How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’

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Books as objects of desire: photographs by Jennifer Cownie. Composite: Jennifer Cownie/@cownifer

Just a few years ago, the Kindle was being blamed for the death of the traditional book. But the latest figures show a dramatic reversal of fortunes, with sales of ebooks plunging. So what’s behind this resurgence?

Here are some things that you can’t do with a Kindle. You can’t turn down a corner, tuck a flap in a chapter, crack a spine (brutal, but sometimes pleasurable) or flick the pages to see how far you have come and how far you have to go. You can’t remember something potent and find it again with reference to where it appeared on a right- or left-hand page. You often can’t remember much at all. You can’t tell whether the end is really the end, or whether the end equals 93% followed by 7% of index and/or questions for book clubs. You can’t pass it on to a friend or post it through your neighbour’s door.

A few years ago, I was given a Kindle. I had become a student again. I was reading lots of books and I needed them cheap and light. But now the Kindle has slipped to the back of the desk drawer behind the Blu-Tack that comes out only at Christmas. Meanwhile, the stack of hardbacks and paperbacks on the bedside table has grown so tall it has spawned sub-stacks on the floor; when I get into bed at night, it is like looking down on a miniature book city. I don’t want to speculate about what goes on in other people’s bedrooms but I suspect it might be something similar, because figures published today by the Publishing Association show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17%, while sales of physical books are up 8%. Consumer spending on books was up £89m across the board last year, compared with 2015. So why is the physical book winning through?

Ten years ago, when the Kindle launched, the idea was miraculous. Here was the ability to carry hundreds of books enfolded in a tiny slip of plastic, countless stories in a few hundred grams. It seems hard to believe when you look at the thick, black plastic surround – stylistically it bears more resemblance to a cathode ray tube TV than a tablet – that it predated the iPad by two years. Within five hours, it had sold out, despite a price tag of $399 (then £195). A decade on, lay a Kindle next to a smartphone or tablet and it looks so much older, while the reading experience it delivers has scarcely progressed.

“It was new and exciting,” says Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown. “But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren’t trendy tech reading devices and I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.”

Indeed, the take-up of tablets among book buyers has slowed since a flurry between 2012 and 2014, according to Steve Bohme, UK research director at Nielsen, which conducted the research for the Publishing Association. There are fewer new readers of digital books, and they tend to consume physical books as well. Oyster, the so-called Netflix for books, folded after a year.

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback. “Part of the positive pressure that digital has exerted on the industry is that publishers have rediscovered their love of the physical,” says James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, which published a special Christmas edition of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, more than 80,000 copies of which have been sold by the chain. (He, in common with most people involved with the publishing of physical books, reads on a Kindle, but afterwards buys the books he loves.)

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Young readers much prefer the immediacy of a book rather than an ebook. Photograph: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

“The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” Daunt says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”

And that something interesting is likely to gain traction on #bookstagram, a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

Physical books even feature in this spring/summer’s Fantastic Man magazine, which advises its fashion-literate readership to take five unread books to the sofa and spend five minutes with each one. “The difference between having read Proust for five minutes and for zero minutes is small, but it is also significant.” (This is how I’m going to crack my lifelong embarrassment about never having read Proust.)

Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art”. One of her authors’ forthcoming works features cover art by someone who designs album covers for Elbow. “Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says. She distinguishes these from “coffee-table books”, which is what we had before #bookstagram. This helps to explain the reinvigoration of independent bookshops, which offer a more styled, or curated, experience.

“We had a near-death experience,” Daunt says, referring to the recession. But, he adds: “When you come under pressure, you have to raise your game, and that’s what has gone on throughout the industry.”

There are other reasons for the decline of consumer ebooks. Children’s books, which represent an area of significant growth, just don’t work well on e-readers (although there are lots of children’s reading apps). Neither do young adult titles, even though this age group might be expected to opt for the most technological reading experience. Daunt’s children “can stick their noses in a book and they are lost in that book”. But when they try to read on a digital machine, “the allure of Snapchat pinging away, it’s a disaster. They think it’s a disaster.”

However, none of this is to say that digital publishing is the enemy of physical book publishing. At Forum Books in Corbridge, Northumberland, founder Helen Stanton has recently collaborated on a Silent Book Disco at the Biscuit Factory art gallery in Newcastle, where visitors could wander around and look at books (rather than works of art) while listening to an appropriate playlist. “A lot of my customers have bought e-readers and are now coming back to books,” she says; the shop is regional winner for the north of England in the Independent Bookshop of the Year category of the Nibbies. “We do a lot of events. We are really trying to connect readers with the author, to bring the book to life.”

Stanton is talking on the phone from a train down to London, where she hopes “to buy equipment” so she can do more silent book discos. Maybe, she says, customers could wander around the bookshop and hear poems at certain places on National Poetry Day. “It’s totally wireless, and if customers didn’t want to hear it, they wouldn’t hear it.”

Fuelled by the success of podcasts such as Serial, the rise of audio is one area of digital success, with downloads up 28%, according to the Publishing Association. Audio is becoming something of a new battleground in publishing, where audio publishers want to see books on submission at the same time as physical publishers, while physical publishers have become disinclined to acquire books without audio rights. In the US, the Audible Originals programme is commissioning new work – such as Tom Rachman’s interconnected short stories about Donald Trump – which is debuting in audio before print.

To complicate matters, some publishers of physical books are treating ebooks “almost as a marketing tool” before a book comes to print, says Summerhayes. One recent title, for instance, had little interest in its forthcoming print publication, so the publisher released it as an ebook for 99p. It began to sell, to be noticed and get reviewed. At which point the publisher went to the supermarkets that had previously spurned it and they took it up. (In music, this idea echoes how the first releases by artists such as the Weeknd and Frank Ocean were mixtapes given away online; by the time they released “proper” albums for conventional labels, they already had a big fanbase.)

The figures from the Publishing Association should be treated with some caution. They exclude self-published books, a sizable market for ebooks. And, according to Dan Franklin, a digital publishing specialist, more than 50% of genre sales are on ebook. Digital book sales overall are up 6%.

“It’s not about the death of ebooks,” Daunt says. “It’s about ebooks finding their natural level. Even in the years when ebook sales were rising greatly – and clearly cannibalising physical book sales – it was always very clear that we would have a correction and reach an equilibrium.” The UK, he says, has “adopted” ebooks and they will remain a substantial market (while in France, for instance, ebooks are only 3% of the overall market). The last thing he – or any seller or publisher of physical books – wants is the death of the ebook. “We want people to read. We don’t mind how they read,” he stresses. He knows that people who read, sooner or later, will buy books.

Paula Cocozza’s novel, How To Be Human, is published by Hutchinson at £12.99 rrp. To order for £11.04 with free UK p&p, visit bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Author: Paula Cocozza
Twitter: @CocozzaPaula
Source: https://www.theguardian.com

Why the paperback fought back… and what’s next in digital marketing

iStock-499056230.jpgThe year is 2014. A bearded man with strange forearm tattoos materialises in your boardroom, claiming to come from the future. How he got there isn’t clear, although he’s riding what looks like the bastard child of a single gear ‘fixie’ road bike and a mainframe computer. He wears jeggings. He tells you that in 2017 the sky is falling and that sales of physical books have overtaken those of ebooks. You tell him to bugger off back to Shoreditch and whatever he’s been smoking, then you return to your brainstorm session and your bold plans for a Google Glass-inspired, augmented reality reader experience.

Fast forward to March 2017 and lo and behold, you find that your time traveler friend was telling the truth. Sales of books (touchy feely books) have increased by 4% year on year. eBooks have gone south by the same margin.

This is not the future we expected. What gives?

Well, firstly, I hope you weren’t betting on AR back then. For book publishers there’s often strong value in ‘last mover advantage.’ Those who hid their heads in the sand whilst others were shelling cash on disruptive new reading apps are now a) laughing and b) perhaps none the wiser.

Secondly, Squiz’s latest annual State of Marketing Technology report tells us that the media and publishing industry is the second biggest investor in marketing technology (after financial services) and is overwhelmingly the heaviest day-to-day user of the stuff. I hope you’re not firing blanks.

I am not a time traveller and I do not wear jeggings, but I can try to explain why we got to a place where paperbacks are fighting back (and winning) and what we need to focus on if we’re going to get it right by 2020.

How did the paperback fight back?

This is a proper Sherlockian three pipe puzzle that could use a broad perspective.

Between March 2014 and March 2017, Facebook’s market cap grew by $232bn to $407bn (a 75% rise). Similarly, Apple’s grew by $272bn to $745bn (a 173% rise). Both are predominantly in the business of keeping people glued to small pocket-sized devices. Over the same period, Netflix grew by 144% to $62.8bn – a far smaller number, but Netflix is a different beast.

Aside from being great models of tech disruption, why is the growth of these companies interesting? It’s because they all compete in the attention economy – alongside book publishers.

Facebook and Apple have changed the way we interact with our content – news feeds and touch screens are now the go. Netflix’s emergence, on the other hand, demonstrates something different.

Whilst we’re all struggling with stiff necks and bad postures as a result of our nose-down addiction to thumb swiping and notification pings, we still like to consume certain content at certain times of the day in time honoured, kick-back fashion. (I’m thinking here of the amount of pizza I consumed on a ten-day couch marathon of House of Cards.) Meanwhile, the time we spend on planes, trains and automobiles is rising. The point being, whilst we’re getting digitally quicker, some aspects of life remain the same: we spend large, fixed chunks of our days on our backsides in search of entertainment – mornings and evenings especially. Our ‘entertainment slots’ aren’t changing.

The other thing the rise of Netflix suggests is that what people want has less to do with the device or the format, but more to do with the accessibility of content itself. Research done last year shows that Netflix is still largely watched via the good old tele box.

This confirms three things:

i) The best way to be entertained is in an environment without distractions – in the sense that it’s much better to watch Kevin Spacey outmaneuver the American political establishment on the biggest possible screen, without a dozen social media status updates pinging in from the sidelines

ii) When it comes to competition for attention during prime ‘entertainment slots,’ a service like Netflix is a publisher’s real competitor – not Facebook, Instagram, or any other web-based network that doesn’t deal in high value, long-form content

iii) Conversely (and who’d have thunk it?) because of the above, the paperback might just be an ideal technological device for storytelling. (Picture the re-launch ad campaign: “Introducing iBook… Lightweight. Portable. Durable. Immersive. Distraction-free. Cost effective and sharable…” And, if a paperback doesn’t do it, then reading the same thing on a phone with notifications turned off will also do the job.)

This, I feel, explains why sales of books are growing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say: there seems to be no real need to re-imagine the artefact beyond the text, because the demand for the product is still there.

But standing still won’t do because there are many, many different services competing for that ‘entertainment slot’ aside from Netflix. Amazon Prime Video. Wattpad. Wattpad’s new chat-style story service, Tap.

So how should publishers innovate and thrive?

What a digital-first entertainment network can teach us

All of the competitors mentioned above are digital-first organisations, born on the web. They’ve been designed from the ground up to exploit inefficiencies in the production, distribution and consumption of entertainment content. Many of them have deep R&D pockets and all of them are relentless in their pursuit of growth. They are not built like you. But that doesn’t stop you from using some of their tricks. (These are just some of the learnings we apply in our work with large international publishers like Hachette, Elsevier and LexisNexis.)

Let’s stay with Netflix. It does two things incredibly well to make it a go-to destination: it is data-driven and discovery-driven.

i) Data-Driven distribution

Data is Netflix’s lifeblood. It knows a lot about me. It also knows a lot about my friends and connections and everybody else who uses its service. Consequently, it’s pretty good at knowing what I want. It’s also good at using this data to make creative decisions about what it does and doesn’t produce itself and what it buys in from third parties.

It doesn’t spend a great deal of time ‘re-imagining’ the format of films and TV programmes. It does spend a lot of time figuring out how to help its audience maximise the value of their ‘entertainment slots.’ Netflix accumulates consumer data at every possible point to help it plan and deliver the right content, at the right time to whatever device its users choose to watch it on (which, as mentioned, tends to be a large TV).

Tip #1 then is to invest in technology that enables the acquisition of customer information in such a way that it can be matched with the product-level data that you have in your inventory, so that you can recommend the next great book more easily.

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On one hand, I’m optimistic that publishers can do this because, unlike many other industries, the book business is built on well-structured data which is designed for syndication to a variety of online and offline shop fronts. On the other hand, there is a lot of work to do to connect this data to consumers in meaningful ways because the business suffers from an acute lack of consumer contact. The customer relationship and the opportunities for data capture lie with Amazon and co.

To this end, I recommend that every one of your technology investments and every marketing activity you do is geared towards data acquisition. Once this is in place, and once you have a sensible stock of consumer information, then you can plan your distribution more effectively. Think how much you could improve your digital advertising and promotions spend: it could be faster, leaner, and involve much less guesswork. As such, marketing success can lie in more progressive usage of CRM, analytics and marketing automation tools which allow for the creation and re-use of data, rather than (for example) creative and time-intensive Facebook campaigns that don’t.

ii) Discovery-Driven Marketing

The other thing that Netflix is good at is connecting me to great content, regardless of who created it or where it was originally from. As well an enjoying Netflix Originals like House of Cards, I’m also a sucker for most things from the BBC archive. Yes, I’m fairly sure that I could watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip on BBC iPlayer, but Netflix serves it up just as easily, with its uncanny knack of suggesting I watch it.

Netflix does great ‘discovery.’ It removes a lot of the friction from how I plan my TV viewing: I don’t need to spend much time hopping from one place to the next figuring out what to watch with my pizza. Netflix is something like a ‘universal search’ tool for the world’s film and TV – and if it doesn’t have what I’m looking for then it’ll give me a next best bet on what it thinks I might like.

Finding stuff more easily, helping me connect more easily to my next read, is a simple point – but the underlying requirement for traditional publishers is complex.

How much time do you spend marketing your back catalogue? (Netflix’s business is based almost entirely on back catalogue content, by the way. New isn’t always best.) For those of you that do make that investment, how much of this is done across different genres and imprints? And if you wanted to do more of it, how connected are your teams, your marketing plans, and your processes? How much of your inventory potential is locked up in your organisational silos?

That’s a lot to chew on. Hence, tip #2 is to focus your efforts on decoupling your people, data, plans and campaigns from specific authors and imprints so that you can find ways to enhance the book ‘discovery’ process – and connect readers to the broadest possible range of books.

Technology can be a great enabler here, given the right data to work with. If your content is organised and published in an agnostic way (agnostic to imprint, agnostic to marketing channel) then it becomes a lot easier to abstract it and re-compile it in new, more compelling discovery environments than a dusty old web page hidden in the depths of your web site. (Or, somebody else’s site.)

Your stock of content (books, covers, interviews, videos, Q&As, etc) can then be syndicated more easily to connect with readers in specialist community apps like Litsy, Goodreads, Bookbub and other emerging, digital-first services. It can also be deployed across alternative communications platforms like Facebook Messenger. (BookBot, anybody?)

In summary, the rest of the internet may turn out to be your friend if you’re able to re-focus your marketing efforts. You have what the web needs – an evergreen entertainment product. Your job is to turn as many of your processes into data-driven processes, and then use this intelligence to help your readers to discover what they are looking for.

Author: Roger Warner
Twitter: @thebookseller
Source: http://www.thebookseller.com

Young readers ditch eBooks

229965_54_news_hub_192263_656x500.jpegNew figures show that readers are migrating away from eBooks and that physical sales are on the rise again.

More than 360 million books were sold in the UK last year – that’s 2% more than 2015.

While the amount spent by readers increased by 6% – passing the £100m (€115m) mark.

Nielsen data, quoted in The Guardian found that electronic books sales fell by 4% as readers put down their Kindles and iPhones and returned to traditional books.

This was the second year in a row in which electronic sales have fallen.

Sales through brick and mortar shops increased by 7%.

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The report notes that this comes as sales of books aimed at young people have increased – surprisingly these titles have been particularly popular in their physical forms as these digital natives take a break from their devices.

“We are seeing that books are a respite, particularly for young people who are so busy digitally,” Steve Bohme, research director at Nielsen Book Research UK said.

“Over the last few years we have seen a return to favouring print, partly from what is really successful, this year being non-fiction and children’s books,” he continued, adding that a spike in demand for adult colouring books has also contributed to this shift.

Down to Business recently sat down with a panel of independent Irish booksellers – they reported that their sales have been experiencing steady year-on-year increases.

Author: Joseph Conroy
Twitter: @josephconroy
Source: http://www.newstalk.com