A Most Optimistic Unconference: Publishers, Libraries, and Independent Bookstores at Digital Book World 2012

If you’re lucky, at every conference there’s a revealing unconference going on inside of it. This was very much the case with Digital Book World 2012, which drew the usual cliques of publishers, authors, agents, entrepreneurs, editors, and marketers last week to New York. As at the 2011 show, keynotes, studies, and panels about international markets, metadata, ebooks, and DRM attracted large audiences. Amazon and Barnes & Noble reaffirmed their power (and rivalry) as manufacturers of dedicated e-readers and quasi-discovery centers and publishers.

Yet I sensed a markedly different psychology among the Big Six suits that has thus far gone unreported and wasn’t spoken of out loud near me during the show. Although a bit crooked-shouldered after suffering another year of disintermediation beatings by Kindle, these professionals are seeing straighter‚ and farther down the workflow. The damaging fear-induced myopia that took over publishing with the rise of ebooks in 2009 seems to be waning.

Four, even two years ago, dropping the term ecosystem was not a cool thing to do in the rarified corners of the culture business, the equivalent of conjuring a dirty hippie genie at a cocktail party. At Digital Book World, however, I heard more than one CEO use it, along with independent booksellers, it must be noted. The word, of course, encapsulates what librarians and library advocates have long argued for in the digital wars‚ capitalism that supports anyone with a stake in information and encourages fluid tiers of access. Or, if you will, a most beatific United Nations of Reading, to quote Eric Hellman, who was inspired last fall by Brian O’Leary’s excellent Books in Browers presentation, The Opportunity in Abundance.”

Forget the supreme logic of leveraging your partners, or even your supposed competitors when you are dependent on the whims of a relatively small consumer base. The all-important data to buy into a new, bigger picture is compelling. At Digital Book World, Verso Media presented the findings of its 2011 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior. It reported that there are 70 million avid book-buyers in America and that they exhibit split purchasing behavior.” In other words, they patronize online retailers, chain bricks-and-mortars, and local independent bookstores. This finding led the Verso team to recommend that publishers maintain and nurture a diversified retail ecosystem [emphasis added]…because it mirrors consumers’ preferences.

Attendees did not talk up libraries as a bona fide sales channel, despite OverDrive’s laudable efforts last summer to convert library catalog browsing to sales, and that’s fine by me because libraries serve a much more valuable function. The buzz word of Digital Book World 2012, discovery is being vaunted as that crucial bit of foreplay in the reader-book relationship (sorry, new metaphor). As communion cannot happen without a meeting ground, authorities ranging from Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, to Ruth Liebmann, Random House VP director of account marketing, stressed the inestimable worth of a physical space for encountering just the right bit of textual stimulation.

Ruth Liebmann

Whereas Teicher was referring specifically to independent bookstores‚ the comeback kid of 2011 thanks to a stellar holiday season after big efforts to fill the gap left by Borders closures‚ Liebmann was also making reference to libraries (she held forth most astutely on the panel I moderated, Discovery and Libraries in an Age of Fewer Bookstores, one of three library-focused panels held at Digital Book World 2012, an unprecedented number at a trade publishing conference).

Fact: most American communities do not have the luxury of an indie bookstore and a library. More public libraries (9,225 according to ALA) exist than do independents in this country, so Random has done a wise thing by stepping up its library marketing and going deeper into the trenches to interact with patrons, likely part of the demographic who made personal recommendations (at 49.2 percent) the top ranking way that respondents in the Verso study found out about new books. Coming in at number two, not surprisingly, was bookstore staff recommendations (at 30.8 percent).

Although Liebmann was the only representative from a Big Six house to make the connection publicly between indies and public libraries, yet again I could hear antennae pricking at hers and others’ suggestions that higher visibility is a healthy thing, an idea so simple it’s almost stupid since we know it worked for print.

More relevant data that did not get a good airing at the show: Library Journal‘s Patron Profiles research series started in October 2011 with the publication of Volume 1: Understanding the Behavior and Preferences of U.S. Public Library Users. While it’s wrongheaded to argue that library purchases are lost sales or that library patronage will make a publisher millions overnight, Patron Profiles demonstrates a clear link between borrowing books and purchasing them, not to mention a discovery opportunity for publishers.

The study identified a group called the Power Patrons‚ those who visit the physical library at least once a week. On average, they borrow 42 books a year and buy ten. Forty percent of them reported purchasing a title they had previously borrowed, and two-thirds said they bought a book written by an author they discovered in the library. I have no evidence to suggest that exposing this group to more books would mean more sales, but as was pointed out by the Verso study, word of mouth is essential to marketing, and Power Patrons are also active users of social media.

Numbers presented by Russ Grandinetti, VP of Kindle Content at Amazon, reinforced the idea that free exposure can lead profits. Long story short, sales for books available to Amazon Prime subscribers via the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library have increased over the two months the program has been around. As an example, Grandinetti cited people who read the first entry in The Hunger Games trilogy bought the second book 19 percent of the time rather than wait. The same scenario played out with the third entry in the series. (Note: Kindle owners can borrow only one book every month from the Lending Library.)

While Grandinetti underscored the preliminary nature of these findings, I think it’s becoming clearer that friction does exist in a borrowing system with ebooks, even more so in a public library because the hold lists for most ebooks rival Hadrian’s Wall. A question for another post is, how much is too much friction before you turn a reader off from your content altogether?

Librarians understandably bemoan being unable to fulfill patron demand because of restrictions of access to Big Six content (only Random House and HarperCollins loan ebooks to libraries). At New Models for eBook Sales to Libraries moderated by my colleague Barbara Genco, Monique Sendze of the Douglas County Library said her institution has doubled the size of its ebook budget but can’t find enough books to acquire. (LJ‘s 2011 Book Buying Survey, which will be published in full on February 15, found that library ebook budgets increased 101 percent last year, while ebook circulation rose 102 percent.)

This is an incredible situation for a library to find itself in, and given how much we heard about the importance of a physical showroom to encourage discovery and spending, pretty damn ridiculous.

Kate Sheehan

That said, I came to three more positive conclusions after Team Library’s appearances at Digital Book World 2012: a lost loan, so to speak, for a library could very well mean a sale for an indie, B&N, or Amazon and money in the pockets of publishers from aforementioned friction; a lost loan doesn’t very well have to be a lost loan because, as librarian Kate Sheehan pointed out at my panel, indies are plentiful in OverDrive’s catalog (and could perform so well that the Big Six holdouts cave); and while data is still lacking on how libraries contribute to the publishing ecosystem, we’ve laid a firm foundation, thanks in part to Amazon, five words I never thought I’d type.

Thank you for attending my unconference. The coffee’s cold as a stone, but I’ve got hot paczki.

(Big ups to Mike Shatzkin for passing libraries the mic; to Jess Johns and Matt Mullin for their warmth and organizing help; to Angela James for the LJ shout-out; and to Nora Rawlinson, Ruth Liebmann, Kate Sheehan, Matt Tempelis, and Beth Jefferson for speaking so eloquently.)

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.


  1. Joneser says:

    I’m curious to know if holds on the ebook versions of titles are any more higher than those on the print copies. At my library, Hadrian’s wall already exists in print form, as it were.

    With Overdrive, I can find out the average wait time for ebooks, and the checkouts per title over a certain time period (obviously a much smaller universe). Because of limits on patron checkouts and holds, it appears that ebooks are turning over very quickly. I have no idea about their print counterparts.

    It is also easier to check out and return an ebook than its print counterpart in that a patron does not have to physically go to the library, and this helps with turnover.

    • Heather McCormack Heather McCormack says:

      I don’t know how much hard data there is on that. It’s certainly a question I’ve pondered. I think it’s going to depend on author/title/genre/publisher. I was wondering if HarperCollins titles generally have longer holds lists because of the circ cap (maybe a library can’t keep rebuying it, and patrons know that, so they get in line, pronto). Ditto on, say, erotica that people like to consume more anonymously or romance because the publishers feed their readers so regularly, and this has created a voraciousness. On the other hand, romance may be an area that has fewer ebook holds because more is available. Anyways, exciting times. More no doubt later!

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