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.
15 Thoughts on "From Me to You: Selling Books on a Direct Basis"
I am not entirely sure this will work in the current publishing environment. Amazon pays a heck of a lot of money to google every month to appear as a sponsored link on almost any book related search. I just had a go with two (relatively) obscure titles (Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History and Emerging Model Organisms: A Laboratory Manual, Volume 1). Both are from publishers who care about metadata and have online store fronts. However, both times Amazon appeared before the page break or along the sponsored links.
Even if the publisher puts itself at the top of the page rank which is the case for plenty of academic books even now, I would find it very difficult to see anyone clicking and buying direct when there is an Amazon link (and an Amazon price) just below.
FYI, Emerging Model Organisms, Volume 2 is out in April.
One thing we’ve done to spur direct sales from our website is offer customers a “Discount Program” where they can join our mailing list and get 10% off all orders. Since that 10% is less than the discount a reseller demands for our books, this is better for us financially, and offers the customer a better deal as well.
The reason that web sales are proportionally higher for academic publishers is that the customers looking for those books–generally highly specialized and/or academic subjects–know that they can find those books online much more easily than at the local trade bookstore. Why go around the circle when you can take a direct line to the goal? It makes total sense that online retailing with its long-tail principal would work better for these kinds of books.
I also believe that direct-to-consumer does hold some promise in the middle to long-term outlook for all publishers, for print and e-books equally. The problem that has to be solved is not only providing the meta-data for good searches, but also the development of a trustworthy recommendation system that users can tap into. And I’m not just talking about an anonymous user comments forum where there is no basis for judging how reliable a recommendation is relative to one’s own taste. I’m talking about replicating the knowledgeable(and highly intuitive) recommendation you get from a librarian, bookseller, reviewer, or friend who knows books.
Currently Amazon & Co. do a great job of serving up what you *know* you want, but a much poorer job of serving up what you *don’t yet know* you want. Amazon’s recommendations model, which is sales driven, can’t provide an intuitive browsing experience–the kind of thing you get when you stumble across something in a library or great bookstore.
Until that problem is solved, the “atomization” of online information will make it very hard for readers to find their way to publisher sites without some outside recommendation. What makes the web great–all that amazing information–also works against publisher selling direct because there is no organized place where readers can go to connect with publishers consistently. Perhaps this will be solved when we see the so-called Semantic Web that everyone continues to talk about. Until then, online retailers like Amazon will be the go-to place, simply because they organize the information for the user.
At the National Academies Press, we’ve been direct-marketing and direct-selling for longer than most, partly because of our audience (composed disproportionately of specialists), the nature of our publications (reports from the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, National Research Council, and National Academy of Engineering), and the ways in which we feed Google with content (every page is open for indexing, making the content its own advertisement).
Currently, about 35% of our overall sales come through our Website, for shipment directly to the reader either in print or in digital form.
That’s a larger proportion (by an order of magnitude) through direct sales than most publishers. It’s worth noting that there are associated costs and decisions (more customer service requirements, somewhat higher shipping costs, Web development costs, additional marketing challenges), as well as some signal advantages (we have customer metadata from every sale, direct contact with customers, vanishingly small returns from this segment, lower intermediation costs lost to Amazon, B&N, wholesalers, etc., better publisher “brand” recognition…)
We also sell our books in every other venue, but are most delighted by the direct sales, which end up creating a community of interested readers who are interested in us.
Digital direct sales seems to me to be a no-brainer for publishers, and *much* easier to keep in-house than radically ramping up direct print sales to individuals.
Those bits don’t weigh much.
It doesn’t surprise me that web sales for academic publishers are proportionally higher. As a student, there were many times when I needed a book for reference purposes on a very short timescale (usually imposed by a paper deadline). If someone had checked out the book from the library, I wouldn’t be able to get it for weeks, if not months, and interlibrary loan took too long. If the book didn’t cost too much, I would occasionally purchase a copy myself, with the intent of reselling it afterward. However, depending on how much I’ve procrastinated, the time to ship the book might be too long, and the variability of shipping times only added to the stress and pressure. Purchasing an ebook would be a perfect way around this problem and I definitely would have done so.
Academic books are also good options for direct-to-consumer sales because many readers are familiar with the major academic presses and would likely be comfortable going directly to the publisher’s website.
Regarding the low sales volume of direct-to-consumer sales by publishers, I would suspect that in addition to having not invested in good SEO and metadata management, many publishers have also not invested in decent ecommerce systems. I tried to purchase an ebook directly from one major publisher. Along the way I encountered many 404 and 500 errors. After entering my credit card info, I was told that the download link for my ebook wouldn’t appear for several minutes and to check back later. (I got an email an hour later telling me that there was a problem with my card — apparently they didn’t authorize my card in real time). Revisiting their site now, it appears that they have pulled all ebooks from their site.
Compared with the vendor switching cost for physical purchases of books (where you’d need to drive to another bookstore if you were having a crummy experience), the switching cost for digital products is very low. Even if customers like myself can find the product on a publisher’s website, they will purchase it from Amazon if the publisher’s site has a poor customer experience that leads to a high level of frustration.
While I would rather make the direct Web sale and keep more of the revenue myself, I really just want to sell the book. So on our site I include a link to Amazon’s page for all of our books. I know our site’s visitors often discover a book on our site and then go to Amazon to purchase it, so I actually enable that behavior by using Amazon’s Associates program. Here’s an example. For political reasons I also link to Powell’s in Portland as I like giving a user the option of using an independent brick & mortar as an alternative. One of the advantages of using Amazon’s Associates program is I get a percentage of every sale I direct there. And not just a cut of the book I’ve linked to but a cut of the entire purchase. So if you’re in need of a monograph on the use of magic in Germany in the 15th century AND a new flat screen TV, please come to our site and let me refer you.
One of the results of online bookselling on our publishing program has been an abandonment of the trade discount for most of our titles. Since a short discount won’t prevent Amazon from carrying one of our titles, I see little reason to assign a title a trade discount in hopes that the book will find a crossover audience. On Amazon, all of our titles can potentially be crossover titles. The only time we assign a title a trade discount is if we think it has potential in the chains and other than some regional books or the occasional museum co-publication of an exhibit catalog, those kinds of books are few and far between. We used to offer seven to ten trade titles per catalog. These days our typical catalog has only two or three.
This strategy only really works if the site is designed for high page ranking. We use static pages and try to keep our designs as simple as possible, and we’ve maintained the same urls for our books since the first day our site went live over 13 years ago. These kinds of simple SEO strategies usually result in our pages as the first or second listing on Google searches of our titles, ISBNs, and many of our author’s names. Those high above the fold rankings often allow us to spend AdWord money on some of the more esoteric terms used in our content. We can get a bit more bang for our buck that way.
Again, while I’d love to make a direct sale from my site, Amazon has a critical mass that I don’t. They don’t just have my title that my customer is looking for; they have the California, Cambridge, and Random House title, too. And they can offer to ship them all in the same box either for free, or at a much lower cost for the customer than the four publishers can offer separately. Rather than trying to make that sale myself, I’d much rather position my site to be a portal for a sale, and then use our discount strategy and the referral fee from the Associates program to increase the revenue I earn from each sale.
I would not give up the library as a market and build a direct sales channel for this market. Libraries still buy most of their books via one of the three major distributors for many processing reasons such as invoicing, bibliographic control, coordination with approval plans. Libraries are facing budget cuts in staffing as well as resources and they need to be able to use third parties for purchasing. Both print and electronic will continue to be acquired from third parties.
Selling directly to the consumer makes a lot of sense, one thing that I see happening – primarily to larger publishers – is that the middleman that will get cut out is not the bookseller, but the publisher.
When authors and agents can negotiate directly with a distributor (e.g. Amazon or BN or Ingram) won’t it make more sense for them to be an imprint of, say Amazon, rather than Random House (so you might find the Nan Talese line of authors as an Amazon subsidiary).
For academic publishers, the middleman also moves away from the Follets of the world to Amazon and other direct on demand distributors.
The problem with this approach is that it assumes all a publisher is offering an author is distribution and sales, when that is far from the truth. Amazon et al seem interested in taking on the role/revenue of the publisher but are uninterested in adding any of the value that a publisher actually adds. For further on this subject, I’d recommend Charlie Stross’ recent series on publishing, particularly this posting which explains why a manuscript is not a book.