Welcome to the sixth entry in LJ‘s Librarian-Publisher Dialog series. As we did with the previous installment about “storyverse” startup Small Demons, here we expand the scope of our discussions, encompassing for the first time an ebook vendor well known to many librarians for its business savvy and wide selection‚ All Romance Ebooks (ARE).
Librarian Katie Dunneback, who previously interviewed HarperCollins president of sales Josh Marwell, now engages ARE CEO Lori James about niche communities, the “heat index” in relation to discovery, digital rights management, and that old standby, metadata. Although James does not comment on specific opportunities for her company after Penguin Group’s pullout from OverDrive, there are excellent lessons here for libraries wishing to experiment with being a “community publisher.”
For the record, romance ranks as the third biggest-circulating category in U.S. public libraries. Patrons hungry for their happily-ever-afters can and will survive without a heavy e-diet of Nora Roberts. Someone, anyone, feed their heads.‚ Heather McCormack
KD: Can you give those who aren’t familiar with All Romance Ebooks (ARE)/OmniLit a short history of the company?
LJ: We opened our virtual doors in 2006 with 18 publishers. Today, we carry the works of over 8000.
As with almost everything Barb [Barbara Perfetti] and I do together, All Romance started with one of us calling the other and uttering those four little words that, honestly, can make both our husbands wince: I’ve got an idea. In this particular instance, it was the belief that romance readers deserved their own online store, one place where they could find books by all of their favorite authors and publishers.
AllRomance.com launched in November 2006. Since that time, the site has continued to evolve. We work closely with readers, publishers, and authors, accepting their feedback and often incorporating it to enhance the site. OmniLit.com is a fully integrated sister site that sells all types of fiction and nonfiction. We opened OmniLit in the summer of 2009 at the urging of our romance readers who also enjoy reading other genres. Readers are able to shop both sites and access a centralized library of purchases using one login.
In spring of 2011, AReCafe.com was launched‚ a third integrated site that functions as a social space where members of our constantly growing community can meet online to talk about their common love of books. The site has crowd-sourced content as well as a variety of news and entertainment pieces that are produced or hand-picked by our staff.
KD: At Tools of Change 2012, Valla Vakili gave a presentation he called Exaggerations and Perversions, which was essentially about targeting passionate user communities when trying to innovate services and businesses. As the romance-reading community is regularly cited as one of the top, if not the top, consumers of ebooks, can you talk about what it means to serve a niche community?
LJ: We believe that means knowing and being a part of your community. We aren’t selling widgets; we’re selling a product we love. This is the best job ever. We understand the customer base because we are the customer base. Romance readers are liberal and conservative, young and old, high tech and old school, and fans of subgenres (inspiration, erotica, historical, sci-fi) that are almost as varied as they are‚ but there are things about the romance genre that bring us all together. Being able to offer readers those things in a virtual space, well, that’s the secret sauce.
KD: In businesses and nonprofit enterprises that are centered on a service, the key to gaining repeat customers is establishing quality relationships. Can you tell us what tools and site features you and your staff use to build positive relationships with your customers? How do you differentiate yourselves from other ebook marketplaces such as Amazon and BooksOnBoard?
LJ: Our journey hasn’t been driven so much by the need to differentiate ourselves from this bookstore or that bookstore. In the beginning, it was more about creating the shopping experience we’d like to have. We’re doing the same thing today that we did in the very early days. We spend a lot of time listening to publishers, readers, authors, and staff. We’ve accepted that our site will never be finished. We have an enhancement queue that we continually work and are constantly adding to. The tools are about providing customers (readers, publishers, authors) with positive experiences. The positive relationships we’ve built aren’t really because of the tools, although they are nifty; it’s been about the personal connections we continue to make. One of my favorite tools of 2011 was an extensive set of enhancements that we bundled into the launch of AReCafe.com.
You can browse the site to get a sense of the breadth of its functionality or take a peek at this short video that Circle of Seven Productions put together for us.
KD: As ARE is a technology-based company, can you tell us a bit about your back-end operations? Do you contract with a third-party distributor, or do you distribute your own files? What factors made you decide to go with this solution?
LJ: We acquire DRM (digital rights management) or secure content from a third party and all of our open or non-secure content directly from publishers. We wanted to support both the DRM and non-DRM business models, and doing it this way made the most sense for us from an operational perspective. Because our customers overwhelmingly prefer non-DRM files, we advocate that publishers refrain from using DRM and provide open-access content.
Although we appreciate and understand the concerns expressed about potential revenue loss owing to piracy, we believe the best deterrent is to provide customers with easy access to appropriately priced content. Publishers who have direct relationships with us have more control over their metadata and their listings. We offer more granularity to our readers than ONIX (a standard format that publishers can use to distribute electronic information about their books) currently supports.
KD: ARE is pretty well known in the online romance community for the quality of its customer service. Can you share the types of questions you most regularly receive and how you respond to these questions? Do you have staff dedicated to customer service or specific types of questions? What kinds of questions do you have to refer on to other entities?
LJ: We have tutorials and troubleshooting tips galore on our website. But many of our customers prefer to write directly to Digimonkey, a mischievous little monkey we employ to oversee all of our customer support functions. Digi doesn’t believe in strangers or the impossible, just customers she’s yet to meet and solutions she’s yet to find. She is one persistent primate. If we can’t resolve a customer’s issue internally, we’ll consult with whatever third party can best assist. Referring a customer on to another entity is extremely rare. The majority of our customer service questions are around access issues with DRM files.
KD: Librarians have an intimate relationship with metadata. What types of metadata are most important to how you do business? How do you exploit metadata to better serve your customers?
LJ: Discoverability is key. Category assignments are probably the single most important piece of data. And we allow the shelving of books in up to three. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been contacted by publishers, authors, and readers who can’t locate a certain title on the All Romance site only to find it’s because it was only placed in one category‚ general fiction.
We know a reader’s preferences can be fairly nuanced. We strive to ensure we’re evolving our shelving and search systems to meet those needs. But the metadata needs to be there in order for a book to be discovered. Summaries, excerpts, key words, and tags are all very important.
KD: Can your customers exploit the metadata you use? If so, how?
LJ: There are various ways that readers add value to the discoverability process. The two main ways are by adding tags to works and by rating/reviewing them. Keywords or phrases that one reader tags to a work in our database can then be searched by another reader. Browsing reviews often helps readers make purchasing decisions; scanning ratings does this as well‚ but ratings lack the specificity. We allow readers to rate their overall enjoyment of a title and its sensuality level in accordance with our proprietary heat index. The heat index and sensuality level ratings also aid in discoverability. Some readers have a definite preference for sweet romance, others spicy. By referring to our ratings, readers can focus their browsing experience and know what to expect from their purchases.
KD: I believe it was at the Digital Book World conference earlier this year that a statistic came out regarding the ratio of sales of DRM ebooks to non-DRM ebooks at ARE. What was that statistic and why do you think the ratio is what it is?
LJ: Ninetey-six percent of our 2011 sales were of non-DRM content. Yet non-DRM content represents only nine percent of our inventory. Our customers overwhelmingly prefer non-DRM books. When we asked them why, 69 percent responded that they simply don’t like restrictions being applied to their purchases. Other reasons they cited clustered around the desire to convert for reading on multiple platforms and the perceived complexity of downloading and operating the required software.
One thing to keep in mind is that our retail store is not affiliated with or tied to any particular digital reading platform, unlike Amazon, B&N, or Kobo. We have content that can be read on Sony, Nook, Kindle, Kobo, iPad, Android smartphone, etc. And many of our customers read on multiple devices, including their laptops or desktop computers. They want books they can move with them, and DRM titles don’t do that as easily. We can’t sell DRM titles to Kindle users at all. Amazon blocks it.
KD: Given the basically unlimited shelf space available to an ebookstore, do you still make decisions on what to stock and what not to stock in the ARE site beyond the limitation to romance? What criteria do you use?
LJ: Yes, absolutely. We have a list in our publisher terms of agreement of the types of content we don’t want to shelve. Some of the items on the restricted list are exactly what one would expect, like nothing obscene or pornographic. Some of the phrasing we’ve really had to think through, e.g., no bestiality with naturally occurring animals; no sex with non-animated corpses. We want hunky vampires and shape shifters to feel welcome.
KD: What do you see as the biggest reasons for the romance genre dominating the ebook market? Could, and do, any of those reasons translate to other genres, either fiction or nonfiction?
LJ: I think the romance genre’s dominance of the digital market isn’t unlike its dominance in the general fiction market. It’s a popular genre. When you look at the demographic, I think it’s easier to understand the appeal of digital. Sixty percent of our customers are between 18 and 39 years of age. Eighty-nine percent are females who are married or in a relationship, have children, attended college, and work outside of the home. These are often women who have been exposed to technology and have a certain level of comfort with it because of experiences in college or in the workplace. And they are busy, busy, busy. They manage a household, hold down a job, are raising kids, and are engaged in relationships. They have precious little me time. When they do find some, they want an HEA (happily ever after) fix. That might be while standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for their oldest to have his braces tightened, or riding the train to or from the office. I’ve personally discovered and downloaded many a new book while waiting to pick my son up from school.
KD: What are the most popular subgenres of romance amongst ARE customers? Are there any growing subgenres or trends in the genre that librarians should be aware of?
LJ: Erotic, speculative (paranormal, vampire/werewolves, shape shifter, sci-fi/fantasy), and gay romances were the most popular in 2011.
The contemporary seems to be making a nice comeback, and we recently added a steampunk category‚ we’re anticipating increases in those markets in 2012. In general, I would say formulaic is out, edgy is in: storylines that cross genres and feature complex heroes/heroines and steamy sex are what’s hot.
KD: For librarians who may suddenly be faced with a new ebook collection to market and explain to their patrons, what advice would you offer?
LJ: Librarians already know and understand books and readers; what they might not be familiar with is the technology. I’d recommend first polling the staff to find out which of them are already reading digitally and how. You could host a brown-bag lunch meeting or a potluck and ask folks to bring in the devices they use and show them off, demonstrating how books are downloaded and read. Or you could cast your net wider and host an event that involves readers. Your most enthusiastic digital readers will soon make themselves known. This is a great way for someone who’s a novice to get to experience a number of different devices and platforms for reading‚ laptops, smartphones, tablets/iPads, iPods, and a variety of dedicated readers.
KD: Currently, does ARE/OmniLit contract directly with any libraries for delivery of ebooks? If so, approximately how much of your business is from contracts with libraries versus retail sales?
LJ: We do not currently have any contracts with libraries.
KD: Do you see ARE being able to fill the void left by publishers‚ such as Penguin, Nora Roberts’s publisher‚ who have ceased contracting with OverDrive for intermediary service to libraries?
LJ: I know that many publishers (from the Big Six to the indies) are struggling with their digital strategy when it comes to library distribution. The digital marketplace and customer base are growing. Given that landscape, it makes sense that patrons expect a viable lending option. Penguin’s withdrawal from OverDrive’s program was a disappointing blow. My understanding is that Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette aren’t distributing to libraries either. And many indies don’t distribute through OverDrive or see lending as viable, and thus their books are not available to libraries either. The main issues seem to be around content availability and pricing. Until the content providers are committed to and see the long-term value in lending, which would also require having to bridge a gap between for-profit and nonprofit goals and values, the struggle is likely to continue.
Katie Dunneback is Selection Librarian, National Library Service for the Blind & Physically Handicapped, Washington, DC. She tweets under the handle @younglibrarian. Lori James is CEO of All Romance Ebooks.