The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Some Thoughts, Part Three – E-Books

Posted by BigWords on April 1, 2010

There is going to be more details on my view of world building soon enough, but it is time to lay to rest a couple of issues I have with the way we look at e-books. This market has been a source of enough opinion already, but there are so many areas in which writers, publishers and the underlying software in severely under-performing, that it really needs to be addressed item by item. We are, of course, talking about a digital format, so there are distinct advantages to the collation of information surrounding them than traditionally published titles – software generates an unbelievable amount of information, and yet nearly everyone is (with some exceptions) ignoring the possibilities. I’ll try to keep things simple for now (on a subject I am returning to later), so that the debate can be re-shaped with more focus on the information-generating powers currently being left idle.

Data Collection

The requirements (as I see them) for successful data accumulation are as follows:

  • Total sales (all time)
  • Monthly sales figures
  • Weekly sales figures

It is possible to determine which titles are rising in relation to others, and analysis of trends, purchasing habits, and customer returns (where a second title by the same author is later published) could move e-books into a more central position in the publishing industry. Real-time analysis of which hard copies are selling, which are stagnating, and which are dropping in sales on a day-by-day basis would be an impossible task, but there is no reason that the information from their digital cousins can’t be put to good use. Extrapolating larger movements may be beyond the data, but for specific information we are on safe ground.
The second part of this information is in regards to format. Are the .pdf’s selling more than .azw? How do .txt downloads compare to .fb2? Breaking down the overall sales figures into categories based on their format will show which e-readers are being used, making more direct advertising possible by marketing to the demographic which is most likely to purchase the title on a specific platform. That, I’m afraid, came out as a bit of a tongue-twister. Here’s the English translation – if there are more people purchasing the .txt version, then you push the .txt copy. If more people are using the Kindle download, you push that. It isn’t ignoring the other sales, but refining the marketing to focus on the area in which the best return is coming from.

  • Direct links from Blogs
  • Direct links from Facebook
  • Direct links from MySpace
  • Direct links from Twitter

One way of separating the sales information between impulse purchases and recommendations would be to have the number of links to the download page tracked. With this, it is possible to note how many sales were the result of direct links rather than casual browsing of the site, so that already-successful books (which are gaining further links) can be more heavily marketed so as to result in hardback and paperback sales. But there are problems in using this data set without trying to discover the variables which lead either to a sale, or to the visitor departing empty handed. It is a given that writing is a creative act, but selling (and the marketing behind the selling) is a science as much as anything. We need to think more scientifically about the way that sales are occurring in digital formats.

###

Double-blinds

There are three main elements which can affect the selling potential of a title, and those need to be addressed individually and as a collective force – beneficially or otherwise – to the potential of an e-book. Using double-blinds (webpages which are identical in all but one aspect from the main sell-through page) can help show which aspects of the shop window need to be spruced up to encourage people to part with their money. There are enough websites already established whose purposes are specifically geared to selling books, so implementing some of the following suggestions should be taken with the full knowledge that the market is still fragmented. Unless a title is an exclusive, any data collected will be tainted by the fact that other locations are in direct competition.

Cover Art

Does the cover art attract more buyers than not? Or is it, in fact, irrelevant to the eventual sale? Does it turn people off the idea of buying the book? There are so many reasons why digital copies have potential to supersede sales of hard copies, and this is one specific area in which e-books are vastly different to the ones on your shelves – they need not necessarily even have covers. If two sites, differing only in the inclusion of the cover art, could be compared over a reasonable length of time, there would, undoubtedly, be a considerable amount of data to indicate whether the cover art is helping or harming sales. This information would then inform all future releases by the publisher, strengthening market position with hard facts rather than supposition and perceived wisdom handed down from bricks and mortal sales outlets. The one genre which would be most affected by this would probably be fantasy, which has – for a long time – relied on the power of a strong visual on the cover to entice casual readers.

Preview Chapters

Here’s another aspect which people don’t seem to be taking enough attention of, and it is one of the areas in which the success or failure of a specific release may hinge. Do readers appreciate previews? Of course they do. To say, from this one statement of fact, that the addition of a preview is beneficial to all titles is, however, rather limiting in establishing their overall status in the way e-books are sold. Until it can be established that a preview is helping the sales, we won’t know for sure that the inclusion of such things on sales pages are adding to the uptake of purchases. Again, a proper study would be needed to see which books perform less successfully when a preview is included on the sales page. It would be interesting to see how well a popular book (something in the highest sales bracket) compares in two instances – one with, and one without a preview. Would it matter to overall figures? Probably not, but the data which could be collected from this type of study would be very interesting.

On-site Reviews

This is the one aspect I am still undecided on, especially since there is no “minimum IQ requirement” to access the internet. If reader reviews are included at the point-of-sale location, then there will undoubtedly be the usual slew of poorly thought-out, barely-literate, venomous bile – aimed as much at the writer or publisher as it is at the book in question. You can, if you wish, see some of these types of comments on Amazon. Unless moderation is implemented in advance of comments being shown, any possible discussion which could be generated by the reviews and comments will be irrelevant. I like hearing well-constructed arguments in favor of, and against, titles, but there are limits to what should be allowed. Overly-glowing reviews always feel like the hand of those involved in the release, while the most bitter attacks feel like the work of people aggrieved for reasons unconnected to the title. Both extremes should be avoided, as they have equal ability to sour the prospect of a purchase.

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There have been calls for a serious and informed chart for the e-book specifically, but the way in which charts normally work are skewed towards the top 100 best-selling titles. With songs, or films, and especially games, this isn’t a problem – those markets are moving fast enough that anything outside the top hundred are rapidly shifting, but books have a way of staying much, much longer at a respectable position. Bronte, Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare will always be sold, so the classics must be taken into consideration when looking at charts. I like the US music chart method – separating the releases out into genre, because this seems to make more sense than a grand list of everything. It makes sense that payed and free, and fiction and non-fiction be separated, but I would go farther than any previous suggestions. An independent body would be able to verify figures, and remove suggestions that slight-of-hand is at work in buoying certain heavily-backed releases. A group without vested interest in the success of a title would also give readers confidence in the numbers being thrown around by publishers.

I’ll come back to the subject of both e-books and marketing soon enough, but this seems to cover everything I want to say here. Adding to this would merely serve to confuse an already complex set of issues, and I want there to be clarity in these thoughts.

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One Response to “Some Thoughts, Part Three – E-Books”

  1. bigwords88 said

    Update:

    Another great angle you might want to consider, because there can’t be enough discussion on the future of e-books. That is all…

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