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Survey says . . .
22.10.09 | Tom Tivnan
If you want help to sell your book, do not rely on Twitter or other social networking sites. That was one of the major findings of Lovereading' and Book Marketing Limited's recent wide-ranging survey into the book-buying habits and reading behaviour of its members.
When historians look back on 2009 they may call it "Year of the Tweets". Twitter—the social networking site where users update their status in 140 characters or fewer—truly came of age in the past 12 months, firmly planting itself in the public consciousness, with politicians and celebrities making headlines on the back of their musings on the site.
Publishing PR machines, hungry to harness the most recent social networking phenomenon, have been keen to use Twitter. In August, Philippa Gregory tweeted a serialisation of her bestselling The White Queen for Simon & Schuster, while Faber author R N Morris did the same for his crime novel A Gentle Axe.
There have been some high--profile immediate Twitter-boosted sales increases. When Jonathan Ross launched his Twitter book club in May, the book discussed Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats, had a 4,000% uplift in sales that week. Just last month, Stephen Fry—who has 750,000 followers of his Twitter feed—tweeted about David Eagleman's Sum (Canongate), which subsequently zoomed up Amazon's book charts some 250,000%.
Canongate m.d. Jamie Byng was certainly impressed by the power of tweeting. He said at the time: "Sum's had great [print] reviews, but none of them have even had a fraction of the effect that Stephen Fry had, even if you took all of them together . . . This is a lesson in how you can publish a book in a less conventional way, and suddenly it's paying dividends."
Yet, despite these successes, the book-buying public may be largely immune to suggestions from Twitter, Facebook and other sites. In a Lovereading survey of more than 1,300 of its members, conducted by BML, book-lovers gave a resounding thumbs down to social networking sites, with only 3% seeing them as "extremely useful" places they would go to for recommendations on which books to read next. Twitter itself was only hailed by 2% of respondents.
Instead, respondents said they actively seek out more authentic expert views on the web from author websites as trusted independent sources of guidance (20% of respondents found them extremely useful), retailer websites (17%) and publisher websites (13%).
In addition, when asked where they find out about the latest books, the web was the most used (56% said they used it often), while browsing in shops (53%) came a close second. But reviews in newspapers (39%) and email newsletters scored highly as well. Perhaps a significant finding—given the amount publishers spend on outdoor advertising—is that at the other end of the scale, only 5% of respondents said they often looked at posters.
"In one way the research findings support the more ‘traditional' view that is held about book lovers," says Peter Crawshaw, Lovereading's co-founder and director. "What is interesting, however, is the high level of independence shown by them in the sourcing of authentic expert views on what they might like to read next. It also points to the ‘Stephen Fry/Jonathan Ross Twitter effect' as being the exception rather than the rule." Indeed, Ross' club has been defunct since July.
Demographics and methodology
Lovereading was set up by Crawshaw, Louise Weir and Hugh Salmon in 2005 as a site "by book lovers for book lovers". It recommends books, serving as a channel between publishers and readers, has price comparisons for other online e-tailers (even if cheaper elsewhere), and offers free opening extracts of novels.
For the report, 54,000 of Lovereading's 150,000 members were invited to participate in BML's online survey, of which there were over 1,300 respondents. The participants were overwhelmingly female (84%), the majority were over 35 (62%) with almost half (46%) falling within the 35–54 age bracket. The gender split is far greater than UK book buyers as a whole, but according to Books & the Consumer 2008–09, BML's survey of the industry published -earlier this year, women constitute the majority of book buyers (55%). And the Lovereading survey age ranges chime somewhat with British book buyers; BML found that 72% of book buyers were over the age of 35. The Lovereading survey's geographic- spread was almost in line with the UK population as a whole (32% in the south, 21% from the Midlands, 29% in the north), while 15% of the sample came from outside Britain. Just over 25% of respondents have children aged 16 or younger in the home, slightly down from the UK population as a whole (32%).
Weighted towards heavy book buyers
Perhaps not unexpectedly, since respondents are Lovereading members, the survey was weighted towards heavy book buyers and readers. A whopping 64% read 21 books or more last year; only 15% said they read fewer than 11. Sixty-three percent bought more than 11 books last year, while 38% said they bought more than 21. Paperbacks were the overwhelming format of choice (87%), while only 10% said they favoured hardbacks. A very small percentage were fans of audiobooks and e-books, 2% and 1% respectively.
The UK is the most connected country in Europe. According to web traffic monitoring service Nielsen Online, we spend longer online (almost 30 hours per week) than any other European population, and there are 48.7 million regular internet users in the UK, or just under 80% of the population. This is a dramatic rise from the turn of this century when 15.4 million, or 26% of the population, used the internet. Unsurprisingly, Britain is increasingly looking to shop online. E-tailers chalked up £13.16bn in sales in the fourth quarter of 2008, a 15% jump on the previous year, despite the recession.
As might be expected of an online survey of members of a books-focused website, respondents are fairly tech savvy and shop online. Bricks-and-mortar bookshops were still the number one place for getting books (75%), however, but internet closely followed at 72%.
The three main drivers of those choosing to use the internet for book purchases should come as no great shock and are the most difficult for physical bookshops to match: price, convenience and range. Just over 80% of respondents said price and convenience drove them to e-tailers, while 69% flagged up range as a major reason (see chart 4). Interestingly, reviews from other readers (32%) and extra content (28%), two areas which Amazon in particular flags up as reasons for customers returning to the e-tailer, were less valued.
Amazon was unsurprisingly the overwhelmingly leading e-tailer.- Of heavier book buyers (six or more books purchased in the past six months), 94% had used Amazon, while Lovereading was next with 55%. Just under half had used Waterstones.co.uk, with Abebooks (22%), The Book Depository (18%), Borders.co.uk (18%) and W H Smith (16%) trailing by some distance.
Drilling down into why customers chose Amazon reveals some more complex answers. Yes, price remains the leading driver, with 58% flagging it up, while cheaper delivery (46%) and special offers/discounts (41%) were also noted. Yet "habit" is another major reason, cited by 40% of respondents. Amazon works to keep its customers coming back, but clearly its position as the first and best-known book retailer feeds into why customers continue to return.
Crawshaw says: "It's not surprising that Amazon scores so highly at the moment but it's encouraging that as online behaviour matures, content and user experience will clearly start to influence readers' choices more."
While by its very nature an online survey garners a relatively tech-friendly pool of respondents, it is perhaps revealing that e-books were still not overly popular with Lovereading members. As mentioned above, just 1% stated that e-books were their favoured book format. Just 19% had downloaded an e-book, but 65% said they were aware of e-books, but had not downloaded any. Interestingly, of those who have downloaded an e-book, the majority (53%) have used a laptop or computer rather than a dedicated e-book device (22%), iPhone (7%) or other mobile (3%).
What is crystal clear from the research is that publishers have to tackle the perception of e-book pricing. For the moment at least, UK publishers seem adamant that digital books should be in line with hardback prices. This has led to some circumstances that must be perplexing to the consumer. The print version of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol has been available for under £10 at many outlets and as low as £4.99 on Amazon and Asda. Yet the e-book was selling for £15.19. Looking at the data in this survey, publishers either need to convince the public why they should pay a premium for e-books, or pricing needs to be adjusted: a whopping 87% of respondents expect e-books to cost less than printed books.
This is not new, and has even chimed with research that Crawshaw did more than a decade ago. He says: "When the first e-book reader, The Rocket e-Book, was produced in 1998, I did research that showed that for e-books to be successful they needed to be 25% to 50% of the price of the physical equivalent and I am glad to see that the UK reading public's view has remained unchanged. And if publishers put themselves in readers' shoes for one second they would see the light as well."
On a more positive note, the notion of paying for content and the sanctity of copyright seem to be filtering through. Only 5% of people surveyed expected e-books to be obtained for free. Just over 40% of people expected- to always pay for digital downloads, although a similar percentage said they thought e-books should be "sometimes pay, sometimes free".
It would be perhaps overstating things to say that the Lovereading/BML survey is a definitive indication of UK book-buying patterns, in particular because of the gender split. But, as these are the book trade's core cus-tomers—heavy book buyers, committed and passionate about reading—the findings bear close scrutiny. Questions raised—Do social networking sites really work? Where to go with e-book pricing? How best to engage with customers online?—should give publishers and booksellers much to ponder.
Is there really wisdom in crowds? By Peter Crawshaw
The internet enables anyone to publish anything instantly. It also lets everyone have a say. Content that exists on the web or in the real world will quickly find itself subject to comment from people online. It's a lot like flies vomiting on every piece of food in the kitchen.
According to one recent theory, this snowballing of information and opinion is wholly positive. Tim O'Reilly, a poster-boy for the web 2.0 age, argues that book publishers ought to capitalise on the phenomena. The expanding cloud of content will be organised and ranked by the democracy of the web. Mass collaborative projects will produce bang up to date guides to any subject in a matter of hours.
I can see how crowd-sourcing is a powerful tool for whipping up technical manuals and reference books, and an interesting source of creativity too. But I don't think it has a place where quality of thought and expression is important, and this means most literature and literary criticism. As Evgeny Morozov, the academic and blogger who writes on the implications of the internet, lucidly pointed out, the self-assembled knowledge of the crowd is "usually neutral and value free. Assigning value to this knowledge is still expensive and cannot be automated".
The truth is that 99% of the stuff on the web is drivel, written by people with little experience in the area they're holding forth about. (Pauses and waits for brickbat blogs and Tweets to tell me I'm an idiot . . .)
Quantity is no substitute for expertise.
Newspaper and magazine circulation may have fallen since the rise of the internet, but it's fallen far less in areas of journalism where there is very palpable quality, specialist concentration, or both.
The same will become true online as content grows exponentially. To read gazillions of anonymous web contributions yourself will give you a headache and leave you confused. As good as Google or any search engine is at delivering relevant results, people will look to find "voices" on the net they can trust. People they can relate to and rely on to "editorialise" for them.
All of us look for guidance to form opinions and make decisions, and we look for "authenticity" in the source. Readers are no different. This is why reading thousands of book reviews doesn't help you figure out if you're going to enjoy a book, but a few trusted opinions might. Our goal at Lovereading is to be one of the useful "voices".
Richard and Judy have come and gone. Without a high-profile guide to the sometimes overwhelming choice of literature, it's possible many thousands more readers will look to the web for help. If we're lucky some actual book experts like Sarah Broadhurst and Julia Eccleshare will gather more followers.
Because, when it comes to literature, some views are more valuable than others.
Why join the Twitterati? By Graeme Neill
Though the Lovereading research shows that its respondents do not value Twitter as a recommendation tool, perhaps its effectiveness cannot be measured strictly in pure sales terms. It can be a tool to connect with a specific community, liaising with other publishers and to get feedback instantly.
As Twitter has gained a foothold online, more and more publishers are using it as a way to publicise themselves and their titles. Penguin, HarperCollins, Faber, Profile and Random House are among UK publishers regularly twittering. "Twitter's good, very simply, at connecting people," says Joe Pickering, Penguin press officer and @Joethepublicist. "I've found journalists, reviewers and bloggers who are into very specific things, such as American fiction or short stories, and been able to contact them directly about books. I've got national reviews out of this, and been able to start and see discussions about my books happening, which is very gratifying."
Finding and building relationships is also one of the main reasons HarperCollins operates its own account. Corporate communications assistant Lana Beckwith (@HarperCollins) says the feed now has more than 2,000 followers. "It's a fantastic way of keeping up with what people are reading and what they're thinking about publishing in general, be it books or digital products," she says.
Beckwith adds that the real-time nature of Twitter is also appealing. "The ‘immediate' nature of Twitter means that you're always tuned in to current trends, and your consumers are tuned in to what you're doing too."
This is a view shared by Pickering. "You find out about things first," he says. "I knew that thelondonpaper was closing before anyone else in the PR department, for instance, because I was looking at Twitter when it was announced. It seems to me the fastest news source out there."
1 Factors that influence reading choices
2 Usefulness for latest book information
3 Where readers obtain books
4 Reasons for using internet over shops
5 Expected cost of downloaded book vs physical book
6 Devices used to read downloaded books