We’ve all learned a lot over the past couple of years, and 2021 has taught us some especially interesting things. Here are a few takeaways and trends from 2021 that we’ll carry with us as we continue to grow, evolve, and serve the book publishing industry!
Book publishing is in a period of renewal
Often, the things that challenge us the most also create great opportunities. The world has nearly two years of this pandemic behind it, and many publishers have seen surprising gains as consumers turn to books to fill their hours at home. On the BookSmarts podcast, Michael Cader, Founder of Publishers Lunch and PublishersMarketplace.com had this to say about additional opportunities the industry has at this moment:
“As we go through this COVID transition [we] redefine what work looks like and how work becomes meaningful….In the pandemic, people stopped going to book fairs and they stopped touring authors, and a lot of them stopped sending out [printed] galleys, and cut back on marketing expenses and did all kinds of things, some out of necessity, some because those things just didn’t exist, and some for ease, and some because they wanted to conserve. So, there’s this really interesting chance to rethink: Where are we spending our dollars? How are we spending those dollars consciously? And what’s driving ROI?
“There’s an interesting opportunity to rethink every role within the organization. What have people actually done during COVID, when they’ve been working with less direct supervision more on their own at home? And how has that worked well? And how can we enfranchise people to keep doing more of that, and less of what they didn’t like doing?
“We’re also in this interesting moment of the industry finally reckoning with diversity in a more meaningful way. Part of diversity means having an industry that’s not just centered in New York. Only certain types of people can afford to live and work in New York, and New York has all sorts of different people and viewpoints in it, but it’s not the nation at large.
“I think writ large it’s this really interesting reset moment. The good news is that publishing is coming at it from a position of strength… the sales are there, the readers are there. The retail channels have been resilient… So there’s a really strong foundation to build from. So, where people go from there, I think will determine a lot of what the trajectory of the business looks like, over the next few years.”
Book discovery is context agnostic
We know that NetGalley is just one of many ways that readers discover books. According to our 2021 NetGalley Member Survey, Goodreads, Friends/Peers, and Amazon also top their list for finding new books. For audio listeners, the library is also a very important means of discovery.
In the Panorama Project’s Immersive Media & Reading Consumer Survey, Dr. Kathi Inman Berens (Associate Professor of Book Publishing and Digital Humanities, at Portland State University) and Dr. Rachel Noorda (Director of Book Publishing and Assistant Professor in English) conducted a consumer behavior study focused on how book discovery works and how libraries fit into the book discovery ecosystem. In April, they spoke about their work on the BookSmarts podcast.
Dr. Berens notes, “In roughly equal numbers, people find a book online and then buy it in a bookstore, or discover a book in a bookstore and then buy it online. It’s actually far more fluid than just looking at sales data would suggest.
“The diversity of ways that people discover books suggests that there’s no one formula for discovery. We do know that people have multiple touch points… We also know that people are largely unaware of how metadata works, how algorithms and recommendation algorithms work. So a question that would be super hard to capture in self-report data would be: How many times did you encounter this book before you finally decided to open your wallet? Or you finally decided to check it out from the library? That’s hard for consumers to be aware of.”
Dr. Norda adds, “Our study was a cross-media one, and what we found is that avid readers are also avid media consumers in other categories. They’re gaming, they’re watching TV and movies. And there is a really high discovery rate cross-media. About 60% of people are going from engaging with a book to then finding a new TV series, or movie, or game. 61% are going from TV or movie to then finding a book or a game. Games was the lowest [category for cross-media discovery]—but still, about a third, 33% [are] engaging with a game and then finding other media like a book or TV/movies. Cross-discovery is something I don’t think we engage enough with in the industry, to think about readers as cross media consumers.”
Data is only as useful as its context
We at NetGalley firmly believe in giving publishers access to their data about NetGalley activity. Information like early impressions, numbers of requests and, of course, the Reviews and Feedback they receive give marketers and publicists the tools they need to analyze the effectiveness of their strategies. This early data helps build context for not only their NetGalley efforts, but their work as a whole. (Have you read our article, The Importance of Early Data?)
Earlier this year, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Content Officer at LibraryPass spoke with the BookSmarts podcast, saying, “My issue with ‘data-driven’ is [that] it’s become kind of a buzzword that’s lost its original meaning. I compare it to the early days of GPS, where if you’re not paying attention, GPS will drive you off a cliff.
“Data is only as useful as the context you’re pulling it into, and the other insights you bring to it. Otherwise it can cause you to make some rather myopic decisions. [If] you’re getting all this sales data that says, 70% of our sales are from Amazon, a data-driven approach might say, ‘All right, we’re gonna put 70% of our resources and effort towards maximizing sales on Amazon.’ And data-informed says, ‘Okay, well, we know Amazon is a transactional point, for a lot of people, but it’s not necessarily the point of discovery. [There are] sites that include links to Amazon, social links…’
“There’s a lot of reasons people go to buy a book on Amazon, and half of them have nothing to do with Amazon helping them discover that book. So if you decide to shift 70% of your resources towards Amazon advertising, and you’re only prioritizing metadata on Amazon, you potentially are losing all of the other touch points that drove those sales to Amazon and suddenly, your Amazon percentage may stay at 70% but your overall sales may drop. And that, to me, is one of the key differences between we’re data-driven versus data-informed. That’s where you really draw a line.”
Joshua Tallent, Director of Sales and Education at Firebrand Technologies and BookSmarts host, adds, “The amount of data you have and the type of data you’re pulling in… if you’re only looking at a subset of real information, then you’re only going to have enough information to make a very narrow choice. But when it comes down to the data that publishers receive, a lot of times, they don’t get enough data to really be able to be data-informed in the first place. And so you feel like you have to be data-driven, and just make decisions based on what you’ve got.”
Data informed publishers constantly analyze their raw data from as many sources as they can find—from their own internal databases as well as data from their partners’, even beyond sales data. What data points do you use to inform your strategies?
Backlist is the backbone
Although most titles available on NetGalley are pre-pub, frontlist books (“galley” is in our name, after all), we often work with publishers to promote backlist as well! Often, a publisher wants to promote an author’s previous works on the cusp of a new release, or an important current event may make an older book suddenly relevant to audiences again.
In his interview with BookSmarts, Michael Cader notes, “It’s sort of extraordinary that the business is doing so well given the depth of the real challenges we’re seeing. One is just the increasing difficulty of selling new books, right? You know, what we’ve seen during the pandemic is the backlist sales continue to rise. Backlist sales have been rising for years, which is in part a function of the increased percentage of book sales online, right? Because an online environment is less conducive to displaying new titles, and stacking them up and putting them in prime real estate [as happens in brick and mortar stores], and more conducive to people browsing or searching, or going to look for the book they want at the price or vendor they want to get it from.”
Chief Marketing Officer at Open Road Integrated Media, Mary McAveney, in a separate interview adds, “Lots of publishers saw great increases in revenue and in sales during that time when people were turning to online search, or browsing [retail sites], but a lot of what was happening is readers were gravitating to books they knew about. They either remembered, or they were classics or somehow the book had an audience.”
Referencing BookNet Canada’s study Aged like a fine wine: What’s the ideal age for a backlist title?, Joshua Tallent says, “When you get into two-to-five years, things really pick up. And so there’s an opportunity there for publishers to take advantage of that—especially with debut authors, or lesser known authors, or those midlist titles that aren’t necessarily the ones that are really going to push a ton of marketing on at the beginning, because they don’t have the time or the energy or the or the money for that. Hitting that middle time period, that two-to-five years, might be just a benefit to go back and say, Hey, let’s just put a little more at this, let’s think about these titles that really haven’t… they’ve kind of been selling a little bit here and there. Let’s put a little bit of effort behind them.”
In a few different conversations, Joshua wants to focus on practicalities. He notes the opportunity and asks, “Where do you think discovery comes from? What do you think that can be doing to really push more discovery?”
Drive discovery by joining communities
Connecting directly with readers has long been at the forefront of publishers’ efforts. Within NetGalley, we see publishers directly invite important media contacts, reviewers and influencers, and use their reports to follow up directly with them. As you can imagine, a number of the people who Joshua interviewed spoke about direct-to-reader efforts as well.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez says, “A lot of the practicalities come from a direct connection to readership. One of the first things I look at is: if you’ve got a clear vertical that you serve, you’ve got opportunities to capture data beyond just the sales data that gets fed to you from your partners.
“…There is a community for everything on the internet, you can get a pretty clear sense of how big it is and how engaged they are. And you can build a business model around that, if you can develop the right content or services—you know, it’s not just about books—for those communities. But it starts with really understanding those communities. And to do that, you got to be a part of them. So you can’t just go buy, you know, Reddit’s mailing list, or do an ad buy on Reddit, and think you’re engaging with the community, you’re just, you know, shifting traditional marketing approaches to the internet.”
Mary McAveney adds, “If you have a media hit around a book, it’s like manna from heaven…. but you know, what you have to do is actually build your own verticals, to build your own content sites, because there are people looking for books, and they may only know Dan Brown’s name. They don’t know anybody else in that genre, but they know they like that book. It sounds sort of simplistic, but you want to bring in those people who like that book, and it’s really important to make sure that the [next] book you’re putting in front of them when they’re doing that search is something they’re going to enjoy just as much as that book.
“Authors spend their lives writing [fantastic books] and they shouldn’t be punished just because the demand isn’t evident. You should be able to build that. But it’s work. It’s really creating your own owned media through funnels and content verticals and articles. And if you can harness those readers and really continue that relationship and build it. If you become like a hand-seller you know what [anyone] likes to read, right? Because they’re clicking pretty consistently on the books that they like to read. And as that reader stays in your system for years, you become even more and more familiar with what they’re looking for. And you can really segment the titles well for them, and so that becomes really critical.”
“I know that so many publishers, of all different sizes, are building mailing lists and really trying to develop that one-to-one relationship with the consumer. And it’s critical, but it’s also critical to make sure that you’re thinking about that consumer more than you’re thinking about the book. You have a book you spent a lot of money on to purchase, and you want to push that book out to every consumer you can think of, but that isn’t necessarily going to win the day at the end. You want to really cultivate those customers.
“It’s not an easy proposition. It’s extremely costly to do that. But the way we [at Open Road] started, is really to start with demand. What are people currently searching for? How does that map to the kinds of books that we have available to put in front of them? It starts there, and then you can use those audiences to build—it becomes sort of a pyramid, you get your base of consumers, and then you use those to build on top of it more, more and more. Whether you’re using social channels, or you’re using external newsletter ads, or you’re using just your content and your search engine optimization, or you’re using search engine marketing, there are a number of tools. And they all require a good amount of expertise to function well.”
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.