Digital Reading: At the Intersection of Reading and Retail

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND | @bklynanne

Sometimes your point of view depends on where you’re standing.  Publishers and booksellers focus on price points, bestseller lists and reorders to figure out what their customers want.  Those on the editorial side of the equation look to customer reviews, direct feedback (when they can get it) and author-and-genre loyalty among buyers for insight into their readers’ preferences.

As Editorial Director for Digital Content at Barnes & Noble, Liz Scheier sees both sides of the digital publishing equation, with an unobstructed, front-row view of what readers want and how publishers and retailers can give it to them.

Content First, Format Second

First, Scheier points out, “Books that do very well in print also do very well in digital. Readers are less concerned about the format of the book they want than about simply being able to get their hands on it.” This means the effort to create great content and excellent promotion for print books can also pay off in digital sales.

And, she says, genres do very well in digital because “these are very engaged readers who are always searching for more, diving deeper into the catalog, looking for more books.” Other categories, such as teen, YA, and erotica, do well in digital, each for its own reasons.

Make the Digital Book a Must-Buy

But there are ways to make that purchase more of a certainty for interested readers, says Scheier, and she gives four tips for publishers and authors to make their digital books a must-buy.

Price intelligently. “Content needs to be priced appropriately. There’s not yet a consensus on what the appropriate price for a title may be, but we’re seeing success at a lot of price points. It’s easier to do price experimentation in digital, and we encourage publishers and authors to do just that.

Be smart about metadata. “Data is so important when signaling information about a book to customers. We see frustration from readers when it’s not clear enough in the metadata that, for instance, the book they’re looking at is a short story, or that the book is a reissue of another book under a different title or different cover.  I think it’s essential to be very clear what you’re offering.”

Be clear not only in the book description section, but even in the title, taking into consideration the differences in a digital book browser’s needs. For example, Scheier says, “in the case where the book is a short story called “A Tale of Two Cities”, I’d change the title to read “Tale of Two Cities: A Short Story.” Then there’s no possibility that someone would buy it and be disappointed.”

And for digital, custom metadata is imperative, but not done often enough: “Understandably, publishers are converting their backlist in large chunks and things slip through the cracks. Sometimes we get metadata that references an enclosed CD or a pull-out map; it just doesn’t look very good. And customers really do pay attention; they really read this stuff.

Make the right kind of cover. “There’s an argument for brand consistency across print and digital books, but a good digital cover doesn’t necessarily have the same elements as a print cover; it doesn’t need the same “shelf power,” a look that’s intriguing from a distance. The title and name must be prominent. The cover must make it utterly clear what the book is.

Authors, get out and promote! “Authors really do need to promote themselves, which is not always what they want to hear but it’s necessary to connect with readers in whatever way they are capable of. Not everybody is going to be tweeting 20 times a day, though; nor should they be. But find a way to allow readers to have a conversation with you, in whatever way you’re able.”

 Social Aids Discovery and Leads to Sales

Author promotion connects to another form of organic promotion that Scheier feels is most important for retailers: making it easier to talk about books with the people in your life, directly from the device.

A good retailer understands the value of giving readers the books they are looking for, and of helping them find new authors they’ll love – and then tell their friends!  One of the best things we retailers can do is let people easily recommend books to each other and make it simple and convenient to purchase them and recommend them.”

But retailers can facilitate book discovery through social means, as Scheier explained: “In one of our recent social media programs that features a particular book for a period of time, we ask the author to name his favorite overlooked book. And then we show the cover of that book as well as the featured book. It’s the author’s opinion and personality that’s so important; if my favorite author recommends a book, I’m pretty likely to buy it.”

Looking Ahead to More for the Reader

Among emerging trends in digital content development, Scheier sees some efforts as truly giving customers what they want.

“A lot of publishers are thinking very intelligently about segmented, on-demand content; delivering exactly the content that people want to read. For instance, let’s say I’m taking a trip to a single city, and don’t need the full country guide. I would love to be able to buy a lower-priced book that is just the city guide I need presented with the first chapter of the full guide, giving me all the information about currency conversion and whatnot.”

Short content and fast, timely pieces not only fill a perceived gap in digital offerings but may be a way to create smart early promotion for a full-length work: “I’m seeing a lot of authors with a traditional book deal putting up something short during a preorder campaign for their book. Say there’s some cool bit of content that didn’t go into the book, or let’s say the book is an expansion of a magazine article; if they have the rights they’ll put it up as a short, and on the last page show the book cover and say, “Hey, preorder the book!”

Scheier thinks a digital-first model is especially good for getting timely material to market that much faster. Digital-first is also “…a good way to test: is this of interest? Do people want this? It’s a simpler, cheaper, more available way to see if there’s merit in a project.”  According to Scheier, B&N’s PubIt! program has a number of successful authors who have converted to a print deal. In the future, says Scheier, there will be more authors who publish a subsequent print edition themselves

Making Readers Happy Is a Pleasure

There’s another aspect of her work that makes readers, authors, and Scheier herself happy all at the same time: making books available in digital, which makes them discoverable, which makes them buyable, which makes them recommendable … well, you get the picture.

“Books in their digital form can continue finding an audience indefinitely, since shelf space isn’t a concern. Helping to make these books available for sale again, and helping new people discover them, is a wonderful feeling. There’s nothing like suddenly seeing an author who’s been out of print for years have his whole catalog become available – and then watching people come in and buy all the books in one shot!”

“We are learning how to help customers delve deeper into the overall book catalog—how to recommend the right books to the right customers. Those efforts are helping publishers to sell much deeper into their overall catalog every month.  This is exciting because e-books are not just a bestseller-driven business—they’re bringing new life (and continuing life) to many books. Readers can take more chances and fall in love with more authors— which is great news for everyone.”

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the current president of Women’s Media Group.

Anne is also a member of the advisory board for the Publishing Innovation Awards, which celebrate the best in ebooks, enhanced ebooks, and book apps. New to the Awards this year is the QED Seal, which highlights usability in ebooks along a thorough 13-point ebook inspection in multiple formats and platforms.

2 thoughts on “Digital Reading: At the Intersection of Reading and Retail

  1. Becky Siebenthaler

    I found your article and website via the Oct. 12, 2011 GWA News Clippings. I’ve already shared both with five of my LI groups, have joined your LI group, and have signed up for your newsletters. Whoever says Serendipity is in hiding is just plain wrong!

  2. SA Fifer

    I’m an e-reader fan….but I find lack of format considerations and the lack of functional indexes very frustrating. I have lots of fiction on my reader (Kindle), but even there I find errors and format inconsistencies frustrating–kind of like spelling and grammar usage in the printed texts.

    I’d love to have more non-fiction on my e-reader, but hesitate sometimes because not knowing whether the index (a must-have in nonfiction) will be functional, or even readable. I’ll purchase more nonfiction when I know that I have an index. The “search” is not the same as an index!



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