While we continue to debate “p” vs. “e,” we should note a bigger shift in the publishing landscape: from indirect or “channel” marketing to direct sales (from the publisher directly to the consumer). Historically, “p” has been connected to indirect channel sales, but it’s increasingly clear that “e” is likely to be direct-marketed.
Let’s spend a moment on the recent evolution of the book business. In what is sometimes referred to nostalgically as “the print era,” most books were sold through various intermediaries, usually bookshops or wholesalers that serviced stores and libraries. Of course, there were always (and continue to be) exceptions to this. For example, most university presses create catalogs that are mailed directly to prospects, and there are few academic publishers even today that do not count among its largest customers such companies as Baker & Taylor and Ingram and large bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Barnes & Noble.
But with the Internet came Amazon, which has altered the landscape forever. Most academic publishers report that their sales volume through online booksellers, when measured in dollars, is 2-3 times the comparable sales volume for trade publishers. For university presses, for example, Amazon typically comprises 25% or more of total distribution, about the same amount as, or even more than, sales to libraries. And no academic publisher has to be told that online sales are growing, while library sales continue to be a struggle, or that overall sales have not grown much at all over the past 10 years and in many instances have even declined. In 10 years, online bookselling, principally through Amazon, has gone from zero to 25% of total volume for most academic presses, and this on flat sales.
Curiously, in many respects online bookselling closely resembles bricks-and-mortar bookselling. Amazon is as much an intermediary as Barnes & Noble, its chief rival in the United States, and whether online or off, most intermediaries primarily sell print. As the Internet continues its disruption of the traditional book business, we should expect to see: more print books sold online; more digital versions of books, which will disproportionately be sold online; and the growth of sales made on a direct basis.
For all the success — the inexorable success — of online bookselling, it’s useful to bear in mind that offline bookselling has a few advantages over the online variety, and one of these is that the physical book itself conveys a great deal of information about the book’s content. A print book is a book wrapped in its own metadata: the author’s name, the title, a blurb about the contents; and by flipping through the pages, a prospective customer sees the table of contents, an index, and even some sample text. (Nor should we discount the author’s photo on the dust jacket or the excerpts from favorable reviews.)
For online bookselling to be effective, all of these messages of the physical bookselling channel have to be re-created. And this is one of the key differences between channel selling and direct selling: with direct selling, much more attention must be paid to the creation and presentation of bibliographical information. It is not enough to put some books on a Web site. The site must be designed to thrive in “the Google ecosystem” — that is, it must be accommodating to search-engine algorithms.
There are several reasons that more books will be sold on a direct basis online. The first is simply that the facts speak for themselves: publishers are in some instances already selling books directly to individuals from their Web sites. In no instance that I am aware of are those sales anywhere close to the sales volume netted by third-party online booksellers, but few presses with direct sales would wish that they would disappear.
A second reason more books will be sold online is the effect of search engines and Google in particular. Search engines tend to “atomize” Web portals. So-called “atomic discovery” refers to the bypassing of the home page of a Web site and going directly to a page found somewhere within a Web site. An illustration of atomization is easily found by Googling on items in the news. Do a Google search on “how many people died in the earthquake in Haiti” or any news item of your choice and you will get a list of Web sites, including newspaper Web sites. Click, for example, on the link to the New York Times, and you will be brought not to the Times‘ home page, but to an article buried deep within the Times‘ site. Google finds the most relevant atom, not the entryway to the Times as a whole.
A description of a book – -author’s name, title, ISBN, table of contents, brief summary, etc. — is, to a search engine, very much like that article on Haiti in the Times. A publisher can post high-quality book descriptions (metadata) on its own Web site and invite search-engine traffic to find it. In effect, Google enables publishers to compete with Amazon in a modest way.
So it’s not about “p” vs. “e.” It’s about how one change ripples through the value chain, privileging some links in the chain and denigrating others. Ebooks are a product strategy, but direct-marketing is a business strategy.