Emma Barnes: Sell more books?

Emma Barnes: Sell more books?

The effort to expand an independent publisher's business has to be one of the trickiest endeavours out there. As Emma Barnes, one of The FutureBook's regular contributors and chief both of Bibliocloud and Snowbooks writes, "the answer is usually the same. Sell more books." But, as she writes, “'Selling more books' belongs to the same traditional school of publishing as scattergun throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks editorial listings, and pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap promotional offers." Instead, Barnes and her associates are contemplating an approach that focuses more sharply on relationships, with readers and with authors. "We have to be ready to put aside our own brand, which, let's face it, few people really care about anyway," she writes, "and put our efforts into building up the thing that readers are naturally interested in — the author." — Porter Anderson, associate editor

In the twelve years I’ve been running Snowbooks, we’ve done a lot of strategic planning. Every so often we sit down, surrounded by sales numbers, margin contribution analyses, stock counts and a head full of recent publishing and bookselling experiences, and have a think about where to steer the company next. 

Over the years, a set pattern has emerged. Total revenue usually hovers a hair’s breadth over total costs. Some books lose money. Other books do very well, and support the rest, as well as paying for non-book infrastructural costs. No one’s getting rich, though. And at the end of these introspective planning sessions, the answer is usually the same.

Sell more books. 

Imagine a control panel, with levers sticking out of it, a bit like inside the Tardis. It’s the control panel of your business. You can push the levers up and down to alter the balance of your costs and revenues, with the aim of increasing your overall cash margin. 

One lever is labelled “retail price”. Tug on that, and your prices go up — hooray! More money! But raise your prices, and at some point your sales volume drops. (Economists know this as the ‘price elasticity of demand’.) 

Next, you pull down a lever labelled “print costs”. The less you’re charged by the printers, the more money you’ll make, right? Well, sadly, printers have to pay for their own operations, and their paper, so whilst it’s a nice idea, in practice they’d go out of business if their prices dropped too much.

There’s another lever marked “discounts”, but it appears to be stuck on “high”. 

You could pull on the lever marked “author royalties”. But that’s like the UK government pulling down on their lever marked “welfare budget”. Reducing author royalties is not decent or kind.

The only lever left is the one marked “sales volume”. Leaning on that one often seems like the most realistic option.

If we sell more books, then the pitiful margin that we enjoy in a business oriented towards the trade paperback starts to add up. If we sell more books, then more readers have got our authors’ words in front of them, and we have more of a chance of getting some word of mouth going. If we sell more books, then booksellers have a history of our titles selling in volume, and are more likely to list our future titles. 

The means by which we attempt to sell more books has varied from year to year. We offer hefty discounts to the trade. We’ve bought space in store. We have, as fashions in bookselling shift, enjoyed participating in whatever promotional mechanics are du jour. We see if author events can shift more copies, and non-traditional channels to market. Some things work, some things don’t. We’ve certainly sold more books through employing these various approaches. 

But I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do. 

This year, our plan is different. Our focus isn’t on selling more books. This year, our focus is on selling books to people who really want them. Because what we really want are happy customers. 

It’s the same with my other business, Bibliocloud. We only sell user licenses to publishers who will feel the benefits of our system. We certainly never want to have to pitch our product. We work with people who “get it”; people who find inherent value in what we’re doing, who feel that our product is really helping them, who proselytise Bibliocloud to their friends in the trade. 

I know. Stop rolling your eyes. Obviously this is what every publisher wants to do: sell books to engaged people who are likely to spread the word. But from looking at my own and other publishers’ marketing efforts, we’re still scattergun in our methods, and we still have a publisher-oriented worldview. It’d be nice to be satisfying the pull of demand rather than trying to push books down the supply chain.

So how should we find customers with whom we’re a perfect match? There’s the usual toolkit. Cover designs that signpost the contents well. Recommendation engines, though they still feel a bit “push”y. I’d prefer us to be of the community, inked-in to the story of people’s lives, rather than droning “if-you-liked-that-you’ll-love-this” in a sort of sinister sales-robot voice.

Developing our own close relationship with our readers is high on the checklist. Snowbooks.com — completely automated by Bibliocloud, of course  — with its mailing list of interested signer-uppers, results in much more interaction than we get through the arm’s-length relationships we build via third party retailers. I had an order over our website the other day from a chap who, it turns out, collects hardbacks. We’ve swapped emails and I now know what he looks for in a book, what original print run size makes a book appealingly collectable, whether he prefers Wibalin or printed paper cases, and his views on slipcases and POD. All hugely valuable insights, straight from the horse’s mouth. But only the most extreme bibliophiles care about publishers.

Authors, on the other hand, have a natural and more widespread allure. Whilst they are technically our suppliers, it’s in our interests to help them to build their brand — which means supporting not only the books of theirs that we publish, but their entire careers. And so Snowbooks has an initiative planned for this coming year to do just that — watch this space and I’ll share how, as a small publisher, we’ll be using technology to build up authors’ money-making capabilities and brand. Helping to build our authors’ brands means readers have something more to engage with than a one-off book. And books by the same author are arguably more likely to be enjoyed by a reader than books by the same publisher — though of course it doesn’t always work out as neatly as that. We have to be ready to put aside our own brand, which, let's face it, few people really care about anyway, and put our efforts into building up the thing that readers are naturally interested in — the author. 

This sounds like it's no longer good enough to simply read a book — now we’re expecting people to engage with a wider project, to follow a movement, to seek out authors? But there are genres where people are genuinely interested in the wider scene and genuinely hungry for more. Take steam punk: a genre that Snowbooks publishes in with great success. (For the uninitiated, steampunk is a reimagining of the Victorian era, with rivets, fantastical engineering, and often a fair number of zombies and Martians.) steampunks, as our most fervent readers in this genre are known, dress up in leather, goggles and corsets. They go to cons. They watch steampunk movies, and listen to steampunk music, and dress their houses with steampunk paraphernalia. Finding the next great steampunk book is something they’re genuinely interested in — so rather than persuading them, we’re helping them. 

And that’s the real trick — to help people with something they’re already keen on, to provide solutions to their problems, rather than trying to drag them down a path they’re not particularly bothered about. It comes down in the end to that old-fashioned idea of publishing books that people actually want, and then signposting them appropriately. The first is an editorial problem, the second is a marketing problem. Neither can make a customer happy in isolation.  

As publishers, we have the double-edged sword of having many unique products a year: great if readers are always looking for a new delight, but difficult to grow a persistent brand. With Bibliocloud, on the other hand, I’m in the business of selling just one product over a long period of time. So we put out what amounts to our dating profile, to see if we can chance across our ideal match. We pepper the web with information about what we do, how we work, who we are. I do talks at conferences and events about our philosophies and points of view. We released an ebook called “Who does Bibliocloud help?”. We appear in places where people who we know we can make happy hang out. Crucially, we say a polite, early ‘no’ to publishers who we doubt we can help — even if they think we can. When our ideal customers are ready to buy from us, there we are, ready to help them. The parallels with successful publishing are overt: we have created a product that people want, and we provide clear signposts to it. 

“Selling more books” belongs to the same traditional school of publishing as scattergun throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks editorial listings, and pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap promotional offers. “Making people happy” may sound soft, but it’s a stronger, more long-term strategy. And, in any case, in the current gloomy political environment, making as many people as possible as happy as possible seems like a noble endeavour. 

If you want to hear more challenges to conventional ways of working, join me at the Oxford Publishing Group’s summer conference on June 28th, where we’ll hear from Philip Pullman, James Daunt, Charlie Redmayne and Eric Huang, as well as a host of other speakers. In particular, Pullman will talk about 'Authorship in a time of intolerance’, Redmayne will discuss 'Amplifying the author’s voice in an age of disruption’ and Daunt’s talk will be about 'The value of booksellers in a changing world’. Could you bear to miss that?

Main image - Pixabay: Geralt