At the BA conference I gave a pitch, as part of the Next Big Thing discussion, for a new innovation called BookBackers. As with most things at Snowbooks, BookBackers is Rob's idea which I pinched for the BA conference, and I'm sure he'll be adding in a more erudite way than me to this idea over the next few weeks. But in the meantime, here's the transcript of the presentation, dreadful lame jokes and all. If you'd like to see the slides that go along with it, here they are
(PDF,451kb). The dots in the text below indicate a new slide! Hello, as you can see from this slides reassuringly large letters which is a useful prompt in case nerves get the better of me and I forget my name and the companies with which I am afflilated, my name is Emma Barnes and I run Snowbooks, a small independent publisher, and Snowangels, a publishing services business doing things like cover design and making the most of ONIX data. Please do not be alarmed: the next big thing I am here to talk about is not my ever expanding pregnant belly, forthcoming and gravid though it is. No, I am here to talk to you about the reader.
Uh, no, not that reader, slinky and gorgeous though it is.
This sort of reader.
Or maybe this one, to bring us a bit more up to date. Yes, the reader: as an industry the thought of her flits across our mind from time to time. Publishers might have a couple of references to her on their retailer presentations, AIs might note that a book appeals to the reader who enjoyed the last Philippa Gregory. The reader is, after all, the lifeblood of our industry. But do we really care about her? About what she thinks? About whether she enjoyed the book you sold her last week? If we do care, it doesnt show. We spend a fraction of the time and money that other industries invest in trying to understand the reader. Book Marketing Limited is a fine company, but it is the only company dedicated to research in our industry. For a 2.7bn industry, our spend on top quality, deep consumer research is negligible.
Procter and Gamble, for instance, spend $200m just on consumer research every year. Their turnover is $76bn, so to pro-rata that to, say, the Hachette group who turn over 1.9bn, Hachette would have to spend 6m a year to match that sort of level of interest not on advertising, or marketing, or product development, but on customer insight research alone. Bet they dont.
Why dont we spend as much as Procter and Gamble and their ilk? Because books are not toothpaste. We dont rely on customers coming back, week after week, to buy the same brand. They buy a book, they move on. If they enjoy the author, theyll buy the next book by that author but thats after months, maybe years. Our modus operandi as an industry is not to create twenty brands and sell a million units, a billion pounds worth of each every year: we are far more scattergun in our approach. So really, just so long as we get our readers money, were happy. Theres not much use in us understanding exactly why she bought it, or what she thinks, because we dont need her to buy the same book next week, and the week after. Toothpaste is a repeat purchase; a book is a one off.
And even if we did spend that much money, many market research methods are well known to be flawed. EPOS data, built up to give a national picture, tells us what people bought, but not why. Consumer panels and focus groups ask people about their purchases but by shining a spotlight on their behaviour, consumers are more likely to make things up not because theyre lying, but because a lot of shopper behaviour is subconscious. Methods like filming and eye tracking are a lot more robust but we still cant see inside peoples heads.
So whats to be done? We continue to publish books with our fingers crossed, hoping that out of all the activities we flail around doing, something magical will happen and well get that elusive Word of Mouth. Heres the model we work on at the moment:
An agent selects a book on gut feel and whether they think they can sell it.
A publisher selects a book on pretty much the same criteria.
The retailer selects the book based on the cover design and whether its in a genre that they know sells well.
The reader the poor reader at the end selects a book based on what? The cover, the blurb, maybe reviews, maybe because theyve seen it around or heard about it, maybe the first page. Its all a bit hit and miss. We have no idea whether that reader has just discovered her favourite book of all time, or threw the book against the bedroom wall when shes on page 150 because she cant bear to read another page. We just dont know. And because were having to trick the reader into buying a book to force them to buy the books we want them to buy thats a pricey process. We have to spend money trying to drum up demand, to force demand, through adverts and POS and price offers.
It would be so much better more predictable, more efficient if the model was joined up, and demand real demand already existed.
If we knew what readers were thinking, agents would base their selection based on their own taste but informed by reader insight. And so round the supply circle it would go: the publisher would make their decision based on what the readers are telling them, and the bookseller would be able to make a decision based on data, rather than a nice cover and the rep hyping on about how much money the publisher is going to spend on POS. At the point of selection, the reader could have information gathered by the industry available to them to make informed decisions, and as the industry solicits feedback the loop is completed.
Yeah, whatever. Looks great on the page. Nice powerpoint slides of pyramids versus circles. How very 1990s. Its all great in theory, but how the hell do we get this reader insight? And even if we could get it, how the hell do we act on reader feedback when its only relevant to the book shes just read? Heres how. We need to find out readers real thoughts on a book, before publication, so we can learn from it. We need to involve readers in the publication decision. We need to avoid artificial research environments like focus groups, post purchase panel surveys and exit surveys. And we need to do all this for a fraction of the normal cost of extensive research.
Bookbackers is a way for readers to buy shares in books, so that they have an incentive to make the book work, and so that publishers know the book theyre publishing has real demand from real readers
Heres how it works.
Publishers upload manuscripts to BookBackers website
Readers, whove register as a Bookbacker, review the manuscripts and buy shares in the one they really rate (around 10 each)
Once its published, the BookBacker is financially incentivised to spread word of mouth to make it work
If the book takes off, the BookBacker gets a cut.
So to recap: what were doing here is letting readers get first look at books that they can have some say over and a chance to share in the proceeds if it takes off. Since the popular view of publishing is that if a publisher finds one book, like Harry Potter, it can sell millions, its an exciting prospect. Think of it as a literary version of the national lottery. Heh the national literary!
Whats in it for publishers, then?
We get some money to spend on the book from the initial investment by BookBackers (the people who invest their money)
We get a ready-made army of emotionally and financially-incentivised evangelists to spread word of mouth
Its a cheap way to manage the slush pile, since theres no cost to putting a book on the BookBackers website, and brilliantly we get all the consumer insight that P&G get for their $200m without spending anything near that.
Most importantly we can publish books that people want to read, so rather than spending a fortune on marketing to force demand to appear, the demand is already there.
How about for booksellers?
Youll get people to stay longer in your stores, to be more involved, to participate and to feel they're being listened to.
Youve got various opportunities for involvement that will make you money:
You can host discussion events, akin to book groups, where potential investors can discuss the merits of a book.
You can sponsor your staff to become BookBackers, providing them with half the capital, for instance, to buy shares in books they love and then champion. Great way to make staff feel theyre being listened to.
You can feature books in promotions - "the top five BookBackers books as chosen by the people of Canterbury" - when their customers and staff have a financial stake in their success it adds a new layer of interest to a book.
Its a great way for booksellers - those at the sharp end of the industry, who hear reader feedback all the time but who have few opportunities to pass it back up the supply chain to publishers - to get their reader insights listened to and acted upon.
But will this reach the masses, like Richard and Judy? Well an exciting new initiative that places the reader at the heart of things, is full of potential for all manner of media, from radio, magazines and newspapers to TV.
Theres scope for pitching for a TV format that either supports or uses the concept of BookBackers.
Successful formats to date have hinged around celebrity endorsement. TV format could involve celebrities 'having a go at publishing' with the infrastructure provided by BookBackers.
It would be appealing to viewers to be able to do the same as their celebrity idols through BookBackers: choose the books they'd like to see published and see whether they have a better eye than them for a successful book.
Ten minutes isnt enough to give you all the details on how BookBackers would work: what happens when two publishers want to upload the same manuscript, for instance, or who administers the site, or how the BookBackers get their dividends. But a lot has been thought through and more details are available at bookbackers.co.uk. If youd like to talk to us about taking this idea forward as an industry, here are the details. Thanks for listening.