Why Bookselling Is Now a Relationships Game
When the topic of direct-to-consumer sales arises in the book industry, a few key concepts come to mind: ecommerce sites, shopping carts, data analytics, and metadata, to name a few. While certainly important, these technical components of a direct sales strategy are rather worthless if publishers overlook a more abstract concept—that is, a “relationship” with their readers. Lacking a relationship, consumers have little incentive to purchase (and purchase again) from publishers. Instead, they will seek out the cheapest and easiest purchasing option available, or worse, decide not to read a book at all and instead purchase the latest iteration of Angry Birds.
Creating a direct relationship with readers is an ambitious goal and often requires skills and technologies outside the traditional publisher’s wheelhouse. But the investment may be worth it. Considering the struggles of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the rise of self-published and self-sold books, publishers’ titles are losing visibility among consumers—hence the growing buzziness of the term “discoverability.” In short, publishers need a better way to capture consumers’ attention.
Speaking on a panel at the Book Business Live: Executive Summit on Digital Publishing, held in New York City in March, marketing executives from leading publishing houses echoed this sentiment, advocating that relationship-building strategies and D2C marketing are the answer.
In a session titled “Bookselling Reinvented: How Boosting Discoverability, Experimenting with D2C, and Analytics-Based Marketing Can Drive Sales,” Rick Joyce, CMO of The Perseus Books Group, Heather Fain SVP, director of marketing strategy at Hachette, and Mary Ann Naples, SVP and publisher at Rodale Books shared a variety of relationship-building strategies. Those included developing author and publisher brands on social media, creating compelling, original content around a book or author, and launching targeted email marketing campaigns. Though all three panelists admitted their D2C strategies are still greatly experimental, they were eager to share what tactics had a marked improvement on sales and why they believe going direct to the reader is crucial for the future of the book industry. Editor-in-chief of Book Business Denis Wilson moderated the discussion.
Engage in a Conversation
Key to marketing and selling books direct is seeking out platforms where readers are having meaningful conversations around relevant topics and joining in. And that’s quite often not an ecommerce site, said Perseus’ Joyce. A D2C vehicle can be a blog, Twitter account, or website, he said. Whatever the vehicle, the interaction should be based around a content area that people are passionate about, added Joyce. Simply putting a catalog online is not enough.
Naples of Rodale Books agreed. If consumers aren’t engaging with a publisher’s tweets or blog posts, directing them towards a sale will be difficult. “Engagement is the most important measure. Engagement is what really works for sales,” said Naples.
In order to create content that readers care about, Joyce recommended first finding an audience that is actively discussing a certain topic. If the book is about eating gluten-free foods, for example, it behooves the publishers to identify the most popular gluten-free blogs, online communities, and social media influencers. Observing these groups can help determine the conversation around a specific topic and how an author’s book can fit into that conversation. In addition, identifying these communities gives the marketing team a target list for their tweets, blogs, and other online marketing activities.
Joyce also recommended that publishers invest time in developing visuals to accompany marketing content. “Visuals travel better and differently over social media than words alone,” said Joyce. Although publishers are well versed in creating dynamic covers, developing less commercial imagery—in Joyce’s words, “authentic” images—is still new territory that Joyce is eager to explore at Perseus.
While tapping into trending topics on social media works well in the non-fiction space, engaging readers around a fiction title often requires a larger focus on the author’s brand, said Hachette’s Fain. “We want to build up the author personality and create a relationship between the reader and the author as a person,” said Fain. Facilitating actual conversations between readers and authors is key. “For a long time direct-to-consumer communication was, ‘We tell you about our book and then you go buy it,’” said Fain. “Now we’re using online marketing and social media marketing to begin a genuine conversation.”
At Rodale, Naples has taken a slightly different tact. Because Rodale is also a magazine publisher, Naples is able to target established verticals that have been cultivated by Rodale’s health and wellness brands. “That has allowed us to become a customer destination for content and commerce,” said Naples. Whereas most book publishers are still building reader databases, Naples has years’ worth of data about consumers in Rodale’s various verticals. Her goal is to build platforms where those readers return regularly to discover new content. One example of this is Rodale Wellness, a content and commerce site where consumers can discover titles about healthy foods and fitness while also receiving the latest wellness news. “We’re really thinking, ‘How do we solve the readers’ problems?’” said Naples. “And in doing that, we also want to tell them about our books.”
Strong Relationships Are Built on Good Data
Another reason for developing D2C relationships with readers, aside from the benefits to the brand and potential for books sales, is the ability to collect data about the consumers who engage with publishers and authors. At Hachette, Fain is digging into social media data to better understand what activity is resonating with consumers and driving sales. “We’re building a lot of internal systems that allow us to chop up our sales data in different ways and see where sales spikes are happening and what influences we can attribute those spikes to,” said Fain. This feedback informs Fain’s marketing team going forward, signaling which strategies are working and which aren’t.
Joyce is also using social media data to inform a variety of publishing activities, from book acquisition through marketing planning and execution. Joyce uses a social listening tool called ForSight by Crimson Hexagon, which collects data on the entirety of the semantic web. That includes data on all Twitter activity, public-facing Facebook posts, and comment sections on sites like Youtube. “It allows you in a structured way to analyze different trends within that database,” said Joyce.
Perseus has used ForSight in its acquisitions process to identify if a book topic is trending and if there is an audience eager to consume it. Likewise, social listening tools like ForSight can indicate if an author has a strong following—Joyce recommended measuring author followings by retweets and comments—though a large following does not necessarily translate to an engaged one. Finally, social listening tools can help publishers determine the best marketing angle for a title, said Joyce. For example, how are people discussing gluten-free diets and recipes? What are the key words that tweets and blogs about this book should include? “It’s a way of bringing some facts, rather than hunches, to inform your marketing decisions,” said Joyce.
At Rodale, Naples relies heavily on content marketing tactics to generate actionable data insights. “We do a ton of experiments,” said Naples. In order to learn what type of content will drive the most book sales, Rodale’s marketing team will create what Naples calls “content packages.” If Naples wants to promote a cookbook, for example, her team would publish several recipes from that title online and share them widely. “We’ll partner with authors to get that content out, we’ll share it on our sites, and we’ll syndicate content where we can syndicate.” Then, using tracking links to retailer sites, Naples can measure which recipe was most effective. “Sometimes we have no major marketing campaigns going on for a title, but we’ll suddenly see a sales bump. When we look into it, we’ll see that an article was published on Rodale News about that book and it sold 300 copies—a measurable impact.”
Rodale also utilizes its massive consumer database—again, an asset few book publishers have developed yet—to send out targeted email campaigns. Here Naples is measuring open rates, click-through rates, and conversions to determine the effectiveness of a campaign. Rodale also uses Acxiom, a data service that appends Rodale’s customer data with information from its own database. “That’s an expensive service, but it allows us to know more about who our customers are, particularly demographic information, which we use in our direct marketing.”
Managing D2C Initiatives
The difficulty inherent in all of these D2C strategies is that they require time and talent. Joyce put it well: “If using analytics and tools to improve marketing and discoverability is not somebody’s most important job, it will not get done.” Tacking on data or content marketing tasks to a marketer or editor’s current role is not an effective solution, continued Joyce. Publishers need to invest in a new hire (or multiple new hires) whose job is to manage these relationship-building functions. Rodale, for example, has teams of analysts for each of its web properties, said Naples.
Fain recommended that publishers consider hiring from outside the book publishing industry to fill more data-centric roles. “When I was tasked with forming a centralized marketing group at Hachette, I asked myself, ‘Am I going to hire a person who comes from publishing so I don’t have to teach them about what a galley is, or am I going to hire somebody who knows how to do SEO, research, and analytics?’” Fain pursued the latter and has no regrets. “I can teach her what a galley is quickly because she’s really smart, but I couldn’t have taught her the other stuff because I don’t know it. She does, and that was critically, critically important.”
Creating content for websites or social media also takes dedicated talent, said Joyce. “Feeding consumer facing blogs and websites is like gardening. It’s a daily activity. If you try to ask your publicists or your editors to do it, they don’t have the time. You have to hire people who want to build consumer relationships using content.”
At Rodale, Naples puts an emphasis on surrounding titles with content and starting the development process early in the life of a book. “At every marketing meeting we ask, ‘What are we doing on Rodale News for this book? What video assets are we creating? What infographics are we creating?’” Naples goal is to push these marketing tasks even further upstream so that editors begin thinking about them while editing the manuscript. As they edit, Naples would like to see editors thinking about sharable content and flag that type of content for marketers to reference further down in the workflow.
A Bright Future for D2C Sales?
Moderator Denis Wilson’s final question to the panelists was: “In five years what percentage of your books sales will be sold directly?” Surprisingly, most of the panelists had modest predictions. “I think direct sales will be a part of it, but it’s not as important [as getting readers’ attention],” said Joyce. “The biggest issue is not that readers buy from my store or yours, but that they buy a book at all.” Fain agreed, suggesting that the sale may actually be secondary to the relationship with the reader. “We look at the potential of D2C sales as the next step in building a relationship with the reader or building a relationship between author and reader. I don’t think we’re in it to [significantly impact] overall revenue,” said Fain.
Naples offered a more ambitious number, anticipating Rodale may be able to attribute 20% of its sales to its own ecommerce platform in five years. But still, she came back to the importance of relationships saying that ultimately the goal of Rodale’s ecommerce sites is to “build out a place of deeper engagement” with Rodale readers.
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Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.