Increasing Sales, One Chapter at a Time
It’s a good time to be a professional publisher. This industry segment continues to post above-average sales growth, while many of its publishers are at the forefront of the digital revolution that has been transforming the way we publish and read books.
According to the Book Industry Study Group’s “Book Industry Trends 2007” report, sales of professional books increased by 3.2 percent in 2006 over the previous year, from $8.6 billion to $8.9 billion. This increase ranked professional publishing as the third-largest growth segment in dollar sales, behind only religious books (5.6-percent growth) and adult trade (3.9-percent growth).
A ‘Glutted’ Market
While the professional publishing market is reporting sales increases, it still struggles with many of the same issues that have been affecting most book publishers. Several professional publishers said they are facing the challenge of finding fresh, new titles that will stand out in a market that some view as saturated. “Something to understand about the book publishing marketplace is that it’s totally glutted. The number of new books being published in the United States has exploded,” says Johanna Vondeling, editorial director for San Francisco-based Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. “It’s really hard to put out a book that’s just good content and expect it to sell.”
Laura Simonds, director of marketing and sales for Davies-Black Publishing––a division of CCP Inc., located in Mountain View, Calif.––views finding fresh content as her company’s No. 1 challenge. “Have we seen a new book proposal that’s, ‘Oh my God, we haven’t seen this before’? No, we haven’t,” she says. “… That’s what we’re looking for, and it’s getting tougher to find those kinds of exciting books.”
“[Professional publishing] is a very tough category … and we have been extremely critical about the proposals that we get and what we decide to publish,” Simonds continues.
Technology books, of course, are an exception to this challenge, as they reflect a topic that is constantly evolving. “Every year you seem to have one or two or more key software releases that give you a lift,” says Joe Wikert, vice president and executive publisher in the professional/trade division of John Wiley & Sons Inc., with headquarters in Hoboken, N.J. “Most recently, it’s been Windows Vista and Office 2007 for Microsoft, but there’s always something else out there … that seems to cause things to bounce up.”
As many professional publishers work to find material that will stand out in a crowded marketplace, the focus on the author’s role has become even more intent, and the concept of the all-important author platform has broadened in its scope.
Vondeling believes that publishers need to tap into authors who already have established audiences, or communities. “We are seeing that the books that are working are by people, professionals, authors who have an established community of people who know them, know their work and are hungry to learn more,” she says. “And they might know their work because they do training or do a lot of speaking, or they blog regularly … the reality is, if we just publish an interesting idea, the book is going to be dead on arrival.”
Vondeling sees a distinction between what has traditionally been called an author platform and what Berrett-Koehler views as an author community. “A platform is traditionally: Is the author nationally famous, have they been on ‘Good Morning America’ or ‘Oprah’? … We see it very differently. I don’t think you have to be famous to have a community. I would much rather sign an author who has regular, annual access to 10,000 people who know their work and … are passionate about what the author is doing, than someone who maybe twice was on ‘Good Morning America’ for 10 minutes at a pop, because that’s just a flash in the pan … ,” she says.
“Does the author make a difference? You bet. That’s the case in any topic area that you publish in these days,” agrees Simonds. “… It’s becoming more and more important that authors have this already established credibility and expertise, because there are so many books already out there right now. To have that voice heard above everybody else’s, how are you going to do it?”
According to Wikert, in addition to focusing on authors who have established communities, professional publishers need to focus on building communities as well to be successful. “You need to figure out how to get involved in the community without appearing like you’re just dipping in and out at will, and you’re taking an active stance in that community to help build it,” he says. “One thing that turns people off most is if a publisher were to show up on a discussion forum, and it was nothing more than an advertisement for one of their new books. So we have to be really careful there, while at the same time, try to foster the development of the community.”
Wikert cites Wiley’s Wrox Web site (http://p2p.wrox.com)––a complement to the publisher’s series of “Wrox” books, which are written by programmers for programmers––as a good example of how the publisher is successfully building a community. The site is a forum where programmers can post comments or ask questions of other programmers. “[It’s] been a really nice reservoir for us,” Wikert says, “of knowledge and contacts to tap into for potential authors as well.”
“One of the hot topics or trends we’re faced with now [is] how do you get involved in [communities] and how do you monetize that?” Wikert continues. “How do you use that as a vehicle to help promote your brand to bring people back to buy your products?”
Wikert also mentions publishers’ blogs as a means for publishing companies to tap into communities. In early 2005, Wikert launched his own blog, “Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog,” (www.joewikert.com) which reaches 1,200 to 1,400 people a day. (Log onto BookBusinessMag.com for more on Wikert’s blogging experience.)
Tapping Into New Technologies
As with other areas of book publishing, new media––and how to not only utilize, but capitalize on, new media––is likely on every professional publisher’s mind. “It’s all about offering quality content,” says John Jenkins, senior vice president and publisher of Washington, D.C.-based CQ Press, and co-chair of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers Books Committee. “That means listening to your market, offering the right content in the format that buyers want––and it won’t always be an ink-on-paper book.”
“If you think book publishers just sell [printed] books, you’re in trouble,” says Arthur Chou, publisher, El Monte, Calif.-based WBusiness Books. According to Chou, WBusiness Books, which launched about two years ago, is exploring the use of new technologies in its publishing strategy and is building a committee to specifically address these issues. Currently, the publisher is offering to readers online materials that appeared in the author’s original manuscript, but were cut from the print edition.
“Especially with business books, people don’t like to read very thick books, [so we cut a manuscript down] to about 50,000 to 55,000 words [for print],” says Chou. “There’s a lot of good information [in the remaining material] that we put on our Web site.”
Chou mentions that, in the future, WBusiness Books is contemplating selling its books by the chapter. “With professional books … [sometimes] you just need one chapter,” he says. “It makes perfect sense.”
Vondeling agrees. “We’re seeing trends that people are increasingly wanting their materials in smaller chunks, especially in digital space,” she says. “So we’re moving pretty quickly toward developing the capacity to have chapter downloads.”
According to Vondeling, Berrett-Koehler believes that the audience for the full-length book and the audience for individual chapters are distinct, citing an analogy to consumers who purchase compact discs versus consumers who purchase individual songs on iTunes. While she hopes that buying an individual chapter might motivate the reader to buy the entire book, she says, “We’re not necessarily assuming that’s how it’s going to work. I think the biggest untapped audience might be people who would never buy the book, but are happy to be buying chapter downloads.”
While many professional publishers continue to contemplate this new business model, O’Reilly Media Inc. already has put the theory into practice. In June, the Sebastopol, Calif.-based publisher announced that its customers would now have the option of purchasing book content by chapter in PDF format for $3.99. Allen Noren, director of online marketing for O’Reilly, who spearheaded the books-by-the-chapter venture, explains that this is the company’s attempt to “lower the barriers to acquisition” of information, or in other words, to compete with information that is readily available––and often for free––on the World Wide Web.
Noren says that O’Reilly was receiving enough of a demand for this option from its customers to consider it a worthwhile experiment. “This makes more sense for some types of books than others, and we’ve seen that reflected in the very preliminary sales data we’ve collected since the launch,” he says. “It’s probably not a good idea for fiction, but it’s a very good idea for cookbooks and other reference works that have stand-alone components.”
Noren cites as an example a friend of his who is an avid cook. She gets her recipes for free off the Web “because her trusted sources, the cookbook publishers, haven’t created a subscription service for her to access, organize, share and annotate the same information contained in the books she used to buy,” he says.
According to Noren, customer response to the books-by-the-chapter option has been “generally very positive” thus far. “We’ve done some nice things to enhance each chapter to improve usability. Because all of our information is in an XML database, we can render each chapter with it’s own table of contents and index. Each PDF is searchable and bookmarked,” he says.
“My goal is pretty simple,” Noren continues. “It’s to make our content available in the format our customers want it––in print, on the Web, on their desktops, their PDA, phone, etc. We sell information, not paper.”
Wiley is looking to forms of rich media, such as video, to enhance its Web offerings. On the Wrox Web site, says Wikert, the company has posted training videos of instructors teaching new technologies. “It’s kind of that YouTube generation, so it’s not super-professionally done, but the content is there,” he says. “We’ve put a lot of these up on our site, and found that not only do they attract more and new visitors, but the ‘stickiness’ factor [keeping visitors glued to their screens] goes up considerably.”
While the videos currently are free of charge and free of advertising, Wikert says Wiley is contemplating ways to monetize this in the future, such as incorporating advertising into the videos.
Wikert notes that Wiley also is putting more article-length content on its Web site. “Again, that’s freely available today, too, but this is all leading up to the future … where we start monetizing shorter pieces of content,” he says. According to Wikert, Wiley plans to start selling e-briefs (new content that Wikert describes as “longer than a magazine article, but shorter than a book chapter”) as well as selling books by the chapter. Longer term, Wikert says if the company compiles a robust enough backlist of e-briefs, it may offer customers a yearly subscription to access the entire catalog.
While publishers of technology books, such as O’Reilly and Wiley, naturally tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to digital pursuits––“It’s the nature of the content we write about,” says Noren––other professional publishers are taking more of a slow-and-steady approach. “We’re certainly not at the point to be [selling books by chapter],” says Simonds. “We’re interested and just keeping our eye on it. When we start to get pressure from our customers for that, that’s probably when we’ll start to speed it up.”
“We tend to spend more time evaluating if we want to do something,” Simonds continues. “So we may not be the first kid on the block to do it; we may be the eighth kid. But we’ll be very thoughtful about whether we’ll go down a certain path because we don’t want to take the time and expense for something that customers may not want.” BB