Selling books online

In a round-up of several panels and educational sessions that took place last week at BookExpo America, paidContent's Laura Hazard Owen covered a presentation by Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. Hildick-Smith conducts an annual survey of book buyers to establish patterns in how people discover what they read.

As reported by Owen, the number of people saying that they found a book in a physical bookstore has dropped from 31% in 2010 to 17% in 2012. Hildick-Smith suggests that this trend hurts book sales, as physical bookstores are thought to spur impulse purchases.

The (tentative) conclusion, that "online solutions … aren't yet doing the trick for discoverability", is a natural extension of Hildick-Smith's data. The question I want to ask is, "Why not?"

Here, I'm using personal experience to develop a hypothesis. Physical bookstores encourage browsing. Most books are not wrapped; the few that are typically offer a display copy.

Even the smaller stores seem to be able to squeeze in a chair or two to accommodate a more lengthy read. Some patrons seem to spend all day doing this.

Book covers are available in high resolution and (get this!) at full size. They even catch your eye. Some publishers value these enough that they pay to have their books covers facing out.

Every book has a table of contents. Many have indexes. Readers can look at an index and refer to parts of the book at no cost. This is not thought to hurt sales.

Perhaps my point is obvious by now. "Online solutions" may not be doing the trick because publishers won't support online discovery in ways that apparently work in physical environments. We limit what people can see. We are spotty in including tables of contents, and many digital products omit the index entirely. Cover art is often an afterthought.

Before we lament the poor job that online retailers do marketing books, we might look inside and see if we're doing anything to hamstring access to and the value of digital content. And here's the hypothesis: we are.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.