BLOG: Reading the future
13.06.08 | Doug Wallace
Publishing is a risky business. Book commissioning is a peculiar form of gambling involving high risks and occasionally yielding big rewards.
When editors publicly recount the publishing story behind “surprise bestsellers”, they often cite ‘gut instinct’ as the main factor in their most decision-making process. After this they will usually namecheck Nielsen BookScan to show that they’ve done their research and round things up by saying that the book was actually a great success because it was similar to something else successful already published or that no one else was publishing anything like it. Both final statements contain their own self-justifying logic, but it is hardly scientific.
In short, do publishers routinely base their most important decisions on gut instinct and a cursory look at the sales performance of similar titles in the market? Are publishing decisions largely emotionally driven and therefore inherently riskier than decisions based on solid market research?
The Bookseller’s decided to mark its 150th birthday by commissioning the Reading the Future report into the reading behaviours of Britons today and tomorrow to add some empirical evidence into the mix and see if publishers and booksellers were meeting the needs of readers today.
The report was put together by William Higham of Next Big Thing and involved a sixteen question, clipboard survey of over 1000 adults across the country to gauge their attitude towards a variety of issues including their present browsing habits to the future of bookshops. The report was presented on Thursday (12th June) at the Reading the Future conference at the London Stock Exchange.
The report was well received and had raised lots of interesting conclusions, especially about what motivates people to buy at the point of sale. Higham is, in his own words, a “publishing outsider” and so was occasionally greeted by sighs when he laboured obvious findings from the report like “predominantly women read chick lit”, “why not try selling cookbooks in food shops”, or my personal favourite “don’t market books to non-readers: they don’t buy books”. But overall all I think it was the right choice to commission the research from someone unconnected with publishing. It certainly lent a fresh perspective to the proceedings.
You can order the full report from The Bookseller [see below], but I just noted down a few short points that I took away from the presentation.
In his overview of the current situation, Higham flagged up Britain’s increasingly “design-literate” consumers as something that should be used more by publishers to drive sales.
As someone who works with graphic novels I am aware of just how design-conscious and highly visually-literate British readers are.
Similarly Higham confirmed the gut feeling that certain types of non-traditional marketing is by far the best way to reach non-traditional book buyers. It was a simple point, but it is always good to have things backed up with independent research.
The youngest group of readers questioned were from a group that Higham termed "Millennials" (18 to 25 year olds) and he emphasised that it was their reading habits and not those of "Generation X" who would decide the fortunes of bookshops and the way in which content is delivered by publishers.
Possibly, it was because the report did not include under 18s that the Millenials were singled out in the report as the "future of reading". I can’t help but feel that it is the reading culture of the even younger “Bebo generation”, for whom networking sites and handheld devices are a part of everyday life, who will define the future of reading. Until more research on these readers is published The National Literacy Trust’s recent survey on Young people's self-perceptions as readers provides an useful complement to the Bookseller’s research.
One of the other interesting points raised by panellist Seni Glaister (The Book People) following the presentation concerned the truthfulness of respondents when asked to describe their reading habits.
Do people pretend to buy more books than they actually do? Do they like literary fiction or do they think that excluding it from their response makes them look stupid. It is something that made me pause when looking at some of the results and reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent TED talk the difficulties of market research, admittedly he is talking about spaghetti sauce but the principle is the same.
The most interesting thing for me was something that was mentioned in passing by Higham, in relation to new forms of consumer power. It was the rise of Tuangou or “crowd buying” in Asia. Tuangou involves a group a like-minded consumers descending on a retailer en masse with the intention of buying the same product and negotiating a massively discounted bulk purchase.
I can imagine Foyles hosting a “Tuangou hour” where huge crowds would be encouraged to descend on Charing Cross Road and haggle with Jonathan Ruppin to secure a "Buy 100 Get 100 Free" deal or a mass "300 for 200" offer on any titles in store? If Tuangou could be harnessed for an author signing then everyone would be happy.
Reading the Future is researched and written by consumer research and future trends consultancy Next Big Thing in association with The Bookseller. The project is sponsored by software company IBS Bookmaster. The 53-page report is available to buy for £195 (£229 inc VAT).
The report is launching Thursday 19th June 2008. To order your copy of Reading the Future today contact Sally Greetham on +44 20 7420 6028 email: firstname.lastname@example.org