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Action Items Fueled by BookStats

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Action Items Fueled by BookStats

by Christopher Robbins

When I received the BookStats 2011 report this fall, I was very interested in seeing what it had to say and what I might learn to help me more successfully navigate a dramatically changed publishing landscape.

As many publishers know, BookStats is the first BISG/AAP study of the U.S. publishing industry, and it reports on dollar and unit sales for 2008, 2009, and 2010. Almost 2,000 publishers participated in this landmark study of our industry. They ranged from the largest publishers with annual sales over $100 million to the smallest publishers with sales under $500,000.

The study had a number of objectives, which included providing benchmarks and information on overall revenues, increases and decreases in sales by subject, factors driving revenue change, and changes in sales channels, consumer buying patterns, format preferences, and competitive advantages.

What I found most interesting were two statements on pages 16 and 17 of the version of BookStats that I got:

Because the revenues and unit sales for print products have declined over the same three-year period, it could be argued that all the industry’s growth is the result of the growth in sales of digital products.


Two of the many BookStats graphs that illuminate information about digital products.

Throughout this report, we will see that publishers who are embracing technology and focusing on new opportunities and channels are seeing their efforts rewarded with higher revenue and unit-sales growth.

I felt that the first statement was a clear paradigm shift that we’ve all been seeing—it’s not just my company; book sales really are struggling. As I write, the most recent Bookscan data show conclusively, as these data have for some time, that print book sales in Bookscan reporting channels are declining (the recent uptick is due to Borders’ liquidation sales).

Regarding the second statement, it’s clear that traditional publishing models are changing, and that publishers who are embracing technology in all aspects of their business are finding success.

After reading through the report three times and viewing it through the lens of my 20 years in publishing, I came away with the following thoughts:

Embrace technology. As an industry and as individual publishers, we must embrace technology in all aspects of our business, including editorial, production, manufacturing, sales and marketing, data retrieval, analysis, and more.

The tools are there, and they certainly expedite our processes and help us capture better information and target niche markets more effectively. Today’s publishers should clearly define technology and digital innovation goals for their own companies.

Focus on new opportunities and sales channels. Some publishers are pining for the days when stores purchased their books and didn’t even know how many copies they already had. Not only are those days gone, but the days of personal contact with buyers are ending fast. In my opinion, the radical changes in Barnes & Noble’s buying department are a move toward Amazon’s algorithm-driven model.

We must work to open nontraditional channels, and focus particularly on gift and specialty stores, a growing source of sales that are typically nonreturnable. These channels are underreported and underappreciated.

Think globally. Some data suggest that the international English reading market will number more than 400 million within the next 10 years. As we acquire and develop content, we should be focused on an international audience, not just a domestic audience. As I learned in business school when discussing China and India, any number multiplied by 2 billion people is a very large number.

Develop a suite of branded products ranging from traditional books to innovative apps. Our traditional suite of products based on an author’s content used to be, depending on the genre, a hardcover, a trade paperback, a mass market paperback, a book club edition or run on, serial editions, foreign editions, and sometimes a dramatic version for film, TV, and/or radio.

Now, we have the opportunity to go well beyond the traditional print suite and simultaneously create books, apps, e-books, enhanced e-books, segments of books that stand alone, and subscription-based products. And we have the opportunity to monetize what we create through sales to unique audiences. This not only produces additional revenue streams; it also strengthens an author’s brand.

Create new products. Using XML and challenging our production processes and our curiosity about innovation, we can create products that are completely new while using our established production timeline.

Recently, we launched mini–enhanced e-books, and we are working on a subscription-based model for our design content. Both ideas came from a weekly meeting where we ask ourselves, “What else can we make?”

Create platforms to sell content directly to consumers. This may be the single most important effort a publisher can make. For decades publishers have delegated sales responsibility, and often marketing responsibility as well, to their trade retail partners.

With shrinking and consolidating venues, publishers should work hard to refine their niches and build relationships with their end consumers. This will allow not only stronger marketing for both trade retailers and publishers, but immediate feedback that can improve product offerings. As Seth Godin has said, we should be finding authors for our readers, not readers for our authors.

Create single workflows to develop print and digital products simultaneously. I have learned over the last three years that we can’t compartmentalize the digital and physical worlds and expect them to succeed at the level we need them to reach. We have to think about these two worlds holistically and ensure that our staffs can create multiple products, digitally and physically, within the same production system. Otherwise, we lose synergy.

Embrace comprehensive training for new skill sets focused on digital innovation and solutions. It’s clear that to succeed in the 21st century, everybody involved—including owners, CEOs, other executives, editors, production managers, and directors of marketing, fulfillment, and customer service—must learn new skills that ensure that they can and do adapt to the changing landscape.

I remember our managing editor declaring she couldn’t use a computer for her letters or throw out a 30-year-old Rolodex. Insisting that she could and coaching her toward positive change created great opportunity for her to take advantage of her tremendous skill sets and her long experience. She continued playing her valuable role using different tools.

We must provide consistent training processes to ensure that our staffs are staying current with developing technologies and using them to help our companies succeed. Clearly the failure to invest in our number-one asset—the people—is a recipe for insolvency.

Of course, the BookStats 2011 report contains many more details and much more useful data about our industry. I highly recommend that you read it and relate it to your own business. And I always bear in mind that good business is usually good common sense. When common sense says that markets are migrating, we should move quickly and adapt to get to where they are going as fast as possible.

Christopher Robbins is CEO of Gibbs Smith, Publisher, and a member of the IBPA board. To learn more, visit gibbs-smith.com.

BookStats Background and Ordering Information

BookStats 2011 provides a comprehensive view of book publishing sales aggregated by revenue, units, categories, formats, and distribution channels. Its data and analysis cover the total industry with breakdowns for Trade, K–12 School, Higher Education, and Professional and Scholarly markets. Produced jointly by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), BookStats offers a new industry statistics model to better track transformational shifts in how book content is produced and sold in the digital age.

BookStats data are available via single-user and multiuser PDF Annual Reports and an interactive Online Data Dashboard that enables company-wide customization of all data points—a first of its kind.

For details on these options and to purchase BookStats, go to:


—Judith Appelbaum

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