EBooks in excelsis – but what to buy?

Whaam!  Random House UK has released Q1 figures, showing that sales of eBooks under its imprints have increased ten-fold since the same quarter last year.  RHUK has sold 2m eBooks in total, and the category now delivers 8% of total group sales, with customers of all the key genres (and thus, one assumes, a broad spread by age, sex and location) participating pretty much equally.

It looks as though the UK is running along nicely in the US’s wake, in which case what odds would you give against the UK Q1 2012?  Simon & Schuster has just reported its global (largely US) Q1 numbers, and eBooks represented a whoppping 18% of total sales.

I am still not wholly clear how all of this is being marketed, save through a carefully nuanced focus on “if you liked this, you’ll love that” – shades of the Book Army.  Something that I find extraordinary is that, having personally exited day-by-day involvement in the book trade, I no longer have much clue about what books are being published, and when.  This is despite:

  • Keeping up to speed with The Bookseller
  • Registering for all the publisher Twitter accounts I can find
  • Visiting bookshops a couple of times each week (more if I have a project on)
  • Living in London and making full use of the tube network (if there’s a poster campaign, that’s where it will be)
  • Reading the “quality” press and studying the book reveiws at the weekend

Most of the time, my book trade synapses are doing their stuff – but every trip to a bookshop finds another cluster of surprises – I didn’t know this this was being published, I had no idea that was available in paperback, etc.  So, although I am bright and alert, the marketing is failing to get through to me as effectively as I might wish.

A couple of weeks ago, Waterstone’s manager Martin Latham wrote a thoughtful piece for the Bookseller about paperback availability, noting that – as booksellers have long decried – most of the marketing and publicity surrounding a book takes place many months before the edition that public might actually buy (ie the paperback), is published.  Even Booker prizewinners and acclaimed debuts just slide surreptitiously into the stores, leaving the punter in the bookshop staring at titles and trying to remember which one he’d mentally clocked nine months earlier when Claire Armistead or Erica Wagner was so keen to draw it to his attention.

If it’s hard to know when physical books are published, how much harder will it be to find out, once eBooks are the dominant format?  The answer, I guess, lies in sophisticated marketing program(me)s, wherein the customer can supply a list of her interests and favourite authors, and can perhaps allow some Big Brother app to assess her Google traffic and Twitter follows (“says she likes George Eliot, but seems to spend more time thinking about Angelina Jolie”).  Recommendations (aka adverts) will duly follow.

But if you’ve never read a hard-to-pigeonhole author like Howard Jacobson or Margaret Atwood, let alone identified an up-and-coming author whose first novel gets passing coverage at best, and the showrooms (bookshops) have dwindled and closed (yes, I know I’ve made this point before), how in the eWorld are you going to find them in the future?  I keep asking publihers this question.  Either there is a brilliant (but currently top secret) plan in the works, or they don’t really seem to know.  Marketing Lee Child or James Patterson to eBook customers probably isn’t too difficult.  Breaking this decade’s Longitude or Eats Shoots and Leaves, or getting traction around the Costa First Novel shortlist, is going to be more challenging.