Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What We Learn from California's Colbert Bump

No algorithm is capable of out selling an influential human being.

More like TusCAN'T milk.
I suppose I could just leave it at that, but the implications of that, actually pretty goddamn obvious, truth have a lot to say about the nature and state of bookselling and some of the ways online only retail in general and Amazon in particular weaken the books industry even when they aren't actively trying to tear it to shreds in order to sell Tuscan milk.

As a bookseller, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to sell books, and as a marketing manager for a bookstore with an active social media presence I also think a lot about how media sell books. There is a ton of fluidity and plenty of idiosyncrasy in the world of getting books to readers, but over the years, I've only seen one consistent, proven, technique for creating significant book sales; an influential person tells other people to buy a specific book in a specific place. That formula actually has a lot of different permutations and hashing them out tells us a lot about how people buy books, where, and why.

In terms of California, the influential person was Stephen Colbert (with an assist from Sherman Alexie), the specific book was California, and the specific place was Powell's. California debuted (Hi, Stephen. You know, my publisher was in conflict with Amazon before it was cool and I have a debut novel coming out in March, if you wanted to, you know, transfer your sticking it to the Bezos from The Colbert Report to late night.) on the bestseller list because Colbert influences millions of people, but also because the structure of the influence was easy to enact. Everyone who wanted to act on their respect for Colbert had a simple, direct, and satisfying action to take. A couple clicks and they had participated in a communal action they could specifically identify. It's important to think about this in contrast to another way Colbert might have entered the Amazon vs Hachette fray. What kind of sales would we have seen if Colbert had asked his viewers to support their local independent bookstore? My guess: none or damn close to none.

If I don't buy this, Oprah will never be my friend.
Sure, there would have been a great link on Perhaps they would have somehow incorporated the Indiebound store finder. It could have been a weekly campaign with Colbert consistently highlighting the benefits of shopping local in general and at local bookstores specifically. Hell, he could have devoted a month to supporting bookstores and I don't think you would have seen the same total number of books sold at indie stores through his efforts match the number of sales of California at Powell's alone. There is a ton of behavioral psychology surrounding all of these issues, but it all comes down to two simple fact: the more steps it takes to buy a book the fewer books will be bought and if people don't know what book they want a website will not be able to sell them a book at all.

With The Colbert Bump, readers were told what book they wanted (by both Colbert and Sherman Alexie) and were given a two step process (click link on and buy book) to buy it and the result is a debut novel (by a former bookseller, so another argument is made for the follow up MFA vs NYC vs ABA essay collection) lands on the New York Times bestseller list.

But this mechanism works in other permutations as well. Porter Square Books was able to sell over 5,000 copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane because an influential person, in this case the author himself Neil Gaiman, told everyone to buy a specific book, which just happened to be his own, at a specific place, It also scales down quite nicely. The Song of Achilles has been out in hardcover for over two years and we still sell a copies of the hardcover every few months online, because a specific influential person, in this case the Orange Prize winning author Madeline Miller, tells everyone to buy a specific book, autographed copies of The Song of Achilles, at a specific place, again, And, of course, this can scale down even further. On every shift at the store, an influential person, me being influential because I am a bookseller at Porter Square Books, tells someone, whoever has asked for help, to buy a specific book, whatever book I recommend, from a specific place, the cash register right over there.

Tuscan milk makes my ennui angry
Sure the nature of “influential” is fluid. Sometimes the influential person is a celebrity like Oprah, or a big name author like Gaiman, but the “influential” person could also be, “that cute guy I see on the train every morning who always looks really into whatever he's reading and he was reading this book called Everything Matters! that looked kind a cool,” or your friend who's a high school English teacher or the bookseller at your favorite store, or The New York Times Book Review or Bookslut or The Millions or largehearted boy or Smart Bitches, or whatever. Regardless of who the influential person is the effective process is this same: this book out of all the shmillions of books in the world is the one I think you want and this specific place out of all the shmillions of specific places is the place to get it and if we happen to be online here is a direct link to that book at the specific place so you just have to click “Add to Cart.”

What is interesting about this process is that, as far as I can tell, retail websites don't seem to have any influence at all. All of the store's staff picks are listed on our website and I always share the picks on social media. They're also all tagged by genre and by bookseller. And yet, though staff picks are very successful in the store, our influence as booksellers, even when named, doesn't seem to transfer to online sales. Staff picks don't sell any better than any other books on our website. In some ways it's obvious why this is; people generally don't go to websites to find a book, they go to websites to buy the book they want.

Online retail is great at capturing sales, but rubbish at creating sales. Perhaps no entity knows this better than Amazon. That's why they have affiliate sales, why the include customer reviews, and why they publish a bestseller list. All of these are attempts to leverage influence for their own sales. But, unlike many physical bookstores, Amazon, for the most part, doesn't have any influence of its own. It doesn't have a staff of influencers able to convert a “maybe I want a book” to “I'm going to buy this book,” or change “I want a copy of The Goldfinch,” to “I want a copy of “The Goldfinch and I just learned from that guy that the new Elizabeth Gilbert, out in paperback, has actually been getting great reviews so I'll buy that too.” So the result of fewer bookstores is going to be fewer overall book sales. The good news here: the number of bookstores is growing again.

So I like to find practical things to do from these explorations and what stands out to me, as the biggest lesson for books from California's Colbert bump, is that the book industry needs more influencers. I'd be interested to see a chart that tracks declining book sales with declining book coverage in newspapers and other local media. Many readers will put in the effort to find a book to read, but many won't. If there isn't someone telling them to buy a specific book, they won't buy any book at all. I mean, I still get customers who show up with CAPSULE REVIEWS CUT OUT OF MAGAZINES to buy the reviewed book. What is the actionable lesson from California's Colbert bump (and from the years with and without an Oprah's book club)? Publishers large and small should establish a non-profit trust or fund that supports book coverage in newspapers, magazines, and local media. They pay in some amount (take it out of your marketing budget) and that money subsidizes, or downright pays for, book coverage. In order for this to work, the fund would have to have no control over the content of the coverage, and thus, it would be impossible for any one publisher to track a solid ROI on the project, but I believe it would increase book sales overall, while strengthening our literary culture and that is good for everyone, bookstores (including Amazon), publishers (including Amazon), writers, readers, and citizens.

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