How Social Sharing, E-samples, And Mobile Can Revitalize Book Publishing
The book publishing industry is arguably in its most disruptive cycle of change since the advent of cast metal type. To be sure, it's a century-long disruption of which digital media is only the latest phase. Today a host of digital media diversions -- ecommerce, social media, streaming video -- have furthered the attrition of book-reading spurred by earlier audio and visual media.
And yet somehow publishing changes, survives, and even thrives. Old-school publishing houses consolidate and new entities emerge, using technologies like short-run digital print and EPUB to fill a seemingly endless series of specialized niches. But as so many authors and small publishers try to make a living in the book world, the enormity of the task becomes apparent. If every would-be author and publisher is chasing their own micro-audience, we're going to need some better tools.
The Promise & Peril of Social Selling
In the article, "The Social Publisher," published in the October 2013 issue of Book Business, I outlined the challenges of building an effective promotional platform using social media and social networking. For publishers and authors, the process can be daunting. Picking the right platform, populating it with compelling content, and knowing how and when to push, can produce remarkable results. However, this effort often can be at the cost of an author's time -- which could be better spent on writing books! The writing skill sets of authors and promoters are also not the same. Add to that the incompatibility of blatantly promotional content to social sharing's ostensible purpose: to share things with friends, not to pitch them to buy stuff.
Another challenge of social book promotion is the "last mile" of actual purchase. Although online book buying (particularly ebooks) has never been easier, the steps between social sharing/promotion and the buying decision are not always straightforward.
Certainly social media is a great way to spread the word -- and find a narrow audience of like-minded readers. In practice, however, social media marketing may not be sustainable for busy writers and publishers. All this could change, however, if the shared social content is less about book promotion and more about sharing the actual book.
E-Samples And The Mobile Reader
Around 2010, the ebook phenomenon reached a tipping point among North American readers, as documented in the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) survey report series, Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading. The percentage of book buyers reading ebooks on a daily or weekly basis rose sharply -- from about 5% in 2009 to over 20% in 2012. In 2012, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) reported that overall ebook revenues ($282.3M) have surpassed hardcover revenues ($229.6M) for adult fiction and nonfiction titles. For some book categories, especially the "guilty pleasure" fiction genres, ebooks have surpassed print by even greater margins. Preferred e-reading device preferences also shifted significantly during that time, with dedicated e-readers being supplanted by multi-purpose tablets and smartphones.
One outcome of this shift has been the use of ebook samples in the promotion and sales process. In the BISG study, a consistently high percentage of ebook "power buyers" (those who acquire ebooks on a weekly basis) cited "receiving a free/promotional sample chapter" as a purchase influence. Just as library-based and informal book borrowing has led to increased discovery and sales for printed books, ebook samples have proven to be strong incentives for drawing in new readers.
The BISG study also paid attention to the commerce aspects of ebooks. Whether a potential reader learned about the book through social media, or by reading a sample chapter, or both, ease of purchase was of paramount importance. The fact that the ebook could be bought easily -- on the very device on which it would be read -- was the real force behind the ebook shift. Vendors who had a more complex sales process, like Sony, did not do as well as those who created a relatively frictionless, on-device process.
One company in particular has combined ebook samples and mobile purchasing in a compelling way -- but not to the delight of many publishers and authors. Amazon's dominance of the ebook sample model is well known, as is its canny combination of e-reading and frictionless ebook purchasing on most mobile devices. With its acquisition of Goodreads, Amazon has also recognized the value of social sharing as an adjunct to audience building and increased sales.
Of course, publishers and authors cannot ignore Amazon's powerful role, including their e-sample approach and the ease of purchasing it provides. However, most publishers would prefer a greater measure of autonomy. Ideally, that means a more open method of creating effective samples -- apart from the Amazon ecosystem -- but without losing the benefits of Amazon's powerful resale channel. Until recently, this has involved creating two or more EPUB versions of a book (the actual book plus promotional samples) plus the overhead of maintaining a separate social sharing and promotional infrastructure.
The Benefits of HTML & Books That Are Part of The Open Web
When smartphones and tablets became a mainstream phenomenon, the use of proprietary "apps" soared. Ebook reading (and purchasing) apps proliferated, reaching into the hundreds, but eventually settling down to those associated with resellers, led by Amazon but also including Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and others. Today, most downloadable EPUB samples are tied to their respective sales infrastructures, which give publishers less flexibility when it comes to adding a "buy now" link.
The EPUB format is based on HTML, but EPUB files are designed to be downloaded and then read locally. It is essentially a self-contained output format, albeit a more flexible one than PDF. If sample ebooks were available in HTML5, they could not be read without an Internet connection, but they would be readable on any size screen. More importantly, however, HTML5 ebook samples give the publisher far more control over social sharing, the inclusion of links to related information, and -- above all -- links to e-commerce sites.
From an HTML-based ebook sample, actual sales can still happen through Amazon (or anywhere else), and on the very devices the reader prefers. Even print sales impacts are possible with an open approach. In any case, web-based ebook samples may well be the social "spark" that gives publishers control of their own destiny. The convergence of mobile reading and purchasing devices, open HTML, and socially sharable content could be a tipping point for today's beleaguered publishers.
Social Sharing Approaches
Techniques for social book promotion are not new. HarperCollins recently used Twitter Commerce's mobile-friendly "buy button" in a promotional campaign for Insurgent. Other, mostly larger publishers have of course developed their own ecommerce and integrated social marketing platforms. Publishers can create PDF samples or, with considerably more investment, HTML versions that can be embedded in the website of a publisher and then shared on social media.
Companies like Power-Book-Trailers and Aerbook Pelican offer social sharing in the form of YouTube trailers and ebook excerpts, respectively. Library ebook app developer OverDrive has created its ReadBox application for creating HTML book sample snippets that can be embedded on other websites. If the target website is responsive in nature, then the mobile reading experience is a good one. Readers may borrow the full ebook (if available locally) or buy it from a list of e-tailers, but the buttons for doing so are at the beginning or end of the sample.
Boston-area startup TextCafe has developed a possible alternative, combining an EPUB format parser with responsive web design templates to automatically create what the company calls SocialSamples. These are simply mobile-friendly micro-sites --readable on any mobile browser, and including convenient purchase links to any e-store, including Amazon. SocialSamples cannot be read off-line like a traditional EPUB or MOBI file, but have the advantage of being universal, and device-independent. "They just use the browser built into the phone, tablet or desktop," said TextCafe founder Martin Hensel. "That's why they are instantly viewable -- nothing to download; no reader app to launch."
Larger publishers -- with ample IT resources -- are generally better equipped to create and distribute HTML5-formatted ebook samples than their smaller counterparts. If the publisher also has a centralized, XML-based content workflow, then the task is even more straightforward. However, even among larger publishers, such systems are not yet widespread. "Clearly, it makes sense for publishers to employ a centralized, XML-based approach to content," says industry consultant Steve Paxhia of Beacon Digital Strategies. "That way, they can output multiple formats, including EPUB, HTML, and PDF, from a single source. Unfortunately, the market isn't there yet. Some publishers are headed in that direction, but others are still doing things piecemeal."
For publishers (and even authors) that do not have the IT resources or an XML-based workflow to handle an additional output channel, third-party services like Aerbook, ReadBox, and TextCafe are attractive alternatives. Regardless of the method used to create them, however, socially sharable, e-commerce-friendly HTML ebook samples are vital pieces of content for any publisher's social marketing strategy.
John Parsons (firstname.lastname@example.org), former Editorial Director of The Seybold Report, is an independent writer, ghostwriter, and editor. He is the co-author of the interactive printed textbook, Introduction to Graphic Communication, on the art, science and business of print, which has been adopted by Ryerson, Arizona State, the University of Houston, and many other schools and vocational training centers. Custom editions of the book are under consideration by major printing companies and franchises for internal training purposes.