To all the book publishers out there, I hope your January kick-off meetings went well. No doubt they were filled with colourful PowerPoints, messy white walls and a bunch of inspiring mission statements.
Mine were also great, thank you - thanks, in part, to the R&R afforded by the lull between Christmas and New Year. And with ample opportunity for beer and crisps on the couch, I started watching old black and white movies whilst my son upped his kill ratio on the PlayStation. Netflix recommended Casablanca...
It's a great film isn't it? The ending always gets me. Ingrid Bergman is waiting on the steps of the plane for Bogart, her one true love. Humph doesn't join her, and then she doesn't want to get on. It all gets painful and then Humph gives her those magical lines: "If you don't get on that plane you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."
But Humph is Humph and he has other things to pursue. A golden opportunity is missed. We all know that Humph and Ingrid were made for one another and that it would have worked out just fine. This got me thinking about book publishing and the work we do here at Squiz with clients like Hachette in the US, Elsevier in Europe and Oxford University Press in Australia.
Book publishers, especially at this time of year, are faced with an abundance of opportunity. Exciting things. New partnerships ("Amazon, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.") New formats. ("2017 will be a breakout year for augmented reality adult colouring books.") New delivery models. ("This year, let's do a Soundcloud and stream chapter updates each day.") New consumer engagement strategies. ("No, Soundcloud won't work for us. Let's be more like Uber and focus on real-time, geo-located reader experiences.")
Some of these plans may work out. Many will lead to heartbreak. Most of them will be in pursuit of 'the new', just like Humph.
At the same time, we learned earlier this week that Allromance.com, one of the biggest genre eBook distributors in the US, has closed its doors - despite (allegedly) delivering annual profits since its inception in 2006. Meanwhile, last year Amazon launched its new luxury version of the Kindle retailing at £270 (as an upgrade for folks who already own the old plastic version). That device market is saturated and declining. All the recent industry numbers tell us that eBook sales are down between 12-14%, and all the analysts are telling us that sales of regular books are now back in the black and rising.
As we start the new year it strikes me that most publishers are stuck on a treadmill, running as fast as they can towards an ill-defined digital nirvana that is consistently beyond their reach, whilst at the same time scrambling to make good on their six or seven figure author advances for new titles. This results in a couple of things: they can't step off, they have to try to maximise the value of the new and, consequently, they're unable to look behind and reap the rewards of their main assets - the evergreen back list of old titles that readers continue to devour.
Putting our futurology specs aside for a moment, this treadmill effect doesn't make great sense. Recent Squiz research into what today's readers want - via a survey of thousands - told us three things: firstly, they wish to feel closer to their authors; secondly they want access to more content that's related to their books; and thirdly they need more books. This shouldn't be surprising - selling more books to people who already buy books is a boundless marketing strategy. Whizzy new digital formats and 'newness' of titles are not prime concerns.
So, why can't book publishers find the right kind of love for the books that they're already with?
(There was I, yelling at the TV: STICK WITH HER HUMPH! GET ON THE PLANE!! PLEASE JUST GET ON THE GODDAM PLANE!!!)
Chances are that some publishers will have sat through a meeting this week where this job of back list promotion is pegged for someone else - a digital native like a BookBub or a Bookperk, who act as a clearing house for old stock. But then again I'm 100% sure that all publishers will also be planning to do more in the way of reader acquisition, to enable them to build stronger consumer relationships so that they can acquire more purchasing data and influence the book buying process in ways that aren't dependent on a third party. This is definitely a smart thing to do. No publisher wants to be cut out of the loop. Amazon is too powerful to rely on. Other digital upstarts are too unpredictable. The ultimate nightmare is a disruptive, uncontrollable digital future where a publisher simply doesn't know its own customer.
Perhaps a good example to follow in 2017 is Netflix.
Netflix's technology investment isn't in dazzling new formats, it's in the underlying technology that delivers its content. (Yes, it was Netflix that recommended Casablanca to me - thanks to Mrs Warner's obsession with Mr. Bogart and Clark Gable.) Netflix excels at two key things that ought to be a publisher's bread and butter: personalisation and recommendation.
These two technology staples aren't all that glamorous any more, but done well they fuel the discovery (and consumption) process for millions of content-hungry people. And the beauty of a well-designed discovery platform (once a little bit of automation wizardry is thrown in to the mix) is that it gets stronger and smarter over time, providing users with more and more of the good stuff, which is often the old stuff, which we all return to day after day to buy, watch and read.
I'd love to see more publishers change their script this year and, unlike Humph, get back with their old flames and get on the plane.