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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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Comments: 13

  1. Just wanted to add my two cents to the results as well…

    When asked where respondents heard about books they recently purchased, word-of-mouth was the top vote-getter. Despite all the digital buzz all around us, that’s typically my main resource too. It’s also obvious that the death of physical bookstore discovery is greatly exaggerated. Even though we have fewer of them these days they still rank pretty high in the survey results.
    The results also showed that online bookstore browsing and discovery is comfortably ahead of physical bookstore browsing/discovery. I wonder what those stats would have looked like back when Borders was still around though…
    When it comes to awareness and discovery, it was also interesting that Facebook, Twitter and other social book sites like Goodreads are still trailing the good old-fashioned print publication.Finally, I found it particularly interesting that Twitter is almost 3 times as influential as Facebook is for discovery. I would have assumed Facebook is ahead of Twitter.

  2. Hi Joseph,

    Great post. I read Todd Sattersten’s EVERY BOOK IS A STARTUP last month, and he cites a study about flock behavior in humans as a model for how book hits get made. Only some small percentage of people had to be told to move in a certain direction for the entire study group to move in that direction.

    That’s why even though Word of Mouth ranks high as a discovery method, I would argue that this clouds the extent of the change happening. The source of recommendations (even for literary fiction and serious non-fiction) has moved from “print” publications like THE NEW YORK TIMES (digital for many people these days but the book review is still put out on a weekly schedule) to LibraryThing/Goodreads.  

    The influential first movers are now the top reviewers on Goodreads, many of whom receive ARCs from publishers or work for B&N and get galleys from major expos. Some of these people have over 1,000 followers each.  Once several of these reviewers rate a work highly, more traditional Word of Mouth mechanisms work to spread the work widely. THE NEW YORK TIMES used to be the principal in this role, but I don’t believe that it is anymore. Even Edmund White matter-of-factly stated a few years ago that the NYTBR’s assessment used to be of central importance to every new book, implying that it no longer is.

    Professional advance review publications are still important to the extent that they can influence Amazon’s editorial picks and the B&N and indie bookstore buyers. 

    Does the NYTBR ever issue advance copies of their reviews to these audiences?


  3. I wonder how much the practice of discovering a book in a physical bookstore and then buying it online will be affected by the leveling of the playing field now that online book retailers are having to charge tax for book purchases in an increasing number of states, such as Texas, where I live.

    • It will close the gap a bit but it certainly won’t eliminate it. Most books on Amazon are still about 33% off list price and consumers have been trained to assume they’ll get a better deal on-line. The 6%, 8%, and even 10% state taxes won’t completely balance things out.

      • Agreed, this is a small blow to online buying/selling. I think going online allows the buyer to price-shop, which gives online the (unfair, but true) advantage. But, a customer doesn’t have to pay shipping & handling when they’re at a physical bookstore, so that’s +1 point for the physical bookstore.

  4. Thanks for addressing the potential fallability of surveys up front. I enjoy reading your usual down to earth takes on publishing. Since I am a fan of the inherent complexities of just about anything–I enjoy observing where publishing is and is not going just yet. I also appreciate that you always remind us of how large this industry is and that 1% can affect/effect a business model and that print world still holds answers and so does the online world. They are still complementing each other. Amazon thrives on the book buyer as buyer of items other books!

  5. Until the tech world gets off the statistical merry-go-round and starts considering the human equation it’s always going to fall short of success. First off, “point of discovery,” which we used to call a bookstore, is a cold miserable experience online. We don’t want to use keywords to find books because half the time we don’t know what we want. That’s the whole idea of browsing. And waiting for the internet, even on a fast connection, to pull down page after page of thumbnails and lame descriptions is just play painful. Then there is the simple factor of touch. 

    While youngsters may think everything cyber is cool, books remain one of those products that many of us want to actually pick up, feel, flip through pages, read the author bio, get lost in the cover art – none of that seems to be considered important in any of these surveys. As a long-time book person and someone who spent 35 years helping bring online to the forefront I am very disappointed at what we have ended up with – basically just a bunch of businessmen more intent on big sales and low overheads – rather than “book people” and “booksellers” who actually knew what was inside the books, not just the price and the sku number. 

    Want to make a good online experience and enhanced “point of discovery?” Start asking questions of old-time booksellers and find a way to make online enhance, not replace, brick and mortar. Then you won’t need surveys and focus groups. Books are just as much about human emotion as they are about statistics. 

    • I get where you’re coming from. The bookstore used to be the only place that I’d go as a kid on family trips to the mall. My parents and sibling would just park me there while they pursued their more philistine interests. 

      But I honestly believe that I am much better at selecting books that won’t disappoint me now, using Kindle samples and being active on Goodreads, than during all my years as a physical bookstore customer. 

      You can’t have sacred cows or be too precious about tradition – not in culture or business. I’m reading a book right now, GONE WITH THE WIND, that is about just that.

    • Well don’t stop there… if you really are “someone who spent 35 years helping bring online to the forefront,” please offer/manifest your idea for how to NOT have online bookselling “end up with … a bunch of businessmen more intent on big sales and low overheads.” Heed your own wisdom, which I agree with you is true: “the human equation” is extremely important — if an improved, alternative book browsing/discovery experience could be created online, people will be drawn to it and the online landscape will change. So please share with us anything you’ve tried/thought would specifically make the online book world less of a “cold miserable experience” — frankly, I would love to hear anyone’s ideas!

  6. This is certainly interesting. I’d love to see the actual survey questions with response percentages. As for me, I buy both digital and print. I prefer fiction on my Kindle but reference books are much better in print.

  7. This is a good snapshot of how the most important decisions are made by readers. I get a feeling that the hybrid figure is the most evocative one. From those results of 37%, I see a new demand for bricks and mortar located High quality, digital Print on Demand operations, with waiting room and showroom. Latte anyone? POD has come of age, and IMHO, it will be the print method of choice very soon. For booksellers to reduce the requirements of inventory storage and investment is a key to profitable margins. What we need now are stand-along book production machinery in a reasonable footprint, similar to the in-store photo labs of twenty years ago. Publishers send their dealers the files, dealers print the books to order, or print some stock if they see or forecast sufficient demand. Even Kiosk type operations would become possible, assuming that reliable POD hardware can be engineered into a stand-along turnkey manufacturing process.

  8. In our home, ebooks are for enjoyment, print is durable reference. I can highlight an ebook all I want, but it’s still quicker to find a specific quote or diagram on hard copy.

  9. I think what all this survey data says is … what we desperately need is a fully-WiFi brick and mortar store, the size of a coffee shop, that offers the breadth of Amazon.com in terms of digital bookstock along with the interactivity of an Apple store or B&N – so you can talk to people about books, browse for books on an in-store e-reader, get recommendations from in-store staff, sample, handle, and then purchase (online), without the store paying rent for some absurd square-footage, as Borders once did and B&N still does… It’s gotta look like an indie bookhop, but behave like an Amazon.com-in-the-flesh

    Am I right?

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