Reader survey results

We asked readers how they discover and purchase books

When Joe Wikert and I first began talking about doing a survey of readers’ book-buying habits, I had something specific in mind. While every day brings news of another publisher starting up or perhaps of a new online community for readers or authors–and sometimes several in a single day–most of these new entities will disappear in time, some to be swallowed up by a larger entity, others to simply turn out the lights. A small number–two or three in any given category–might manage to stick around for the long term.

And, yes, only two or three: as the hard economics of the Internet makes clear, the Internet is not for wusses. It’s an undemocratic medium with a small number of companies lording it over the thousands of champions of the Long Tail. A safe prediction is that the multitude of book-related sites will be winnowed down to a small number in time. But what will those sites be and what will characterize a successful book-oriented service in the coming years?

The successful sites of the future will be those that either learn how to sell things or those that provide marketing support to those that sell things. There may be 10,000 authors of science fiction, but there will be only two or three sites that service the science fiction community. If we get a handle on where people go now to buy things and where they go to learn about things (aka discovery), we might be able to point our rocket ship into the future and get a picture of that emerging planet.

Hence the survey. We determined to ask just a few questions, but to keep a steady focus on where people buy things and where people go to learn about new things.

The results are in and they are intriguing; in some respects they are counterintuitive. Before I say another word, though, I have to erect a bulwark of caveats and qualifications. The survey was filled out by approximately 500 people, hardly enough to be considered to be representative of the book-buying population. And even if ten times that amount had responded, even if a thousand times the number, the respondents would not necessarily be representative of the world of book buyers. Add to this the skewing factor that this was an online survey (believe it or not, some people don’t live online), and you rightly ask yourself, What is this survey representative of, exactly?

The direct sales channel opportunity

The survey is thus not definitive or representative; what it is is suggestive. It suggests things that publishers can and should be thinking about. When a large portion of the respondents (11%) say that they bought books directly from a publisher, this should give pause to the many publishers who insist that you can’t sell books on a direct basis. And don’t let the unreliability of the 11% figure throw you.

Suppose the number is a tenth of that, suppose 1% of all books sold are purchased directly from the publisher, that’s 1% of around $35 billion (the total value of books at retail in the U.S.; trade books are around half of the total) or $350 million. And as a friend of mine likes to say, that ain’t chopped liver. So this survey suggests to publishers that they should be looking into selling books directly to consumers if they are not doing so already.

Discovery a bigger problem than switch from print to digital

What I was most curious about was whether or not there would be a disconnect between where people discover books and where they ultimately buy them. And yes, there is a disconnect. The respondents said they discovered books in both physical bookstores and in online bookstores, with the online venue being more important (39% as opposed to 32%), but they were twice as likely to purchase the books online.

This suggests to me that the phenomenon of “showrooming”–where a prospective consumer discovers something in a bricks-and-mortar store, but then buys it online–is even more prevalent than previously thought, at least by me. It also points to the great problem that the trade book sector now faces, that with the decline in the number of physical bookstores, books may play a smaller role in people’s lives, as the online venues have not yet replaced the lost discovery capability of your corner bookshop.

Let’s be careful to describe this problem properly: the challenge to traditional publishers is not the switch from print to digital books but the loss of the physical retail discovery channels, which online bookselling, whether of print or ebooks, makes possible.

Less surprising to me was the fact that 22% of the respondents said that they had learned about a book from a print publication. Print endures for many, many reasons. Partly this is because of the truism of the book business: older people buy more books, and people buy more books as they get older. My household still subscribes to three print publications, all of which are great forums for books: The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. Those names say something to you, as they point to the cultural centrality of New York and the place the book business plays in that city. But the online venues are cutting into the hegemony of New York and print: online publications were cited by 27% of respondents, and social media sites such as Goodreads and LibraryThing accounted for another 14%. This suggests to me that San Francisco, with its proximity to Silicon Valley, may evolve into a new book center, rivalling New York, as digital media continues to erode the legacy print base.

Going digital, but not exclusively

The really interesting set of responses came to our question about format: Did you buy ebooks, print, or both? Print won this won at 40%, ebooks coming in at 26%. This is more evidence that the strongest trend is to buy online, not to read books in digital form. But the hybrid number–37% of respondents said that they purchased both print book and ebooks–really tells us a lot about the market. It’s not binary. While the share of ebooks is growing, print continues to play a large role in this industry, and it would play even a bigger one if anyone could figure out how to make money operating a physical bookstore.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that print books are part of an ecosystem, and the sale of print is threatened more by changes to the “habitat” than by consumer preferences for ebooks. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the demand for print will persist long after any retailer can provide print books at a profit, which will in turn lessen demand for books in any format.

Goodreads, LibraryThing, et al, filled the void

Throughout this exercise I have been musing on what I regard as The Great Lost Opportunity of the Book Business. What would have happened if The New York Times Book Review (which, by the way, has nothing to do whatsoever with The New York Review of Books, which was founded when The New York Times was shut down by a labor strike) had a vigorous plan to dominate the online conversation about books as it historically had done in the print world? It would have been a tough brand to beat. I admire Goodreads, LibraryThing, and the many new services, but they would all have had a hard time getting started if the Times’s book people had more imagination.

I am writing this after just having finished reading the print version of The New York Times Book Review, as I have every Sunday for 40 years. I live online, but that one publication continues to exercise a hold over me. But it’s now a thin document, earnest but increasingly marginalized. How sad that we won’t have it with us as our books migrate to the digital future. It coulda been a contender.

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