Selling Books in a World Without Bookstores
Let’s pretend for a moment that there are no bookstores and as publishers we still need to sell books. How are we going to do that?
For starters, let’s take a look at the recent trends for physical bookstore sales. There was welcome relief this year that sales at physical stores have stabilized, although I have yet to see how much of that stabilization occurred within the actual book inventories sold as opposed to non-book merchandise. But landing on a plateau during times of rapid declines feels good, no doubt.
But this is the number buried in the lead that convinces me as a publisher we all need to prepare for the post-bookstore world: bookstores sales were $11.17 billion in 2015, down from more than $17 billion in 2007 (source: Publishers Weekly). That’s a drop of around $6 billion in just eight years, or 35% from the peak. This cannot be viewed as a temporary blip. It’s a telling trend.
As the sole owner of my own publishing start-up Publerati, I have been able to explore the various new ways out there to sell and market books, free from the constraints of traditional publishers. I understand how difficult it is for those of you straddling the past with the future, needing to pay the current bills mostly from monies generated from time-tested channels, while also needing to prudently invest and explore new digital ways.
I experienced this while working in the photo business, where the typical photofinishing plant owned by Konica (where I then worked) was a $500 million investment, and Konica owned ten of them just in the U.S. Kodak owned around 50. And all of these plants, as well as separate photo paper production plants and film production plants, were going to become obsolete when digital caught on. We all pretty much knew that, despite our hopes for delay and occasional good days of wishful thinking to the contrary. There were several comforting plateaus on the way down.
Thinking about book publishing, the good news is the infrastructure and maintenance costs are nowhere near as bad as in the old 35mm photo industry. But we can’t be lulled by plateaus amidst clear trends that show physical store declines. Now is the time to increase the urgency while we can, to establish separate digital divisions, companies, and R&D units that can operate as if there are no bookstores. This will help us all better understand how we, as publishers, can survive by adding unique value to authors and readers once bookstores are gone.
I have now been at this since 2011 and will be the first to admit that most of my bookselling and marketing experiments have delivered mediocre results or failed. But recently I have had success with two new marketing tests and I’d like to share those here. I’ll also share my prediction for how physical books might be sold in this bookstore-less future.
The first experiment was to create HTML preview editions of two novels each of which were written by unknown authors, furthering the marketing challenge. I chose to include the first three chapters of these novels in the preview and then posted those previews on social media for instant reading and sharing -- no downloading required -- with the help of startup TextCafe. The reader of these samples can share the sample on social media or click on any of the embedded reseller links to purchase the full ebook.
I launched these tests a few weeks ago and since then have been contacted by a handful of people telling me they loved the samples, which they mostly read on their phones and bought the full edition to continue reading. At first, some did not expect to enjoy reading on their smartphones, but eventually came to find it perfect for brief bursts of reading.
Wow! Surprise, surprise. Something actually worked! We priced these novels at $4.99 in an attempt to make impulse purchasing of lesser-known but excellent ebooks “reasonable.” I doubt jumping from a free social media sample to a $12.95 ebook, especially for a first-time novelist, would be as successful. (We also pay our authors the majority of the royalties for anyone assuming lowering ebook prices means paying authors less.)
The other test I conducted was with one of the many Twitter services that tweet a book three times on the same day to their followers. I honestly did not expect this to work as I have not seen direct linkages between Twitter posts and actual sales. (I have from Facebook, however.) I’m not talking about giving away ebook freebies but actually being paid full price for our titles. That is the goal I know we all share.
Much to my surprise, the title I chose jumped in its ranking on Amazon the following day by a tenfold increase. No other promotions were happening at that time so I will give this marketing activity credit for making some sales. How many? I don’t yet know for sure but have every reason to believe I more than paid back the small investment.
Lastly, Publerati has been selling first novels through the Espresso Book Network -- print-on-demand machines that print and bind books at the point of sale -- and have had what I anticipate are similar results, as we would have experienced with pre-printed inventory for a first-time novelist. Currently, the machines that generate sales for us are located in the better independent bookstores around the country. I seriously hope these stores thrive going into the future and thank them for their efforts in showcasing our titles, in some cases pre-printing display copies on their dime.
But to stay aligned with my preparedness plan for no bookstores in the future, these Espresso Book Machines will become even more important to publisher and author success. As seen in the photo industry, where we once had photo stores and kiosks like Fotomat (4,300 of them at their peak, owned and operated by Konica), those early in-store machines were too big, too expensive, and too difficult to operate. This would be back in 1995 at the start of the Internet Boom. Now, twenty years later, we find around 10,000 of a far superior model installed in discount stores, drug stores, and supermarkets -- the places where people shop regularly. All of these machines are connected to the web and able to print photos on long-life paper.
So in this imagined world of no bookstores, publishers will need this to happen for books. The machines will be installed in those places shoppers frequent most: supermarkets, discount stores, Starbucks, airports, libraries, universities, and concepts not yet in existence. Most books will be read first in digital format, then a smaller number also in print. Same as we do now with photos, where most are enjoyed and shared on Facebook and only the best are printed and framed.
This system, along with continued growth of digital reading on phones and tablets, will be a good way to make this all work for authors, publishers, and readers in a world without bookstores.