Another Piece of the E-Puzzle (or How a Good E-book Promotion Went Bad)
by Dominique Raccah
So we had a good idea; perhaps you heard about it.
We thought we’d celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday by giving away free e-book editions of a number of our bestselling Jane Austen–inspired works, plus special e-book editions of Austen’s six novels with the famous Brock brothers’ illustrations. The goal? A one-day-only Sourcebooks extravaganza everywhere e-books are sold that would publicize the titles and our universe of Austen books.
This is the short story of that digital experiment, and what went wrong. Simply put, on the morning of Jane Austen’s birthday, the books in the promotion were not in fact available free everywhere, although we had used press releases and extensive contact with book bloggers and Austen fans to let the public know that they would be. And people noticed, of course—everyone who’d so graciously spread the word of the promo justifiably took us to task.
So what happened? We ran up against five challenges, including some we hadn’t expected.
Challenge #1: Not enough time. When we came up with the idea for the promotion, we had less than two weeks to make it happen. Within days we had announced it internally, drafted releases, and started the relevant gears turning.
It turns out, though, that promotions across multiple e-tailers require at least two weeks for proper setup, and we now know that it’s usually best to allow six to eight weeks (including a cushion) to ensure that all our external retailers can process the information we send and set up a promotion for a particular time.
Can digital retailing and cataloging be instantaneous? No.
Challenge #2: Multiple external systems. Each of our external vendors for e-books has its own system and schedule, so we need to work individually with the iBookstore, Google, Nook, Kindle, and each of the others.
Each of our e-tailers also has its own timeline and process for implementing promotions. We have to adjust prices manually at some accounts and to submit price changes via spreadsheet to other accounts. Most of our accounts let us specify the day for a promotion to take effect, but generally we cannot specify an exact time. In other words, scheduling is complicated.
Challenge #3: “Available everywhere E-books are sold.” This would have all been easier if we’d just offered the files on a designated landing page on our Web site, right? Certainly, it would’ve been easier for us, but we kept thinking about the restrictions it might impose on readers.
So we were going for ultimate ease—no extra clicks, syncs, or heaven-knows-what workarounds for any reader trying to get our e-books on a particular device.
It turns out that goal complicated things.
Challenge #4: “One day only!” Although we had run countless e-book promotions with our e-book partners, we’d never tried a one-day-only promotion. Usually a special offer runs a week, two weeks, a month. But a day?
We didn’t know if we could do it. Yes, as we learned, many of our partners can run one-day offers. But not all of them. A few places can’t or won’t. Well, we didn’t know that in the beginning.
Challenge #5: Territory restrictions. It just didn’t occur to us to wonder whether readers in Australia or the U.K. or elsewhere outside the United States who wanted to download an e-book from the promotion would be able to do that. And sometimes they couldn’t because of territory restrictions on publishing rights or territory restrictions related to accounts with e-tailers.
What happened with a particular e-tail partner when some of the books were available but some were not? Well, we learned from that too.
Knowledge for Next Time
The experiment reminded us yet again that e-books may be exciting, but they aren’t easy. At Sourcebooks, we’ve calculated that just the proper production of separate e-book formats requires an additional 13 steps in the workflow process for each format, over and above the steps we need to take to meet production, metadata, file upload, and customer-specific requirements—not to mention all we need to do to keep up with the new stuff that arises all the time.
For this specific e-book project, as for so many others, results depended on communication, raw effort, and time. The tight time period for setting up the promotion probably limited what we could accomplish with communication and raw effort. But many of our e-tailing partners scrambled to help us through unforeseen problems.
Indeed, as the morning of the appointed day ticked along, the promotion went live at store after store. And we quickly chose to extend it for a second day—a Bonus Jane Austen Birthday Celebration—to make up for the awkward start.
Also, we offered our apologies—we tried, we screwed up, we’re sorry—and our thanks to everyone who participated.
In the end, we were able to give away many thousands of e-books, and our research and data show that “free” or “cheap” e-promotions will lead to purchases of other titles down the line. We learned a few things about e-promotions, and our transparency in sharing those lessons, obstacles, and even mistakes have been appreciated by customers, e-tailers, and competitors alike. It’s a big new future we’re all walking into, and our ability to experiment and adapt will make all the difference for our authors and their readers.
Dominique Raccah is publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, the largest woman-owned trade book publisher in the country. She currently serves as chair of the Book Industry Study Group. You can follow her on Twitter at @draccah.