Closing the Gap Between Publishers and Readers | Digital Book World

Closing the Gap Between Publishers and Readers

Posted by DBW on 4/23/10 • Categorized as Business Model, eBooks

Tim BrandhorstBy Tim Brandhorst, Deputy Director, Book Publishing, American Bar Association

The keynote speaker at January’s Digital Book World Conference, Razorfish’s Global Social Media Lead Shiv Singh, gave an exciting list of what will be knowable about readers in the future. We’ll be able to tell what a reader of an e-book is reading at any given instant; how many pages she’s read; where she dropped off; where, geographically, she’s reading; and what factors influenced her purchase in the first place. And on and on.

It’s the kind of data an acquisitions editor would kill for. Imagine being able to work with an author to “fix that spot between chapters 4 and 5 where you are losing your readers,” as Singh put it; or to be able to know that most people read a certain kind of book at the office, or at home, or while commuting, in order to be able to make better decisions about content and packaging; or to know that nearly all purchasers of a certain title or certain author’s books learn about it in one specific way, or from just two sources, etc.

It’s a potential gold mine.

Only one problem. E-book retailers are going to know this information. And it’s looking like publishers, long in the dark about consumer behavior, are going to stay in the dark.

The Ken Auletta piece in the New Yorker this week discussing the negotiations with Apple, and the Big 6 publishers’ contentious relationship with Amazon, alludes to it: Auletta quotes an anonymous publishing executive and writes that “the Apple people ‘had a much more agreeable feel than Amazon did. They said they would share some consumer data about buying e-books. We have no such data from Amazon.’”

But pair that up with this insightful piece about Apple’s approach to mobile advertising from Frederic Filloux, and it seems pretty unlikely that Apple is going to share much of anything at all. And Apple’s terms with the publishers are for an interim period anyway; it’s unimaginable, to me anyway, that when these contracts are renegotiated in the near future, Apple will loosen up its tight hold on consumer data (or cut better deals financially for the publishers, but that’s a whole other story).

Quick tangent–I’ll tie it together a few grafs down:

I’ve been slightly depressed after checking out this year’s BookExpo America schedule and plans. Take a look at the floor plan of the Javitz Center, and it’s clear that there are going to be two very separate and parallel shows going on this year: the one on the main floor, and the one on the far end of the hall, where every major publisher will have a private meeting room. There has long been a separation of activities thing going on at BEA, but at least in past years meetings and business was conducted on the show floor, and there was a sense of the whole industry being forced to rub shoulders, if only for three days. Now: not so much. I’m guessing the editorial and marketing assistants will be manning the booths and stacking galleys, and anyone with any business to transact will rarely if ever set foot on the floor or interact with booksellers or librarians.

Maybe depressed isn’t quite the right word. “Cognizant of absurdity” captures it better (I’m sure the Germans have a good word for this). What I’m seeing on the Javitz Center floor plan is an effort by publishers to remove themselves once and for all from the people they perceive to be their customers–librarians and booksellers. And the people who actually buy the products…you know, actual readers? Of course, they continue to be completely shut out. Not invited to the party.

Readers–book buyers–are so far removed from the consciousness of the major publishers that it’s not at all a surprise that insisting on extensive consumer data from Amazon or Apple just wasn’t a priority in the “agency” relationship battle. What a loss.

But also a potential gain for small and independent publishers. All this data will exist. The publisher that can find ways to obtain it (through direct to consumer sales, or by using an e-book distribution channel that will supply the data) and use it wisely will have an incredible advantage.

As I was writing this post yesterday, others were spreading the word about Facebook’s new “like” strategy: you will soon see little “like” buttons all across the Web, and every time you click one data about you and your preferences will flow back to Facebook, to be aggregated with everything else Facebook already knows about you. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Facebook is turning the Web inside out, co-opting the Web, invading everyone’s privacy, etc. The interesting possibility here is that Facebook is apparently willing to let user data flow back to the web sites supplying it–at least that appears to the be case with Pandora and Yelp, two of the initial pilot sites that have already implemented the “like” buttons.

What would a publisher need to have in place to take advantage of this, assuming it eventually will be a two-way data sharing street with Facebook? At a minimum, a community–one that’s engaged enough to be willing to click the “like” button often enough to supply meaningful data. Content for that community to consume, either publisher-created or community-created or both. And preferably, a direct-to-consumer sales mechanism.

And if Facebook is willing to offer some unbelievably useful data to publishers, will Amazon and Apple rethink their approach? (Similarly, what will happen when Google finally rolls out Editions, and offers a suite of analytics for publishers as part of the deal?) This will be interesting to watch play out.

[This article was originally published on the PubForward blog and has been reprinted here with the permission of Mr. Brandhorst.]

Tim Brandhorst is currently deputy director of book publishing for the American Bar Association.

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