ContentDirector: Read Any Good Books Lately?
Around the time I started working in trade publishing, Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" was a huge bestseller, clocking sales at record rates. I was impressed, and still am, but my thinking on what these numbers meant was altered by the comment of a colleague: "Just because people are buying the book, doesn't mean they're reading it."
And, of course, it's true. Hawking's book was a trendy intellectual purchase. Drop a copy of this much-talked-about dense and brainy bestseller on your coffee table, and guests were sure to gain a favorable impression of your erudition. But speak knowledgably about black holes, quarks and antimatter? Mere ownership of the tome did not such conversations guarantee.
Nonetheless, the sales were significant. We, as an industry, are creating more and more tools as we go along to track sales. Nielsen BookScan, introduced in 2001 and modeled on music industry practices, collects sales data industry-wide, and currently claims to account for 75% of sales. Ebook analytics are moving us toward becoming a data-rich business and are beginning to shift the focus of our data. For example, recent data from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project on "The rise of e-reading" reports not on book sales but on the number of people who say they have read an ebook in the past year.
Another report from early 2009 from the National Endowment for the Arts, "Reading on the Rise," found a "definitive increase" in the number of people who read books. The NEA was heartened to find a reverse in the downward trends they had observed in the prior two decades, enabling them to draw the conclusion that "cultural decline is not inevitable."
These reports are beginning to tell us what we were wondering about the Hawking book: what our customers actually do once they've bought the books. We here at Book Business and you at your corporation or institution are very involved with the business of making books: books for a variety of markets, books in a variety of formats. But no matter their content or platform, they are meaningless if there is no one at the other end of the publishing chain to receive them: our valued readers.
Have you read any good books lately? This question is not merely empty rhetoric for me. I go about the world asking this question of people—of my friends, family and colleagues, and of random strangers in random places. I am frequently known to walk up to someone engaged in the act of reading by the side of a swimming pool or a ball field, to lean over their way as I strap-hang above them on some public mode of transportation, and inquire about their literary selection: What is it? What's it about? Do they like it?
It is only by engaging with readers that we can continue to hone our craft of publishing and do it successfully. But how engaged are we really with this end user? What do we know about them?
Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit" and a keynote speaker at our September Publishing Business Virtual Conference & Expo, has studied and written extensively about the consumer products industry and its methods of researching and introducing new products. Through Duhigg, many of us have learned the story of the invention of Febreze®, and about the many hours researchers spent observing consumers cleaning their homes to learn exactly how people make their beds, mop their floors and perform other household chores, in order to manufacture a product buyers would actually use.
Where is our home video of readers curled up in bed with a good book? Readers on the beach fighting off sun and sand to tackle their beach book, be it "Gone Girl" or "Middlemarch"? Where is the hidden camera that captures readers on the train, the subway, in line at the bank or supermarket?
Do we know exactly how people use our books? Do we understand how they choose what to read and why? At every editorial and sales meeting, we certainly talk about the importance of reviews and media coverage, the need for word-of-mouth and blog posts and grassroots marketing—these are all on our agenda. But do we understand the actual physical way readers interact with these physical objects, the way Proctor & Gamble knows how people use their mops? (Now, mind you, I'm not equating a book with a mop, so please don't accuse me of such. I'm merely drawing a comparison between two different industries, and suggesting that one may have much to learn from the other, differences in their products—yes, products—notwithstanding.)
Ever since I was a member of the Book Industry Study Group Marketing and Statistics Committees in the late 1990s until 2002, I have wanted to launch a qualitative study of reading habits. It is therefore my great pleasure to kick off our Book Business "Read Any Good Books Lately?" campaign, our study of reading habits. As your source for cutting-edge industry news and strategic analysis that supports the way you do business, our ongoing goal is to keep our readers in touch with the information and the trends you need to achieve your business outcomes. As such, we want, in a sense, to help you invent the future Swiffer® of the book business, by helping you understand how people read books.
Stage one of "Read Any Good Books Lately?" is an on-the-street video campaign. We'll be collecting short videos of random readers, interviews of people we find wherever we go who are reading in public, asking them about their literary selections and their attitudes about reading. Once we are able to secure funding, we'll follow up with focus groups. We hope to work with an institutional partner and to apply tried-and-true consumer goods research methods to our study of the business of books.
We'll post our videos online and keep you up-to-date on our progress at bookbusinessmag.com and through our daily email newsletter, Publishing Business Today. We welcome your participation in this study in ways large and small, so write me with ideas at email@example.com.
Oh, and if you were wondering, I never made it through "A Brief History of Time." However, one book I did read and wholeheartedly recommend is Dennis Overbye's "Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos."
Have you read any good books lately?