What’s the impact of social media on book sales? Yesterday, The Bookseller co-hosted an event at YouTube looking at the ways the channel is influencing the business of books.
As Pete Stower, who works in the content partnerships at YouTube, said at the event: “People are uploading more and more video than ever – about 100 hours is uploaded every single minute. We are also watching more and more, watch time is growing 50% a year.” He commented: “To not have a strategy related to YouTube is a missed opportunity.”
But that does not mean it will be easy for publishers to come up with the right strategy. With so much new content uploaded every minute, the big questions are about how publishers differentiate their content, make it discoverable, and more importantly how they measure the return on investment. There are no simple answers to any of these questions.
YouTube has developed a sophisticated network of book-related content, which Jessica Elvidge creative strategist at YouTube, distilled into three categories: Book bloggers (or booktubers, as we learning to call them), book edutainment (for deeper analyses of book content), and book adaptions (shows based on classic literature). What is true (and perhaps also alarming to this audience), is just how much of this has been developed outside of the traditional publishing sector. Surprisingly, there was little mention of ‘book trailers’ once seen a major opportunity for publishers to bring their titles to life on YouTube, indicating just how swiftly this medium marches forwards.
The numbers for the booktubers are staggering. Booksandquills for example has 106,000 subscribers, and the channel has had 5.5m views. Booksandquills is, of course, Sanne Vliengenthart, now also digital coordinator Hot Key Books. What’s attractive about the booktubers, says Elvidge is their authenticity. They are spreading enthusiasm for the books they love to read - backlist, frontlist, even midlist. They live outside the ‘publishing pipe’ unlike more traditional book reviewers, and yet they speak to a demographic publishers have found hard to get to.
Speaking at the event, Naomi Bacon, digital publicist at Pan Macmillan, said the publisher was keen to work with booktubers, as part of its own YouTube reach-out Book Break, which up to now has adopted a more traditional format. Bacon said: “Book Break has been a real learning curve. One of the videos [from the show] which had the highest like and engagement was our in-house [book] recommendations. It showed there is a real appetite for people to see behind the scenes in the industry. We have been talking a lot about working with vloggers on a B2B approach. What can we learn from book tubers? It’s things like meeting with them face to face and bringing them in.”
Outside of the booktubers, Elvidge identified a strand she described as “book educators”, those who use books as the spring-board to a more educative discussion. She highlighted Crash Course, run by brothers Hank and John Green, who teach a variety of courses, including ‘world history’ and ‘psychology’. The channel has 2.3m subscribers. She also highlighted Thug Notes, a regular analysis of classic literature done in “gangster style”, run by Wisecrack, a channel with more than 300,000 subscribers.
The third strand Elvidge noted, was around book adaptations, with classic literature now getting its own YouTube treatment. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (250k subscribers) was identified as the “original” YouTube adaptation, and it later spawned a successful book. A newer iteration is Frankenstein, MD, a modern take on Mary Shelley’s classic run by PBS Digital Studios. The first episode has been viewed more than 200,000 times.
The first thing to note, is that though the numbers are staggering, the correlation to sales is not an exact science. For example, Richard Wiseman’s In59Seconds channel (20 million views, 300,000 subscribers) which was specifically setup to promote first 59 Seconds and and then his latest title Night School, has resulted in about 500,000 click-throughs to either Amazon or book-specific websites. But as Richard, who participated in a panel discussion mentioned, what happens after the user has clicked is not trackable: somewhat like traditional media. Published by Pan Macmillan in 2010 the original version of 59 Seconds has sold 115,304 copies through Nielsen BookScan, by far his biggest seller. Digital numbers will be even greater: Macmillan has repacked the e-book into smaller more digestible morsels priced at 59p. But as Wiseman noted, it’s about more than just the numbers: “This [YouTube] is a form of marketing unlike any [other] form because you would usually pay,” he said. “It actually generates [advertising] revenue. It’s across the world and it’s 24 hours a day and it’s democratic. What’s not to love?”
Second, authenticity seems to be crucial. YouTube might appear to be a great channel for driving sales, but beyond the advertising that already exists on the site and which pre-loads before each video, users do not seem to be attracted to content that is obviously promotional. Pan Macmillan has recently unveiled a new promo for Peter James’ new Detective Roy Grace crime novel, Want You Dead. The video, based on a similar Skittles ad, invites viewers to pick an ending that might save, Red, the heroine. The skittles ad featured a teenager breaking animal figurines in search of goodies.
Third, everyone is now expecting an avalanche of titles coming out of the vlogger community, after Blink Publishing’s stunning success with the Alfie Deyes The Pointless Book, and Penguin’s likely repeat with Zoella’s fiction debut, Girl Online, not out till the end of November, and already number one in a couple of Amazon’s sub-categories.
According to some of the publishers I talked to at the event, advances for books from this group have risen sharply, as publishers have begun to understand that their appeal extends beyond the virtual video into the book buying universe.
But publishers should go into these discussions with confidence, as they have a strong role to play in expanding the brand. In fact, and what I hadn’t appreciated before the event, was how important this real-world merchandising is to the vloggers.
The evolution of "Simon’s Cat" is a great example of this: it is a channel with more than 3.2m subscribers, but Mike Cook, brand manager at Simon's Cat, said it was its book publishing deal with Canongate that was key to the sustainability of the the animation studio behind it. Part of the reason is that, though the viewer numbers may be huge for some of these channels, they do not necessarily result in similarly large ad revenues. YouTube takes a cut of 45% of the advertising fees, meaning that even the big channels have to look elsewhere for revenue, either through book deals or related merchandise. A piece on allthingsdigital published last year estimated that content producers receive between $10 and $2.50 for every 1,000 views their clips generate, meaning that for every million views they get between $2,500 and $10,000. In other words, YouTube wants TV-quality content, but its advertising model does not support it. Simon’s Cat crowd-funded £300k via Indiegogo in order to fund a colour version of the cartoon. The pitch read:"While many studios drive for a faster, cheaper approach to animation, we want to continue to deliver the same high quality Simon's Cat films that you've grown to know and love. That's why we're asking our fans to get behind us and help us make a film that we can all be proud of."
Stower is right, publishers need a strategy for YouTube, but as with all social media channels this is a constantly evolving somewhat uncontrollable incredibly fast-paced ever expanding universe. As we were reminded at the event, YouTube itself was established just 9 and a half years ago. Part of Naomi's brief at Pan Macmillan is to highlight trends developing outside of publishing, and despite all of the books related content that already exists on YouTube, the video channel probably still fits into that area. Lisa Hoare, commercial director at Blink Publishing, said they picked up Alfie Deyes after Hoare spotted the amount of time her teenage daughter was spending on YouTube. It is little wonder that it came as a suprise to Waterstones when 8,000 fans descended on its Piccadilly branch for a signing.
What most impressed me about the YouTube event was the willingness of the staff there to engage with content industry. There's a disconnect here, and they want to close it. The big lesson is that what is true of other social media spaces is also true of YouTube, publishers need to be prepared to move quickly, learn from others, and iterate. Can they do it? Watch this space.