Books with the power to move readers are the result of artistry, craft and intellectual pursuits. Because it is a fundamentally creative industry, publishing has sometimes valued expertise, ingenuity and inspiration over data. Today, though, the publishing industry is awash with data.
Data can offer valuable insights to help publishers connect authors with readers—and using data doesn’t need to be overwhelming.
At Digital Book World 2017, a panel of experts offered insights into some essential yet often overlooked uses of data in publishing. Kelly Gallagher, vice president of content acquisition at Ingram, led the panel that underscored the ways understanding 10 fundamental uses of data can drive growth and profitability in book sales.
The first three ways to use data were presented by Margaret Harrison, Ingram’s director of metadata services.
1: Choose quality over quantity.
In the metadata that you associate with your titles, Harrison advised that indie authors and publishers should be very selective. She suggests choosing quality over quantity, noting, “[the metadata] you’ve already got is probably enough.” Titles should be aligned with the main, familiar attributes including title, subtitle, long description, short description, BISAC, keywords and price. But you don’t need to strive for providing more metadata beyond these best-practice attributes.
“Before you hire an army of interns,” Harrison advised, “go back to basics. Ask, do I have a bolded header in the description? Have I incorporated thoughtful keywords in the description? Did I use phrases that my audience is actually using into the keyword list?”
Focus on these basic elements, maximize them and update them as sales trends change.
2: Create metadata for consumers.
For publishers and indie authors in trade publishing, Harrison advises creating metadata for consumers, as BISAC codes are not consumer-friendly. These keywords were made for B2B inventory.
BISAC codes help the employees of brick-and-mortar bookstores know where to place books on their shelves. Online booksellers, on the other hand, often don’t use BISAC codes at all. These digital stores have proprietary algorithms that combine the metadata you provide with their own categorizations. So when you’re selling books online, think about how the consumer talks about the book, to come up with keywords that really reach the consumer.
3: Consider site-specific metadata.
When it comes to seeding metadata across various online platforms, one size does not fit all. For example, think about your author and contributor bios. You may want to send one bio to retailers, while posting a different one on social media. The ideal length for Amazon is 2,000 words or less, for example. Goodreads, however, would benefit from a longer, richer bio that includes more links to other online sources.
Each online platform reaches a different audience, and authors and publishers should understand the experience of each. Harrison advises targeting your metadata to each online experience.
The next three ways to use data were presented by Marcus Woodburn, vice president of digital content services at Ingram.
4. When it comes to availability, cover the basics.
Woodburn suggests that authors and publishers should offer a complete metadata profile wherever possible. For example, some authors and publishers leave the “sales country” category blank. He has observed people leaving this field blank because of the erroneous assumption that putting nothing in that field would indicate that the book would be available worldwide. But this field doesn’t mean the same thing as “worldwide” rights.
If your book has the accessibility features for vision-impaired customers, indicate that in the metadata. All EPUB3 files are accessible in this way, so make sure that your content is marked as such. After all, this information can help get content into the hands of the people who are meant to have it.
5. Take control of the pricing.
Woodburn also advised supplying the metadata for the price of your book in every currency in which it sells. If you don’t specify the price in a local currency, international retailers will use the US dollar price and calculate the exchange themselves. If this happens, you could find yourself leaving money on the table. So take the time to learn about the price points in each of the markets where your book is sold.
In come countries, you can charge a little more for a title. In other markets, it’s wise to lower the price a bit to fit in at a more competitive scale. If you have international agreements that bind you to pricing constraints, be careful that you don’t violate any them.
Speaking of pricing in worldwide markets, Woodburn warned against the “siren call of the low-priced book.” There is value in books. Don’t automatically price your book at the bottom of the price scale. Take a look at competitive sales information and experiment.
“Look at the data and see what you can do about changing the pricing,” Woodburn said. Wherever possible, move the price up and down within an established price range.
6. Actively manage your ebook data inventory.
Woodburn made a point to remind the audience to confirm that all titles that should be in any given online store are actually showing up. Likewise, once you’ve discontinued a title, or if the book’s rights have been purchased by another publishing house, Woodburn noted, “the book needs to come down.”
Although it sounds obvious, publishers should take the time to make sure all titles that are visible in an online store are the ones they want their audience to see.
7. Take control of your supply chain.
Up to this point, the panel discussed the data a publisher or author offers out to the stores and the consumers. But what about the data surrounding the book purchasers? Customer data can be powerful information for informing sales and marketing.
Though major online retailers such as Amazon don’t tend to share customer data, authors and publishers can start to build relationships with their customers directly by prompting them to join email newsletters or enter contests.
Furthermore, if you sell your books directly from your own website, you can gather customer information with every sale. Gather as much data on customers and their buying habits as possible: discover who they are, where they are, price points that work for them, and their related interest.. This data can inform the way you market to your constituencies and grow your audience.
The third panelist, Amy Cox Williams, works in content management and merchandising for Ingram.
8. Sales equals data plus analytics plus intuition.
Williams suggested using data to make connections with team members and your supply chain. Once you start analyzing your sales data, share it with others. Together you can use the data to make decisions about how to stock distribution centers, ensure metadata completeness, understand supplier fill rates, figure out your top performing categories, and see your season-by-season sales.
When working with suppliers, the best practice for a strong relationship is to provide information so you can work as a team.
9: Expect the unexpected.
Data can and should be used to predict and forecast sales. The information can be used to inform decisions about how and when to stock warehouses. Even so, you need to be flexible. Change is inevitable, and you have to expect the unexpected.
When an unexpected event occurs that affects the sales of a book, publishers are often not prepared. When a spike in sales happens, that increase in demand is usually a very short window. Publishers have only about two weeks to respond to the demand before the consumer’s attention veers off to the next unexpected trend.
10: Stay on top of your supplier fill rate.
Williams noted that for book sales, the unexpected drivers that propel sales are usually awards and deaths.
For example, when the book The Sellout by Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize, sales rose quickly in the first two to three weeks after. The publisher had to print and restock quickly.
Recently, demand surged for titles penned by Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, due to their unexpected and closely timed deaths. Amy Williams noted that for Fisher’s newest title, demand was 13 times what was sold in the market. That means for every book sold to a customer, there were 13 customers who were turned away empty-handed.
“Carrie Fisher’s book sold a decent amount,” said Williams. “But there was so much demand that wasn’t filled.”
The ideal scenario for every author and publisher is to convert each inquiry into a sale. When there’s an unexpected spike in demand for a title, but it isn’t available for purchase, Williams asked, “Are you going to make up those sales, or is the consumer going to be on to something else” by the time to book becomes available?
Don’t lose sales. Be mindful of data.
Though these 10 uses for data are fairly straightforward, the reality is that it’s sometimes harder to manage data’s basic role. These core elements of information analysis can make a big difference in managing the core elements of the bookselling business. So ask yourself, can you get high marks in all 10 areas? If not, you may be losing sales.
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