Why online book discovery is broken (and how to fix it)

Figuring out how to get their books discovered online isn’t a new problem for publishers, but it’s one that is becoming more pressing as channels and competition proliferate. New research shows that frequent book buyers visit sites like Pinterest and Goodreads regularly, but those visits fail to drive actual book purchases.
Sixty-one percent of book purchases by frequent book buyers take place online, but only seven percent of those buyers said they discovered that book online, while physical book stores account for 39 percent of units sold and 20 percent of discovery share: the stats come by way of new research from Peter Hildick-Smith, the founder and CEO of the Codex Group, which tracks frequent readers’ book-buying behavior. At the Digital Book World conference in New York on Thursday, he said that discovery and availability are being “decoupled” online. In other words, readers are likely to go online to buy a book after having learned about it elsewhere.
This wouldn’t be such a problem for the publishers and authors who want their books to be discovered if readers weren’t migrating their book-buying (both print and digital) online, but they are. Amazon.com (s AMZN) accounted for over 25 percent of all book sales between January and September 2012 and 30 percent of dollars spent on books, Bowker research in another panel showed. Further, former Borders customers shifted their book-buying online and primarily to Amazon — not to other physical bookstores — when Borders went bankrupt. All together, this means that readers who would once have discovered a new author by browsing in a physical bookstore might never encounter that author now. (The shift to online buying presents particular difficulties for nonfiction: Twice as many works of nonfiction are sold in physical stores as online.)
“Something is really, chronically missing in online retail discovery,” Hildick-Smith said. But what might that something be? It’s not as if book buyers aren’t using online sites like Pinterest, Google and Goodreads — they are, but as the slide below shows, those sites simply aren’t converting to actual book purchases. (Note that apples aren’t compared to apples here: Amazon is compared to “Internet booksellers,” for example, and Goodreads is compared to “book-related websites.” What this is means is that the actual percentage of book purchases driven by any single site are even lower.)

© The Codex Group 2013, reproduced with permission and not for reproduction.

So how can book discovery improve and what can publishers do? A few ideas presented throughout the day:

Publishers should do more to protect physical bookstores

“Physical retail works if you protect it,” Hildick-Smith said. “Movie producers do [protect movie theaters]. I would argue publishers are not doing enough to help bookstores.”
In another panel, Michael Cader, the founder of PublishersMarketplace.com, noted that a lot of online book discovery (especially through Amazon) is driven by sales like the Kindle Daily Deal. “Price has been a big driver for online and particularly for ebooks,” he said. “Price innovation is what’s driving those markets. We haven’t seen price innovation at physical retail. Where are the daily deals in the physical bookstore?” He suggested that publishers, authors and retailers could work together to provide those deals.

New players in book retail

Simon Lipskar, the president of literary agency Writers House, imagined a possible outcome of the Random House-Penguin merger: “I would be totally shocked and actually completely disappointed if this merger did not lead to a serious entry into book retail,” he said. “We should not be surprised if that is physical retail as well as online retail.”
Hildick-Smith separately warned that entering digital book retail is very, very expensive. “The bar has been raised stratospherically high,” he said. “It’s big-stakes stuff. The biggest companies on the planet are wrestling for our little piece of turf.” But Random House Penguin might be large enough to stand a chance of competing against Amazon, Apple (s AAPL) and Google (s GOOG) on ebooks.

Amp up the reader reviews

As bookstores go away, “we need more powerful book reviewers online,” said Matthew Baldacci, VP and associate publisher at St. Martin’s, in a panel on discovery. He was referring not to professional reviewers for outlets like the New York Times but citizen reviewers with a role similar to “the role that booksellers used to take…if we’re forced into a situation where physical bookstores are going away, then we have to have these people who are help us sell our books.”
Allison Underwood, senior marketing manager at Open Road, underscored the importance of online reviews for books. The company has run “what we considered to be really strong online promotions,” but if the reader reviews on retail sites aren’t there to back the promotions up, they can fall flat. “You can have a really grand online campaign that gets the user right there, but then [a lack of reviews] can shut them down really quickly,” she said, to the point where “a red flag goes up and says, ‘Maybe you don’t actually want to buy this book.'”
For more on book discovery, see this follow-up post: Here’s the problem with book publishers’ discovery problem 
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Borys Shevchuk