Back to the FutureBook: a retailer’s view

A scintillating day yesterday at the FutureBook Conference at the QEII Conference Centre in the heart of Westminster.

2011 has been the Year of Change, with digital content and eReading becoming established across the sector, thanks to the explosive success of the Kindle and (to a lesser extent) the iPad.  The potential of smarter and more versatile devices, allied to social networking in the very broadest sense, has got people like Stephen Page rethinking the whole publishing paradigm – and it was great to see experienced but independent leading publishers like Page, Rebecca Smart and Kate Wilson being recognised for picking up the old business models and giving them a damned good shake.  It was also refreshing to see more young and/or independent delegates, who will reshape the face of publishing over the next 5-10 years.

Takeaway stats:

Dominique Raccah, CEO of Chicago-based Sourcebooks, kicked off:

Ereader users believe they are purchasing more titles.  The evidence suggests, yes; but the industry still lacks a reliable eBook “chart” in the UK and the US, and Amazon/Apple are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to sharing their data.

Ereader users believe their overall spend on books has risen.  As overall spend (eBooks + pBooks) has fallen, this is hard to prove.

Ereader users believe they’re reading more.  Again, ths is unproven, though there may be a link to “dual screen” use, whereby the user browses a device (most typically, an iPAd) at the same time as they’re watching TV.

A snapshot of the Top 85 Kindle charts in the US: 66% of titles were published by “traditional” publishers; 18% were self-published; and 16% came from “non-traditional” (ie digital) publishers.  nb for the traditionalists, this compares to about 95% (my guess!) trad publishers in the average print bookshop.

Evan Schnittman of Bloomsbury divided the audience with his “hardcover + eBook” proposal (he’d charge a 25% premium for the bundle, which presumably would include a VAT element).  Personally, I’m gung-ho for this idea, particularly as Evan reminded us of the difference between “books” (objects that deliver permanence and permit display), and “reading” (which is all about content).

I sometimes chuckle at the “convenience” argument around eBooks.  Is it really a whole lot more convenient to carry an eReader than a single book?  (Do you remember, in the dim, dark days before Kindle, when you used to say “I’d love to read more, but carrying a book is so inconvenient“?)  It’s the enhanced convenience of carrying lots of books, and being able to purchase when you wish.  These are great qualities, though perhaps they encourage the grasshopper mentality of the dual-screener?  (Research suggests that 26% of Kindle users do this.)

Meanwhile, while the take-off trajectory of eReaders has been, and will continue to be, spectacular; though bear in mind that 76% of book-buyers have yet to buy any kind of eBook and – according to BML research – over 50% of those aged 35 or over don’t at present intend to do so.

Finally – I think this was an AT Kearney stat – European eBook sales currently break down as follows:  52% of all eBook purchases take place in the UK.  Germany – where Thalia’s Oyo is making the running – delivers 28%.  After that, France is at 7%, Italy 3%, and the rest of the continent 10%.

This brief run-down of stats doesn’t give the reader any real flavour of the optimism, enthusiasm and boundary-breaking that characterised great ideas and discussion from William Higham, Valla Vakili, Charlie Redmayne, John Mitchinson and many, many more.  But we need to press on…

OK, let’s talk about bookshops

It fell to me to wave my accustomed bucket of cold water around the Fleming Room, and to remind the Conference that this once-in-300-years reshaping of the industry is taking place during the worst consumer downturn, and the worst set of economic forecasts, for many, many years.  New devices, formats and ideas are being launched into the teeth of last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, which promised austerity beyond the next election, and a return to 2001 living standards in – 2017?  2020?  Providing the Euro doesn’t implode, of course – then things will be much worse.

So, book people need to be thinking not just about how to reshape their industry in such a way as to preserve copyright, encourage new talent and stop Our Friends in Seattle (or, more broadly, the “GAFA” group*) from dominating commerce and innovation; they need to embed that change at the same time as Joe Public is devoting his dwindling income to candles and tinned food.

I was chairing a discussion panel that brought together Kobo vendor relations manager Cameron Drew, Hive development manager Julie Howkins, Middle East bookseller/publisher Jeremy Brinton, Retail Week Knowledge Bank director Robert Clark, and Leo Burnett marketing strategist Dr Alan Treadgold.  Here are some of our key points:

The UK pBook market has consoidated to one specialist (Waterstone’s), one generalist (WH Smith) and one website, which between them meet most of the needs of committed book-buyers.  (Of course, there are also three participating supermarket chains, though they aren’t specialist by any definition.)  This represents a real narrowing of the market – but perhaps that market will now start to broaden again, driven by feisty and more self-confident indies, the arrival of eReader alternatives to the Kindle (specifically Kobo), and an expanding reach (devices, channels, formats) from the Stephen Page-defined world of broad publishing.

However, no one has yet resolved the “showroom” conundrum: once its sales have fallen by around 20%, a physical bookshop becomes untenable, and has to close.  Bookshops can move to cheaper premises, can sell a broader range of products (toys, coffee etc), but unless they are actively participating in eBook sales, their market share will be eroded beyond recovery.  This will leave those 50% aged 35+ who don’t intend to buy an eReader for Amazon to scoop up into their search-excellent, browse-lousy world.

The panel recommended some solutions to this problem:

Ereader manufacturers that partner with retailers can encourage consumers into a bookshop relationship without committing them to a non-transferable, Amazon-type scenario.  Hive-affiliated bookshops (currently about one-third of serious indies?) can sell eBooks in multiple formats, and share in the revenue they generate, as well as creating local incentives for their customers.  And Kobo’s retailer partnership model (WHS, Fnac, Indigo etc) clearly has legs.

Physical bookshops must use their websites to drive store footfall.  One of the UK’s most consistently successful retailers, Richer Sounds, has a strong eCommerce site, which nevertheless acts primarily as a driver to get customers into personality-saturated stores, where they can test the product and take advice from trained staff.  There’s a bookshop model here.

Click-and-Collect is growing swiftly as a preferred distribution channel for many customers.  26% of Argos’s business is Click & Collect, and M&S, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s are among the retailers investing heavily in this service.  Click & Collect allows the customer to pick up their goods at a time convenient to them – and of course exposes them to personal service, and many more buying opportunities.

Social networking through eReaders (Kobo Vox) can bring reading communities together, and could be curated by bookshops who currently support reading groups.  Events and literary festivals not only bring together readers with shared interests, but underline a bookshop’s specialisms.  (And deliver healthy book sales to boot.)  In short, community runs through good bookselling like the words in a stick of rock, and good staff matter more in bookselling than perhaps any other retail sector.

Everyone in the world of books – publishers, authors, retailers, analysts – needs to be focusing more on their end customer: the person who buys the book.  Historically (ie until a few months ago) publishers tended to view retailers as their customers, with (as John Makinson has noted) a B2B mindset at odds with the creation, marketing and selling of consumer products.  Book trade people need to be aware of retailing best practice, and to understand how consumers and retailers are behaving in sectors far away from their own.  We cannot integrate ourselves into 21st century lives while still behaving at one remove from our readers.

Finally, there is a common retail trend running through all sectors – fashion, homewares, electrical etc – and that’s a trend for fewer, better shops.  We certainly have fewer bookshops than we had five years ago, and it seems likely that the number will continue to fall.  Those that are left must be digitally integrated, and committed to a programme of continual improvement.

*GAFA:  Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon.  Each is developing a vertically integrated suite of services and functions, as follows:

  • Storage
  • Device
  • Purchase
  • Payment
  • Social

The walls around each of their gardens vary in height.

On libraries, DRM and Occupy…

My latest column for the Bookseller, in which I discuss the Occupy… protests, the impact of digital communication on ideas, and the importance of libraries in a civil society.  St Paul’s certainly got me thinking…  You can read it here:

CAN YOU HEAR ME?!? Amidst the twittery babble of social networking, please buy my product

OK, fine.  That footballer, that actor, and so on, allegedly.  Now we know.

I started using Twitter earlier this year, as a network-building tool to disseminate this blog.  I also reactivated a Facebook account, although that’s more of a friends’n’family thing (though my teenage daughter and I have a pact not to befriend each other – some privacy is still essential).

I’m no expert on WordPress’s site stats functions – a total readership count works just fine for me.  But here’s what appears to happen:

  • I add a new post – automatic emails to subscribers, and an automatic Twitter message.  I add posts to Facebook manually, and decided against peppering LinkedIn with my every tweet and post – it was all just too much noise.
  • Post-tweet, I get an immediate spike in readers, presumably among those who aren’t working for businesses that deny access to social networks in company time – ie all the sensible ones, outside of journalists, PR people etc, whom one would reasonably expect to stay alert to trends.  And then there’s the self-employed, sitting quietly at home, looking out the back window, prey to the temptations of 85 NEW TWEETS!  (Zadie Smith says, never work with internet access enabled, which I guess is fine if you’re an author, less practical if you’re doing business.)
  • Once my subscribers’ message and tweet have gone “below the fold”, though, the impact has largely gone, and blog readership thereafter is steady.  I know there’s a group that checks me out once a week, because I get a big Saturday spike, even if I haven’t posted since Wednesday.  They read Front of Store at leisure, like the weekend newspapers.  And Google (and Google Alerts etc) keeps the old stuff alive, particularly if I insert a few names of movie stars here and there.

As far as social networking goes, though, I’m a bit of a dull old stick.  Business tool, information source, occasional spontaneous chat, but I’m not a “Crowded train girl opposite looks like J-Lo” or “here’s a photo of my cat” kind of messageur.  Nevertheless, the messages pour in, from retailers, journalists, publishing houses, miscellaneous commentators and even more miscellaneous pals.  Treating it all like an email Inbox, carefully reading and noting each message, would lead to an early grave, but still… I don’t want to miss anything.

About half of those messages are trying actively to sell things to me – books, movies, digital devices, tickets to Leonardo at the National Gallery, and the services of other excellent industry consultants.  Because I’ve self-selected the accounts I follow, these are pretty well tailored to my interests – but most of them fly straight over my head as I scroll past them.  As marketing devices, Twitter and Facebook are failing to reach this user.

I think there are two issues here.  The first is that, historically, I go shopping when I’m the mood to shop (or when I have no alternative).  This applies in physical shops, and it applies online.  So all those messages from dozens of different commercial entities are – almost invariably – hitting me when I’m least interested in them – too busy, memory like a sieve.  And remember, I’m in my home office, much more open to marketing distractions than payroll workers.

The second is that I like to browse, rather like my Saturday Front of Store readers.  This applies whether I’m doing a dull compare’n’contrast across tins of soup, or selecting my holiday reading, or buying a new camera.  Both US Borders and Apple’s iBookstore have created “virtual bookshelves” online, which is a start – I’d certainly be happy to buy soup this way.

However, online marketing tools need to be more eclectic, to support serendipitous browsing, so that the consumer enjoys that “go on, surprise me!” sensation that is delivered by strong and imaginative retailers.  But also – wanting it both ways – I want the retailer to be attuned to my eclectic interests.  What am I hovering over?  What am I “picking up and looking at”?  And how quickly can the e-retailer discern my browsing propensities, as opposed to my necessary purchases – just because I’ve bought a book about how to sell my house, for instance, wouldn’t mean I had any further interest in this category.  And recommendation sites like Lovereading are very click-hungry.

Neither the timing problem or my desire to browse is satisfied by Twitter “mailshots”, or by grinding my way around different e-commerce sites, whether they’re run by retailers or by primary producers.  I know how long it takes to build a database of Twitter followers (please, no cheap shots about the quality of the content).  There are certainly e-retailers out there who are creating a novel experience, but not one that I’d return to again and again – novelty wears thin.  And there are plenty of efficient sites out there, where I can build my profile in Persil and Duchy Originals – but again, not a satisfying browse.

E-retailing now has a big slice of the consumer cake – around 10% of total retail sales in the UK.  But it’s still very immature, very price/convenience based, and with much more to deliver before it comes close to the pleasure of a good, leisurely stroll around the shops.

iPad: Apple.  Cat: author’s own