What we've learnt about lockdown reading

The past few months have restricted physical access to bookshops, interrupted supply chains and created a raft of logistical complexities for the publishing industry. Even with restrictions easing, traditional consumer marketing and PR are trickier to execute safely. However, our data at The Pigeonhole over the past few months demonstrates that readers are embracing digital in a big way.

Launched in 2014, The Pigeonhole is on online book club which serialises books and hosts an interactive, review-driven community that discusses the books, both on the app and through Google Hangouts. In the past 12 months, we serialised 180 books for our community, including The Guest List by Lucy Foley, Double Agent by Tom Bradby, Buried by Lynda La Plante and Humankind by Rutger Bregman. We have over 12,000 active members including over 700 Amazon/Goodreads reviewers, and also provide book club services to schools and companies.

The good news for us, and the book industry in general, is that more time has been spent on our apps during lockdown than ever before. Engagement has increased by 80%, with more than one million monthly page swipes during the past four months. Demand for serialisation places has increased by 56%, and the average number of reviews has increased by 78% since late-March – now averaging 57 reviews per title (with that number regularly topping 100 in projects where the author has been a hands-on presence). Readers have also migrated to our digital book club to partake in an established reading community during this prolonged period of isolation.

Below are four key insights from this period that any author, publisher or bookseller can learn from.

1.    An author’s digital involvement moves the sales needle

Readers love it when authors take an active part in their digital serialisation, reading along with participants, responding to comments, and providing digital media to enrich their book’s digital edition. Our review figures correlate with the level of author involvement; a conversational author provides a more powerful message than a review request. The conversion rate is even higher for those readers who take part in our Google Hangout events with the author.

2.    Readers are not 9 - 5

The average length of a reading session has gone up by 60% to an average of 21 minutes. A lack of commuting has actually increased the length of time users are on the platform. Activity on the platform spikes at 5 - 7 am (even on the weekends) and again at 2 - 3 pm. There is a surge on Wednesday afternoon when we send our 12,000 strong userbase email exhibiting all our new books - many of which now often sell out within hours.

3.     It's time to take reader feedback seriously

With an average of over 1,000 comments per book on the platform, we get unique insights on the emotions that books generate. With some novels topping 4k comments, we have deployed machine learning tools and sentiment analysis to measure how comment tone influences completion rates and engagement. Whether it’s joy, fear or sadness, mapping readers’ emotional responses onto their subsequent reviews, purchase behaviour and author loyalty is a very powerful tool - for authors working on their next books, publishers considering their next commissions and publicists considering how to position their messaging. This should be part of every book person's toolkit.

4.    Digital non-fiction is consumed in a different way to digital fiction

To keep up with the increased demand for content from our community, we have started serialising non-fiction. With 2-3 nonfiction titles available each month, our understanding of how different genres are consumed is deepening. Broadly speaking, non-fiction serialisations have smaller groups, readers take longer to finish books, and the conversation is more considered. Readers are more likely to consume a non-fiction book over 20 days rather than the usual 10 for a fiction title, dipping in and out in a more staccato pattern.

23% of readers who completed our serialisation of Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, explicitly and unprompted, stated in our digital margins that they had evangelized about the book to colleagues, friends or family. Engagement counts.

So what does this mean for the next few months?

Consumers have been restricted to purchasing their reading content online, whether in print or e-book format, while also being demonstrably open to accessing content in new ways and through different mediums. After threatening to do so for many years, digital now does provide all the tools that enable authors to engage with new and existing audiences - with social video conferencing providing a key cherry on top.

Social media presence and a willingness to engage digitally have never been more crucial for authors trying to build their following. Thanks to interactive digital engagement, meaningful and insightful data is available that can show authors and publishers how their writing is impacting readers. And done in the right way, engaging through digital channels - in the world of Zoom - can synthesise the physical experience into something of real lasting value.

Jacob Cockcroft is the co-founder of The Pigeonhole.