the dark.

The Ken Auletta piece in the New Yorker this week discussing the negotiations with Apple, and the Big 6 publishers’ contentious relationship with Amazon, alludes to it: Auletta quotes an anonymous publishing executive and writes that “the Apple people ‘had a much more agreeable feel than Amazon did. They said they would share some consumer data about buying e-books. We have no such data from Amazon.'”

But pair that up with this insightful piece about Apple’s approach to mobile advertising from Frederic Filloux, and it seems pretty unlikely that Apple is going to share much of anything at all. And Apple’s terms with the publishers are for an interim period anyway; it’s unimaginable, to me anyway, that when these contracts are renegotiated in the near future, Apple will loosen up its tight hold on consumer data (or cut better deals financially for the publishers, but that’s a whole other story).

Quick tangent–I’ll tie it together a few grafs down:

I’ve been slightly depressed after checking out this year’s BookExpo America schedule and plans. Take a look at the floor plan of the Javits Center, and it’s clear that there are going to be two very separate and parallel shows going on this year: the one on the main floor, and the one on the far end of the hall, where every major publisher will have a private meeting room. There has long been a separation of activities thing going on at BEA, but at least in past years meetings and business was conducted on the show floor, and there was a sense of the whole industry being forced to rub shoulders, if only for three days. Now: not so much. I’m guessing the editorial and marketing assistants will be manning the booths and stacking galleys, and anyone with any business to transact will rarely if ever set foot on the floor or interact with booksellers or librarians.

Maybe depressed isn’t quite the right word. “Cognizant of absurdity” captures it better (I’m sure the Germans have a good word for this). What I’m seeing on the Javits Center floor plan is an effort by publishers to remove themselves once and for all from the people they perceive to be their customers–librarians and booksellers. And the people who actually buy the products…you know, actual readers? Of course, they continue to be completely shut out. Not invited to the party.

Readers–book buyers–are so far removed from the consciousness of the major publishers that it’s not at all a surprise that insisting on extensive consumer data from Amazon or Apple just wasn’t a priority in the “agency” relationship battle. What a loss.

But also a potential gain for small and independent publishers. All this data will exist. The publisher that can find ways to obtain it (through direct to consumer sales, or by using an e-book distribution channel that will supply the data) and use it wisely will have an incredible advantage.

As I was writing this post yesterday, others were spreading the word about Facebook’s new “like” strategy: you will soon see little “like” buttons all across the Web, and every time you click one data about you and your preferences will flow back to Facebook, to be aggregated with everything else Facebook already knows about you. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Facebook is turning the Web inside out, co-opting the Web, invading everyone’s privacy, etc. The interesting possibility here is that Facebook is apparently willing to let user data flow back to the web sites supplying it–at least that appears to the be case with Pandora and Yelp, two of the initial pilot sites that have already implemented the “like” buttons.

What would a publisher need to have in place to take advantage of this, assuming it eventually will be a two-way data sharing street with Facebook? At a minimum, a community–one that’s engaged enough to be willing to click the “like” button often enough to supply meaningful data. Content for that community to consume, either publisher-created or community-created or both. And preferably, a direct-to-consumer sales mechanism.

And if Facebook is willing to offer some unbelievably useful data to publishers, will Amazon and Apple rethink their approach? (Similarly, what will happen when Google finally rolls out Editions, and offers a suite of analytics for publishers as part of the deal?) This will be interesting to watch play out.

[This article was originally published on the PubForward blog and has been reprinted here with the permission of Mr. Brandhorst.]

Tim Brandhorst is currently deputy director of book publishing for the American Bar Association.

9 thoughts on “Closing the Gap Between Publishers and Readers

  1. Emily W.

    Great piece, Tim, thank you! Since you’re from the ABA, can you comment at all on the legality of all this potential data sharing? I see the great leap forward it could represent for publishers, but when I think as a reader it gives me a case of the heebie jeebies.

    1. Tim Brandhorst

      Emily, good question.

      First, a disclaimer: my comments above and here are my own only, and in no way represent the legal or other opinion of the ABA.

      My sense of the legal question is that there really isn’t even a question. When you decide to open a Facebook account, or give your credit card to Apple to open an iTunes account, you also agree to their terms of service. Those terms are crafted carefully, and control what can be done with data surrounding your personal transactions–they are your legal agreement with the site.

      The only way to opt out is either to not open an account in the first place, or to close your account (I believe Don Linn took just this course of action yesterday with his Facebook account)…but for all the people whose social lives are embedded in Facebook or who are filling their iPads with apps, this is easier said than done.

      The “heebie jeebie” factor, as you call it, is going to take some getting used to–but that online world is coming, and in a big way, and soon.

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  3. Bob Logan

    The book industry—like the magazine industry and the newspaper industry—has had every bit as long to figure this stuff out as have Apple, Amazon, et al. But as Clay Shirky recently said, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

    Trouble is, the problem has changed, as have the solutions.

    Oh, and: Javits.

  4. vinnie mirchandani

    what about publishers and authors? There is little excuse for publishers to not do well with the beginning of their supply chain. Yet few authors seem happy with the industry – the proposal process is not transparent, the production takes months, the marketing is left to the author/amazon even with 80% of net revs going to the publisher… they may not be able to change amazon or Apple, but the smart publishers will start taking better care of their product or lose at both ends. it’s similar to what Walmart and the big consumer goods companies went through. With a strong brand/product Walmart could only push them so far.

  5. Rebecca Maines

    If the data that retailers are collecting tells them what their customers want (and don’t want), it seems to me in their best interests to let their suppliers (in this case, publishers) know, so they can supply the retailer with more of what the customer wants.

    In the print world, retailers have let publishers know what they want, and it has certainly influenced some of the editorial decisions publishers have made. (One example: A few years ago two authors I know were told by their editors to break their long novels into multiple shorter ones because a major bookseller said the shorter ones would do better in their stores.)

    In the digital world, it’s easier to capture more data–but unless digital retailers like Apple intend to become editors and publishers themselves* it’s in their own best interests to share data with publishers so publishers can give them more books that will sell better.

    *Amazon seems to be moving more in the be-a-publisher direction in terms of eliminating the publisher as middleman; but as far as I know they’re not working with authors or agents or anyone to apply any data they acquire to making and selecting books that are more in tune with what readers want.

  6. Tim Barrus

    Talk about being depressed. Apple might look like it’s this major player in new media. But this is old media dressed up in her new schmata. She’s the same old whore. It’s still the paradigm of exclusion and class.

    Apple makes all sorts of deals with the big publishers. But they don’t talk “to the little people.” Just try getting your video content on I-Pad if what you’ve been working with is Flash (not because you like it but because there has been no choice).

    I am not interested in just narrative text. Been there. Done that. Boring. Just shoot me. I want that text augmented with video and I want to put it on I-Pad. But the financial doors preclude it.

    Lulu: No cigar. No plans to accommodate video.

    Artists look at I-pad and their eyes to the sky.

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