BOARD MEMBER’S CORNER
Low-cost, High-value Market Research
by Jeanne Kramer
One of the most important and enjoyable roles of an IBPA board member is to gather with independent publishers at association and industry meetings and hear about your issues and concerns. Together, we share views about the state of the publishing business and what strategies and tactics we all can employ to be successful and help our businesses and our industry grow and prosper.
All of us will agree that the publishing business today—with the changing retail environment, e-books and apps, the dearth of print review outlets, and the explosion of social media—is a little like the Old West in the middle of an earthquake. Unmapped, lots of new guns in town, and the ground is constantly shifting. This is our reality.
How do we succeed in this environment?
To be successful in today’s marketplace, independent publishers need to carefully position their projects; successfully identify potential consumers; be competitive in content, format, and pricing; and assure retailers that they can market to the targeted audiences and bring consumers to the checkout.
The only way we can achieve these goals is by undertaking market research.
I can hear you all now: “My margins are tight enough as it is. I can’t afford to do market research.” In these days of ever-evolving marketplaces, you can’t afford not to do market research. But it doesn’t have to be expensive.
I’ve worked at a few houses where management engaged high-profile, high-cost marketing groups to analyze projects and the marketplace with charts and PowerPoint and bandwidth and thresholds. What did we ultimately learn? It’s all about how the consumer approaches a purchase.
How can you find that out?
Step 1. Simple Searches
Start by asking someone outside your area to do some online research. As a publisher interested in a particular subject or subjects, you probably frequent relevant sites, so they’ve become familiar with your preferences and can often preselect for you, as they couldn’t for consumers.
Reach out to local educators who teach marketing courses. Would they be interested in undertaking some real-time marketing research? Could they recommend students who might be interested in doing that as an independent project?
You want fresh eyes and searches during this initial fact-finding period. Many times you’ll discover great partners to help you get important initial information about the behavior of your target audience and the titles that are key for them.
The idea is to go to a few retailers’ sites and search the most general relevant subject areas. Where did searches lead to? What titles did the selected sites recommend? What similar titles were viewed or purchased? Is there a category bestseller list?
Using the results of these searches, create a “Big List” of five to ten titles published in the past three years that appeared most often and that are most similar to your book or books. This will give you a quick snapshot of the current retail environment for it.
For each item on your list, note title, author, publisher, format, and price. Also note all BISAC subject categories for each book. What do the preferred format and price points seem to be? As publishers, we tend to sign books with preconceived notions about price and format and to build our P&Ls based upon these assumptions. In the fast-changing retail environment, do the most popular titles validate your assumptions? Or not?
Ask your researchers to capture consumer comments. What do people say they like and don’t like about particular books? Do your projects address any issues raised in these comments? This information could give you a competitive edge.
Also ask your researchers to visit publishers’ and books’ and authors’ Web sites and blogs. How are your competitors marketing their titles? Where are their authors promoting their books? Who endorsed the books? Where were they reviewed and otherwise covered? Are these media on your media list? Who reviewed the titles? What did they like and not like? Are features they identified as important missing in your books?
With all this information in hand, you will have a fairly comprehensive profile of your competition and of the key titles in your marketplace.
Step 2. Store Visits
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to suggest to authors and publishers that they visit a physical store. Yes, the retail landscape has changed considerably, and yes, we are buying more online. But consumers are still walking into stores, browsing, and purchasing. Step into their shoes and put yourself in their minds.
Visit a variety of retail outlets—independent bookstores, chain bookstores, big-box stores, supermarkets—as if you were a consumer. You’ll learn a lot from each visit, including a lot about the challenges of making your titles stand out in different retail environments.
First impressions are important, so notice what yours is when you walk through the door. Does the front of the store promote new titles, or are you greeted by bargain books? Are the sections well labeled, or do you need a GPS to find a subject or title?
Then consult a clerk. Especially when a store’s signage is confusing, customers ask for help, so find a clerk and say you are looking for a book on such-and-such a subject.
Does the clerk recommend a specific title? Why? Is that title on your Big List? Does the clerk point you to a specific section? Why? Is this where you thought your titles should be shelved? Don’t assume that retailers will put a book where you think it belongs, and don’t assume that every retailer will put it in the same category.
If the clerk didn’t point you to the section where you think your titles should be shelved, go there and examine its contents. What are the competing titles in that section? Are people browsing these titles likely to be interested in yours?
Next, use the Some Enchanted Bookshelf tactic: Position yourself so you can look at the section that the clerk did identify from across a crowded room. What is your general impression of the section? Are most titles face out or spine out? Do you see titles on your Big List? Which covers catch your eye, and why? Which draw your attention? What typography and cover designs are intriguing? Can you spot your titles or envision the way they would look?
Then try the It’s the Spine, Stupid test. How many times have you been shown a cover design placed carefully on an otherwise bare table top? Lovely? Yes. The reality of the bookstore environment? No.
Look at the percentage of titles that are spine out. Which spines attract your attention? Why? Are your own books spine out? Are your Big List titles spine out? How do the spines compare? Which did you spot across the crowded room?
What you learn should inform your packaging.
Don’t leave a store without finding your Big List titles and your own titles. Check the store computer if necessary.
If a retail environment allows you to sit for a bit, pull up a chair and watch the shoppers. How do they browse relevant sections? Which titles do they pick up? Do they look at back-cover copy? Do they read flap copy? How much time do they seem to spend considering a purchase?
Finally, look at the bargain-book section; titles there can be competition for your target consumers’ dollars. And go to the magazine section to see who’s publishing in your areas. Read letters to the editors to spot consumers’ concerns. Do your titles address these concerns? Do these magazines review books? Run excerpts?
Step 3. Cover All Bases
At a mall or on Main Street or wherever you shop, make a note of every store that sells books. Are these potential outlets for your titles? Look at your Big List. Do you see these titles there? If so, where? How are books in these stores priced, displayed, and otherwise presented?
You may be surprised at the number and variety of outlets now carrying books. Nonbook retailers know their consumers and the price points that appeal. They are highly selective about which titles they will bring in and when, which means that if yours is chosen, it comes with a powerful implied endorsement.
Step 4. Learn at Libraries
Despite economic pressures, libraries are still serving the information needs of communities, including many communities without bookstores.
Ask to meet with the librarian charged with maintaining the collection at your local library, or several librarians in a geographic area. What are the patrons asking for? Which titles does the librarian mention the most? Does the librarian use blogs and/or Web sites to discuss collection development? In addition to industry publications, what does the librarian read to stay up to date on the titles the community wants?
See, you can afford market research.
Taking these steps costs next to nothing and lets you learn a lot about current market conditions, your competition, and your targeted reader.
Now you can apply what you have learned to bring titles to market today and improve your acquisition process going forward.
Jeanne Kramer, a member of the IBPA board, is vice president of account management at National Book Network.