Closing the showrooms: eBooks and marketing

It’s all been Borders, Borders, Borders for the past few days – I’ve written further on the topic for Publishing Perspectives, which you can read here.

So, today, without straying too far from our appointed texts, I want to look into the future, and ponder the retail cost of an eBook.

As I have previously written (and I’m far from alone, see Boyd Tonkin at the Independent), there is a battle going on between those who want to maximise the income they can derive from eBooks (which is understandable), and those who find so much of interest online that is free, that any attempt to charge them for content must be a big fat rip-off (this is also understandable).

This creates interesting philosophical questions around the value one applies to a product that doesn’t physically exist, and that, moreover, gives a single beneficial use before becoming largely redundant.

Paying for physical goods is a very different to paying for intangible services.  I might pay more than I can afford for a picture on the wall, or less than I morally should for clothing from a cut-price store, but I least I have the thing, the object, with a value upon it, and  I hold myself accountable for the price I paid.

Intangible services are different.  Take something dismal, like insurance.  Unless I claim, this product is useless, a waste of money, and a source of grievance each year when the premiums come around.  And when I do need to make a claim, it’s hardly straightforward, but I have to buy the product, and that’s that – “you can’t put a value on peace of mind”.

And now, we have intangible goods.  These have tended to be:

– relatively cheap, like iTunes

– expensive, but the product keeps on coming, like satellite TV subscriptions

– paid for by someone else – the company pays for those subscriptions to online professional journals, not the user

An eBook, by contrast, looks quite expensive, and in most cases (ie most narrative content), will be used (read) just once.  My 99p iTune gets 20 plays before I get tired of it, whereas my eBook gets read once.

Now, I am in the Tonkin camp – I think books are too cheap, and I believe that society has been taught to under-value them.  But we are where we are, and I am fearful of the next race towards the bottom.

Let’s assume that there is a right and fair price for a physical book, and let’s assume, to keep it simple, that it’s £10.

If I purchase this book from a chain bookstore, then (keeping the numbers round), the publisher gets £5, and the retailer gets £5.  The publisher pays the author, the paper merchant, the printer and the distributor; pays for their own infrastructure and covers their marketing costs.  The retailer pays for premises, staff, their infrastructure, and their marketing costs.  (There will have been much horse-trading between publisher and retailer on marketing costs.)  Both hope to make a few bob profit from the deal.

So, eliminate the retailer, and let’s assume that the costs of creating and maintaining digital content aren’t dissimilar to the cost of printing and distribution (a low proportion of the total value anyway).  So the retail cost of the eBook should be £5.

However, and this is where we reach today’s thesis, how does the reader find out that the eBook exists?  Book marketing has always been relatively low-cost.  A launch party and review copies to drive press and media coverage.  Advertising on the transport networks and in targeted magazines.  And the holy grail, word of mouth recommendation.

The inventiveness of book marketing and PR, on budgets that wouldn’t keep Procter & Gamble or Unilever in paperclips for a week, is remarkable.  Books are interesting, but they’re rarely glamorous, and they don’t generate much gossip fodder.  (Even when Martin Amis flares up, it’s only really of interest to those in the know.)

But books have had one great marketing tool – national chains of showrooms in every town, that have enabled the online buyer, supermarket shopper or eBook reader, to browse as many titles as they like, read whole chapters, photograph the covers, note down the ISBNs and then purchase elsewhere.  These showrooms (also known as “bookshops”) are now closing down across the western world, and their numbers will fall much further over the next couple of years.

So, if the showrooms close down, how will the publisher alert the reader to the existence of new downloadable content?  “Social networking!” say the youngsters, but I don’t see this as a substitute for bookshop serendipity.  My Facebook and Twitter pals flood my devices with a welter of messages, and I ignore at least 90% of them.  Furthermore, while my pals are typically people who share my background or taste, they aren’t me.  They don’t know I might be harbouring new interests, and that I might be susceptible to republished 1930s novels, or accounts of the Franco-Prussian War.  And because my daughter browses Amazon more than me, Jeff Bezos thinks I’m mostly interested in frocks.

Bookshops have been a remarkably efficient tool for matching the right reader to the right book, because the reader is prepared to invest time in bookshop browsing.  Online sellers have tried every which way – “You Might Also Like”, “Look Inside” – but these tools often just take the reader round in circles.  People who bought Our Kind of Traitor also bought Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Great, but I’ve read that, and anyway, I’m done with le Carre for the time being, thanks.

If the established publishing houses are going to continue to bring us variety and innovation; if they are to support new authors, experimental authors, foreign authors (bones of contention all), then finding the readers for these eBooks is going to require a substantial increase in the volume, reach, quality and cost of marketing.

Quite how this will be done without my allowing Google to flog my search details to any third party (please don’t), or by having me fill in lots of online forms about my interests, or by me having to scour the Twitter feeds from every publisher, every day, to understand what will work for me, I don’t know.  Whatever the approach, it will cost money, and it will require sophisticated consumer targeting.

What I do know is that bookshops sold books – sold books online, sold eBooks, sowed the seeds of their own destruction.  Without these showrooms, the process of alerting consumers to new titles, and keeping old titles alive, is going to be a very different and challenging prospect.