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Converting Book Browsers to Book Buyers

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PUBLISHED MAY/JUNE 2018

by Kristin Fields, Associate Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —


Kristin Fields

Kristin Fields shows us how to move book browsers down the funnel from discovery to conversion and sourcing.

Today’s marketplace for book buyers is overwhelmed with an amazing amount of book content. The Kindle store alone has over 6 million titles for sale right now. With so many books to choose from, through so many different channels, the path to purchase has become increasingly difficult for authors and publishers. How, then, can a new book succeed?

This is what Peter Hildick-Smith and his firm Codex-Group set out to share with the publishing community last September in a webinar titled “Converting Book Browsers to Book Buyers” based on ongoing research into book buyer behavior and new book preferences from Codex’s program for publishers, authors, and agents to boost new book sales success. Recent New York Times bestsellers that have benefited from the Codex program include What Happened by Hillary Clinton, The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath, and When by Daniel H. Pink.

Initial books sales—from preorders through the first weeks after publication—are determined entirely by three factors. The first is discovery: Do book buyers simply know the book exists? Second is conversion: Once aware, is the book consumer intrigued enough by the book’s message to click and browse the book, then motivated enough to read and hopefully buy the book? Last is availability (sourcing): The moment a book consumer becomes interested in buying the book, is it available in the place, format, time, and price they want to then push the “buy” button?

When all three, discovery, conversion, and availability, are strongly delivered at the same time, you have a successful book launch. If just one of the three is weak or missing, sales become extremely challenged. It’s that simple.


A Primer on Today’s Book Marketplace

In their ongoing market testing, Codex-Group also tracks where book buyers get the books they buy, but also where they get all the books they read. Adding further to publisher and author challenges is that fact that only one-third of what book buyers read in the past month was actually bought new or received as a gift. Over half of the books they read were read for free (from libraries, personal collections, friends, and free downloads), with the balance bought used or through subscription services.

In addition to book buyers’ preferences to read books for free, authors and publishers are now further challenged by the incredible number of new books being published. The Kindle store alone added over 1 million books just since January 2017. As a result, even those books that do succeed do so for less time. In the 1980s, a #1 New York Times fiction hardcover bestseller would stay at the top of the list for an average of six weeks; by 2016, that dropped to only 1.5 weeks at #1 on average, with the preorder phenomenon contributing to that reduction.

With all these changes in the book market and in book buyer behavior in the last few years—more new books, more new book information overload, free and deeply discounted pricing, and increased book buyer indecision—the challenge of moving a book consumer to a book browser to a book buyer is greater than ever. But with lessons learned from Codex’s ongoing research into successful new book launches, shared here and in the webinar, it’s possible for publishers to move the needle.


Discovery: Are You There, Reader?

First, it’s essential to understand that book discovery is not the same as book conversion. Simply knowing a book exists has nothing to do with whether that book holds any appeal to its discoverer. Discovery is awareness, plain and simple, for better or worse, but in our industry it is far too often confused with conversion or book interest. Both are highly interdependent and essential to book success but must be solved for in very different ways in each book’s pre-publication plan.

Of the three key factors of initial book sales, discovery is typically the most costly in both effort and budget. And even when a book achieves ongoing bestseller list status, that’s still no guarantee of broad awareness. For example, Codex Preview testing showed that even after six months in market, Ruth Ware’s New York Times bestseller, The Woman in Cabin 10 remained unknown to three-fourths of those interested in buying the book who heard about it for the first time in preview testing; 60 percent of those interested in buying Lee Child’s bestselling Night School were similarly unaware of that title two months after its publication.

There’s more work to be done to improve discovery effectiveness.

So where do book buyers first learn about the books they buy these days? In ongoing Codex testing across thousands of book purchases, physical stores came in first, with 15 percent of book buyers saying they first discovered the book they bought last in stores. Personal recommendations, digital marketing, author marketing, and publicity all followed closely after that.

However, just learning that a book exists once is apparently no longer enough. Book buyers tell us that they discovered the books they ultimately bought multiple times before buying them. Repetition is now also key to effective discovery. On average, book browsers need to be reminded of a book more than two separate times before moving to a purchase decision. Digital marketing tactics probably have the greatest potential for reinforcing book awareness multiple times. And the higher the book price point, the more discovery repetition is needed—at least three times for a book over $25 through store, digital marketing, and publicity—but only one and a half times on average for a book under $2, largely through daily deal discount email campaigns.


Conversion: Getting on the Same Page

After discovery, the next part of the challenge is conversion: Is the browser interested enough to read the book?

“You can have the best discovery in the world, but if the book’s message doesn’t motivate people to act, all that discovery effort and investment is completely wasted,” Hildick-Smith says.

As a result, much of Codex’s work is focused on helping books develop a unique positioning, identity, and strong message to successfully convert browsers to buyers. Developing strong conversion potential for an upcoming book is far, far cheaper than either book discovery or book availability. All it takes is real creative commitment and the added time to craft fresh approaches, along with a willingness to experiment and pre-test multiple options with actual book buyers to measure impact. While creative judgment is essential to finding new ways to message a book, Codex tests have proven time and again that even the most senior publishing executive is no more accurate than an average college freshman at determining which message will convert the most book buyers, so pre-testing is also essential.

To succeed, a book must have common ground or shared topic interest with its intended audience; most book buyers have four to six primary book categories of interest, often actively avoiding other categories.

Next, the book’s message is the most important conversion factor, with about four in 10 of book buyers stating they bought their last book based on its message. As Malcolm Gladwell identifies in his book Blink, consumers make near instant decisions, using their intuition to assess a book’s message, as delivered through its title, subtitle, reading line, presentation, blurbs, and lede lines. If the message comes through clearly, with real interest and intrigue, they’re motivated to browse more or even buy. If the book’s message is dull, derivative, or lacks interest or relevance, it’s game over. The important thing to remember in developing a strong book message is that its impact is based on the sum of all its elements working together to create publishing’s equivalent of an Instagram “meme.” It’s not the pretty image or positive blurb in isolation but the overall, combined effect that counts.

The book’s message impact on the purchase is equally important for both low price and premium price books in motivating a purchase decision; however, price does affect decision speed. For books under $2, nearly two-thirds of people made their purchase the same day they discovered the book, while at moderately higher prices of $10 to $12.99, barely one-fourth of buyers made a same-day purchase decision, needing more time and conversion information to decide. It’s a delicate balance, because the more information available to persuade them, the more distraction and effort it can take for a book consumer to finally reach their decision.


Yes, Book Buyers Absolutely Do Judge a Book by Its Cover … and Title and Message

There are two deeply held misunderstandings about the nature and role of a book’s “cover” in trade publishing. First, that its main purpose is to be “liked,” when, in fact, its primary role is to motivate browsing. One of the “ugliest,” least liked covers Codex has ever tested was Tina Fey’s Bossypants (featuring Tina Fey with what appear to be massive, hairy, man arms), and yet it had phenomenal browsing impact and became the #2 overall bestselling book on Amazon for its publication year.

Second, it’s essential to understand book buyers use the cover as the book’s message, relying heavily on it to tell them what the book is, why they should be interested in it, and to judge if it’s worth the effort of browsing—very similar to the role of a strong campaign slogan in politics—conveyed through word and image combined.

Book publishers consistently make the mistake of undervaluing the cover as simply a piece of decoration, when in fact the data is very clear that it’s the combined impact of title, subtitle, reading line, author name, blurb, and design that together either move, or more often dissuade, a book consumer from browsing. We have to continually remind ourselves that book people are “word people”; they love and respond to words first and foremost. Nearly 15 years of Codex testing has consistently shown that a book’s title, subtitle, or reading line copy are in fact almost always the most important conversion factor in a book’s cover, not the art. While great cover art brings a very important added dimension, amplification, and visual recall to a book, great cover art alone rarely drives the book consumer to act, except in breakthrough examples like Bossypants.

Here are some examples of past Codex Preview testing case studies to provide additional insight into some key findings on book conversion:

In a rebranding project on the For Dummies series, for example, two message options were tested: Staying Young for Dummies and Healthy Aging for Dummies. Because the Dummies brand audience skewed 55+, the “Healthy Aging” message spoke more powerfully to that audience, best fulfilled the brand’s values, and had the highest conversion.

“For Dummies” cover option 1

“For Dummies” cover option 2

In another Preview test, when it comes to blurbs, less can be more. While one test version of the cover for The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe was plastered with over a dozen “blurbs to die for” from some of the biggest names in thriller writing, category fans were skeptical, less hype with a single quote and an emphasis on the title.

“The Freedom Broker” cover option 1

“The Freedom Broker” cover option 2

Using faces on a book’s cover can also be unpredictable. The biography of Apple co-founder and inventor of the personal computer, Steve Wozniak, is a good example. Codex results confirmed that few book buyers were even familiar with the author’s name, let alone his face. One test treatment featured a photo of a young Wozniak from the 1970s, which motivated far less browsing than a text-based presentation that emphasized the message “The Inventor of the Personal Computer Speaks at Last” highlighted by Apple’s iconic rainbow stripes. Faces can be unpredictable conversion drivers because of they may be unrecognizable, distracting, or unrelateable. It’s best to pre-test before committing if you’re unsure.

“I, Woz” cover option 1

“I, Woz” cover option 2

While publishers and designers are deeply involved in a cover’s development over weeks or months at a time, it’s important to remember that a book browser typically relies on just a split second gut reaction to make a browsing decision.

“It happens fast, it happens once, and is extremely hard for publishers and authors to gauge the perceived message or ‘meme’ because they’re so very close to the detail,” Hildick-Smith says.

For more book cover design showdowns, check out this IBPA Independent article.


Availability: The Final Challenge

You’ve tackled discovery and captured enough interest and intrigue to inspire purchase intent … now on to the actual sale. You’re close, but not there yet. Purchase commitment can vary with message strength and familiarity, and be very fleeting.

With 70 percent of books bought within two weeks of first discovery, there’s no time to waste. To ensure its strongest sales, each book has to be fully available in as many outlets and channels as possible at the exact time book awareness and conversion are at their peak, or risk lost sales from distracted book buyers unable to get what they want at the moment they want it.

Of course, online preordering significantly reduces the risk of an interested book buyer not being able to order a book, even months before its official on-sale date, but there’s a catch. From Codex’s analysis of books purchased on preorder, over 70 percent were by major bestselling authors, and only 20 percent were by new or unfamiliar authors, meaning the majority of preorders simply benefit established bestselling authors or a major media phenomena, not emerging authors or titles.


Persuasion in the Age of Overload

Cutting through the overload of new books and book information now requires multiple avenues of exposure in the discovery process, the most intriguing cover art, and delivering all the information a buyer will need to make their final decision to buy the book as close to the moment they first discovered as possible.

If you have to focus on any one thing, make sure it’s the message. “You can’t have a winning launch without a winning message,” Hildick-Smith says. “Think of every book launch as a political campaign, and everything that goes with that: getting the word out, doing the groundwork, and having a message that people will actively rally around, and sustaining that over a multi-month schedule, not just the few weeks before and after launch, so book shoppers can become motivated to make that most important decision to buy the book (not just read it for free), to buy it new (not used), and to buy it now (not six months later when it’s no longer available in stores).”


Kristin Fields is the associate editor of IBPA Independent magazine.


For more insightful marketing tips, check out this IBPA Independent article:
Marketing Savvy: The 4 Email Marketing Essentials.

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