Patron-driven acquisitions (PDA) poses new marketing challenges for book publishers.
In the traditional model, most of a publisher’s efforts are expended around the time of publication. Just prior to publication there is a period where interest in the book is generated by catalogues, social media, the distribution of review copies, and so forth; in the period immediately following publication, there is a strong effort to gain media coverage of the title. But over time the marketing effort tapers off. Titles continue to be listed in catalogues; sometimes new catalogues, online and off, are developed for specific audiences (e.g., a list of all works in anthropology for the anthropology mailing list), but a complete re-energizing of the marketing requires a new event. This could be the publication of a paperback or electronic version of the book or perhaps the creation of a new edition, replete with a new introduction and updates to the text. As the book ages in the marketplace, the marketing staff turns away, directing their attention to the many new books coming through the pipeline. Historically, publishers have not been overly concerned about the overall life cycle of the book. Post-publication, a book becomes the concern of libraries and the individuals who purchase it.
With PDA, publishers face a situation where the actual purchase of a book could take place many years after publication. The largest share of purchases will continue to take place in the first year or two after publication, but some portion of a title’s overall sales will be pushed back, taking place only when a library patron makes a specific request. Publishers thus have the new marketing challenge of stimulating demand for many years. If they don’t, the book’s metadata will sit in library catalogues, but no one will seek to access the title. Without such a request for access, there will be no purchase. This is the essence of PDA.
How then to drive sales of PDA titles? The obvious answer is to continue to market the books, but this is more easily said than done. Marketing costs money and only makes sense when the incremental cost of an ongoing marketing effort is more than offset by increased sales (specifically, the increase in the gross margin must exceed the direct cost of the new marketing expenditures). For many academic titles, which may have a small commercial reach, the challenge is to find cost-effective ways to bring books to readers’ attention. That means (obviously) no television ads or taking out a page in the New York Times Book Review, but it may also mean not being able to afford small advertisements in specialized scholarly journals, whether in online or offline editions. The unfortunate fact is that old books compete with new books for resources, and new books almost always win.
Publishers are thus likely to view marketing in the wake of PDA pragmatically. Since sales through PDA are triggered when a patron, viewing the library’s holdings in a catalogue, requests access to a title, publishers will seek (a) to have as many books represented in that catalogue as possible and (b) to have the descriptions of those books be as complete as possible so as to prompt a user to want to read more. Practical book discovery for PDA, in other words, is largely a matter of search-engine marketing, where the search engine or engines consist of a variety of tools that lead a user to view a specific book record.
Before digging in deeper on searching the catalogue, it’s important to recognize that there are useful means to bring users to the catalogue in the first place, though all of them fall under the general rubric of search-engine marketing. For example, a publisher may have a regular blog in which authors contribute guest posts. While the direct or organic traffic to the publisher’s own Web site may be small, those blog posts will be picked up by people who begin their searches on Google or other Internet media. Let’s imagine, for example, an undergraduate who is to write a paper on the economic causes of the American Civil War. The student perhaps begins with Google Web Search and finds that there is a link to a blog post by John Doe on that very subject. The link brings the student to the publisher’s blog and Doe’s post. The post cites Doe’s book on the Civil War, and the student then discovers that that book is listed in his or her institution’s catalogue. That listing may be part of the PDA program. The student requests access to the book and a transaction is consummated silently, without the student even knowing that the book was not owned by the library until that very minute. This marketing is not free, of course, as the publisher must allocate resources to creating and maintaining the blog, but it is a method for keeping books in front of prospective readers.
Some searches will begin not with Google or Twitter or any other Web service but with someone searching directly on the library’s catalogue. And here we have an interesting question: Just what is the library’s catalogue and how can a publisher influence what information gets placed within it?
It’s tempting to think not of the catalogue, singular, but catalogues, plural, as libraries have multiple access points to their collections, but it’s probably more accurate to think of the catalogue with a series of overlays that make the contents of the catalogue more apparent or useful. To some extent, it all depends on the kind of questions you are asking. A librarian, for example, may use the catalogue as a way to determine if a particular print book is located in the main library or in an off-campus storage facility; or a librarian may simply be interested in assessing the inventory of the library’s holdings. A patron, on the other hand, is interested in what he or she can get access to. For inventory purposes, for example, a title in a PDA program may not be viewed as part of the library’s inventory (because it has not yet been purchased), whereas for discovery purposes, the title is very much a part of the catalogue because, if it is available as an ebook, it can be purchased in an instant.
Thus, for publishers, it is the discovery service, not the underlying catalogue itself, that is of greatest interest. Most libraries use one of five options for patrons’ discovery: a proprietary search interface (only the largest libraries would invest in this); the Summon service, which is offered by Serials Solutions/ProQuest; EDS, the abbreviation for EBSCO Discovery Services; WorldCat Local, a service of OCLC; and Primo, a service of Ex Libris. This is where publishers need to concentrate their efforts, as a strong representation of a title in these services could lead to more patrons discovering and requesting it.
Let’s look at this by choosing a single title as an example: 1491 by Charles Mann. This book was published by Random House, the largest trade house, which has no problem in getting its books distributed just about everywhere. If you do a search for this title on WorldCat, you will see that the book is available in thousands of libraries. If you go to the publisher’s site, you will find a succinct description of the book. The presentation at Amazon is much more extensive than that on the Random House site. The representation at Amazon’s direct competitor, Powells.com, is good, but not nearly as fleshed out as on Amazon. The information about the book is far more limited in the catalogue at the Princeton University Library–so Amazon is making a greater effort at making the book discoverable than either the publisher, at least one competitor, and one major research library. (Oddly, when you search on the Princeton catalogue for 1491, you are brought initially to the record for 1493, the author’s follow-up book.) Interestingly, the University of Chicago Library has a much longer entry on this title, and at the bottom of the page there is a reference to Syndetics, a unit of R.R. Bowker (and linked corporately to Serials Solutions and ProQuest). Syndetics is credited with having provided enriched metadata for this entry. Apparently the Chicago library staff has a strategy of increasing discoverability by adding metadata to its catalogue. This is precisely what publishers would want.
If you surf through dozens of libraries, working with a group of titles for which you compare entries, you will find that some libraries have very extensive descriptions of the books in their catalogues, some have brief listings, some include outside reviews, some have links to the GoodReads Web service, and some include links back to Amazon, where a patron can make a purchase. (It’s controversial in library circles, but I would like to see libraries get a commission for referring customers to Amazon.) It’s all over the place. For publishers, this means that one important marketing goal should be to raise the level of metadata in all library catalogues. The technical staff at publishing companies may wish to review the work of Ken Chad, who studied the role of metadata on PDA in a JISC-sponsored survey.
Ironically, every year publishers provide their metadata for free to Bowker, which proceeds to package it and sell it to retailers, wholesalers, and libraries. It would be in the publishers’ interest if all that metadata were freely distributed to libraries. In this regard, it’s interesting to contemplate the precedent of Oxford University Press, which makes the metadata to all its books available as a free download from the OUP site. If OUP’s books have better metadata associated with them across the Internet, it is not an accident.
Let’s be clear about what’s at issue here. PDA potentially erodes the sale of books, but publishers have means to offset this. Good metadata enables better discovery, which in turn leads to more patron interest in a title–and that leads to a request for access and a sale or rental from a PDA program. Publishers have been inconsistent about creating and distributing this metadata, which in turn leads to lower sales. An effective marketing program for publishers operating in the PDA environment is to create high-quality and extensive metadata and see that it gets distributed to discovery services. Publishers should not stop providing information to Bowker, but they may wish to begin to provide it directly to libraries free of charge.
This is a moving target, and it is moving in the right direction. New services are now springing up that provide apps for libraries’ Facebook pages. An interesting aspect of these apps is that they permit users to enhance the descriptions of books. Thus we now have the authoritative information about a book provided by the publisher mingling with user-generated content, not unlike what we find on the Amazon site. The tools of discovery continue to grow.