What the UK can still learn from US publishers

Sales data suggests that the UK is now closing the gap with the US on the ebook market, but it's still with interest that we look to how US publishers are looking to reach readers in the new digital era – what methodologies are working for them – and what appears to be on the decline. Book^2 (pronounced “Book Squared”) Camp is a free series of meetings which take place in downtown New York City and aims to collect ‘the brightest minds in Publishing and Technology (to) discuss and problem-solve what the next incarnation of the book will be.’

Following immediately after this classic ‘unconference’ format came O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference. There were several themes which ran across both events last month.

Developing direct-to-consumer audiences:

At a session at TOC, Liz Edelstein (Macmillan US, Heroes & Heartbreakers), Colleen Lindsay (Book Country) and Jacob Lewis (Figment) spoke about how they have been building online reader and writer communities.

The key to building reader and writer audiences online appears to be in ensuring that the sites look like they are publisher neutral. Both Penguin US (Book Country) and Macmillan (Hereos and Heartbreakers) described their sites as ‘publisher agnostic’ in a bid to widen their audience as far as possible.

Regular audience analysis also seems to be key in developing communities. Edelstein explained that her morning begins by analyzing through Google analytics which articles have generated the most traffic, where audience has engaged the most, and so on. Lindsay echoed this explaining that they were using the real-time web analytics tool Omniture. Interestingly Edelstein explained that not only were they watching their own audience but also the genre (in this case ‘romance’), with one person dedicated to simply checking where the genre was being mentioned in any social media channels.

When asked by an audience member what the aim was in terms of building these audiences, Edelstein explains, “The end goal is to get as many emails as possible.” By collating email lists they can then market directly to these readers, though Edelstein was quick to underline that their emails are never the hard-sell and they try to create a gentle, non-salesy approach.

Edelstein also suggested social media should only be used to casually engage audiences and never in order to sell/market directly.  It was also stressed that while interns and graduates can pick up social media skills quickly and easily, that if trying to create an online community you must invest in expertise in the genre – explaining that the marketeer with 10 years genre experience should be a key team player.

Given that the Heroes and Heartbreakers audience has gone from 0 – 90,000 unique users per calendar month in a year, the strategy for building the community certainly seems to be working.

An effective feedback loop:

At Book 2, a session led by Kristen McLean, Founder & CEO, Bookigee, Inc., was called Magic 8 Ball and centered on "what are the questions we have about our market and audience that we don't yet have answers for".

In a long conversation which regularly threw up the words ‘D2C, feedback loop, and audience insight’, a US book rep with many years experience conveyed that in all the talk around data analysis that publishers had forgotten about a very effective D2C feedback loop – retailers and librarians – who scattered across the US were very effective communicators on what readers really wanted. Other attendees agreed with this important point but accepted there needed to be an effective way in which to feed this information back to publishers.

A period of less experimentation:

One of the noticeable things about both Book2Camp and the Tools of Change conference was how little experimentation was being mentioned.  Guy LeCharles Gonzales, summed this up in this takeaway of Book 2:

“Stop trying to recreate the wheel; stop trying to build things for which there is no demand; and please stop trying to force “social” into the reading experience!”

Similarly at TOC, experimentation wasn’t mentioned nearly as much as in previous years and it felt as though publishers were consolidating their efforts around audience development for print and ebooks, and content discovery. Social reading appears to already have been pronounced over (perhaps rather prematurely).

The Infinite Canvas

Peter Meyers speaking at TOC gave a very interesting talk on “the infinite canvas”. He explains:

“When I started chewing on this topic, my thoughts centered on a very literal vision: a super-ginormous sheet for authors to compose on. And while I think there’s some great creative territory to explore in this notion of space spanning endlessly up, down, left, and right, I also think there are a bunch of other ways to define what an infinite canvas is. Not simply a huge piece of virtual paper, but instead an elastic space that does things no print surface could do, no matter how big it is.”

In illustrating some ways of thinking about the infinite canvas, Meyers uses the London Unfurled for iPad as a good example with its hand-illustrated pair of 37-foot long drawings of every building on the River Thames between Hammersmith Bridge and Millennium Dome.

Since the Wall Street Crash the experiences of our friends across the Atlantic have always been scrutinised since whatever happens in the US seems to have a domino effect on Europe – as economists at that time put it, ‘when America sneezes, Europe catches the cold.’ We still look to the US to see what is, and what is not, working for them in the hope that we can learn from their successes and mistakes.