Last week’s U.S. Book Show — the inaugural virtual publishing conference hosted by Publishers Weekly — had several educational panels featuring publishing professionals and book marketers. These industry thought leaders were buzzing about a wide variety of topics, from marketing backlist books to post-pandemic bookselling in brick-and-mortar stores.
With events looking different than usual over the past year, it’s been quite some time since we’ve provided an event recap for our partners. So today we’re excited to share some of the top trends and tips here for anyone who couldn’t attend the 2021 U.S. Book Show!
Backlist books are major revenue generators
Publishing pros throughout the conference discussed how backlist books — generally defined as books launched over a year ago — have been major revenue drivers over the past year. “Publishers have reported extraordinary sales of backlist titles during the pandemic,” said Ed Nawotka, bookselling and international editor at PW, reporting that previously, backlist titles accounted for 35% of sales, but those numbers have flipped, now accounting for 65% of sales versus 35% for frontlist titles.
Historically, according to Suzanne Donahue, VP and Director of Backlist Sales at Atria Books, almost all publishing businesses were focused on the frontlist. But over the past year, people have seen the backlist take off again, and while it’s always been a backbone of revenue, it hasn’t been such a major focus of attention and nurturing until the pandemic.
Because of this seismic shift, Alexandra Nicolajsen, Director of Social Media and Digital Sales at Kensington Publishing, has been marketing books over a longer timespan — sometimes a year or longer — as opposed to focusing mainly on the first six or eight weeks after on-sale. She says it’s a different way of thinking about how a campaign is done; though she still aims to frontload her marketing budget and make a big splash on launch, she allocates her marketing budget over a longer timespan to maintain momentum long after the publication date and sustain sales well into the backlist period.
Booksellers are also seeing a shift in demand to backlist titles, including Bryanne Hoeg, manager at Powell’s City of Books, who’s noticed consumers are reading more of the classics and books they thought they “should have read.” This was especially apparent during the first few weeks of the pandemic, and because this shift in demand was so rapid, booksellers struggled to quickly replenish their supply to keep up with demand.
BookBub remains a pillar of backlist book marketing
Discounting a book and promoting the discount with a BookBub Featured Deal remains a surefire method of increasing revenue and visibility for backlist titles. Kavita Wright, Director of Online Marketing at Sourcebooks, has tested backlist ebook discounting with titles that have both historically over- and underperformed, and used BookBub to promote those discounts. Many of these promotions performed so well, they pushed the books onto bestseller lists.
Matthew Shatz, VP of Marketing at Penguin Random House Publisher Services, said, “I’m a huge fan of BookBub and have been using it for a long time. It’s a great direct revenue opportunity. We do find that when we place titles in BookBub… you can take a title that’s just been sitting there and all of a sudden you can see it back on a [bestseller] list. We see ebook price promotions and BookBub as a great driver of immediate revenue opportunity for sales, but I think it’s also important to understand… there are other benefits, too. You can go up in the ranking and get more on that Amazon flywheel, for example.”
Hachette has launched a backlist marketing project using sales data to identify titles for renewed promotion and metadata refreshes, according to Mary Urban, Associate Director of Digital Sales. Their monthly Featured Deals effectively generate revenue in the long tail as well. This program also increases ratings and reviews, and makes the product pages for the included titles look better and better over time, which is important to consumers.
Many publishers also use this strategy to promote new frontlist titles. According to Suzanne Donahue, Atria often uses an author’s backlist book as a “Trojan horse” to promote their preorder, running a Featured Deal six weeks ahead of the new book’s release with a link to preorder in back matter of the discounted book. For authors with a deep backlist, Atria will run Featured Deals for earlier books throughout the year not necessarily to drive preorders, but to refresh the author’s audience so when they do come out with a new book a year or two down the line, they have a bigger audience eager for what’s next.
Marketers are refreshing books’ metadata to align with trends
A book’s metadata — keywords, description, etc. — helps make it more discoverable and can help increase sales on online retailers. And many publishers are regularly updating their books’ metadata based on current trends, seasonal hooks, social media trends, and even hashtags BookTokers are using to describe a book on TikTok (e.g. #booksthatmakeyoucry). “The great thing about online retail,” said Mary Urban at Hachette, “is that it’s not static and you can do A/B testing.”
To identify which books could use a metadata refresh, Mary recommended looking at books trending on Amazon and Google searches, and seeing what books you have that fit those needs. “You want a healthy knowledge of your backlist,” she said, “so everyone can come up with ideas and opportunities.”
Publishers are more agile about allocating resources
Over the past year, publishers have been taking a more agile approach to their marketing budgets and resources, shifting attention to books getting buzz rather than rigidly reserving resources for specific frontlist and/or lead titles.
Over the past year, Grove Atlantic has been allocating more resources and attention to maintaining momentum for well-performing books, according to their Digital Marketing Manager Nick Stewart. For example, if a book experiences a publicity hit or is a book club selection, they’ll put more resources into keeping that book in front of people’s eyes and in the broader consciousness. Nick emphasized how these days, there’s less pressure to spend money in terms of timing, e.g. needing to have an enormous ad spend the first week or two after a book’s launch. Instead, money will be spent more strategically in terms of recognizing areas of opportunity, spreading out the budget more along a book’s lifespan.
At the beginning of the pandemic when bookstores were shutting their doors, Kathy Wiess, Director of Sales, Marketing, and Business Development at Europa Editions, needed to pivot quickly. As a small indie publisher, they relied heavily on brick-and-mortar bookstores to hand-sell titles, so they had to figure out how to let consumers know about their books. They quickly shifted their marketing efforts to design more visual assets to use on social media, share graphics with booksellers to share on their social media, create more author videos, produce book trailers, and more. These tactics were so effective that they’ll continue doing them long-term.
Virtual events are here to stay
While virtual events have yielded mixed results over the past year in terms of generating book sales, everyone seemed to agree that virtual events are here to stay, even once IRL events pick up again — largely due to the accessibility benefits. And even if an event doesn’t drive immediate sales, it certainly helps foster relationships between readers, authors, and booksellers, a boon to long-term success.
Europa Editions launched a virtual event series in April 2020, according to Kathy Wiess. For each event they host, they partner with a charity (e.g. Binc or Books Without Borders), make it free with a suggested donation, and partner with an independent bookstore to sell books. The events average 1,000 attendees, and have been so successful that they’ll continue organizing the events post-pandemic.
Phil Davies, director of IndieCommerce at the American Booksellers Association, has heard mixed reviews on virtual events, but noted that an individual bookstore running an author event tends to perform better than events in which multiple bookstores participate. Those larger, multi-bookstore events tend to work out better for the publishers than the bookstores, whereas smaller events more effectively funnel sales to an individual store.
Supply chain issues have been problematic for booksellers
Booksellers reported multiple supply chain issues over the past year. Bryanne Hoeg noted that Powell’s City of Books struggled to get enough frontlist in quantity to meet demand and replenish unexpected popular titles with smaller print runs. Shipping delays due to the pandemic compounded the issue, causing customers to either go to a different source to purchase the book or buy another book instead.
Meanwhile, indie booksellers have had to spend time explaining to customers why shipping takes longer and costs are higher than with Amazon Prime, which often offers free next-day shipping at lower prices. Danny Caine, owner of Raven Book Store in Kansas, mentioned how they’ve had to double down on social media in order to make a case for their store to customers, though he’d much rather pour that energy into ordering books and organizing events. These issues have created frustration amongst indie booksellers, who see articles touting publishers’ immense success in 2020, yet they’ve been struggling with sales or even shutting their doors.
So how can authors and publishers help indie bookstores thrive? Several booksellers mentioned it would be helpful for authors and publishers to continue encouraging readers to shop indie. They have noticed how people are shopping with more social consciousness, and hope this continues long-term. Second, Kwame Spearman, co-owner of Tattered Cover Book Store in Colorado, hopes publishers tour their authors again once it’s safe to do so. While virtual events might be more cost-effective, in-store events are huge revenue drivers, and it’s vital for indie bookstores to create memorable experiences and a sense of community for their readers in order to sustain their businesses.
Continuing to offer workplace flexibility widens the talent pool for publishers
While some publishers like Penguin Random House have already announced plans to be “remote friendly” post-pandemic, others might be looking forward to returning to the office. But most employees prefer a hybrid model; Tsedal Neeley, author of Remote Work Revolution, revealed survey results indicating that 87% of employees want to retain flexibility (with 30% wanting to remain fully remote), though 68% of employers want to return to pre-pandemic workstyles.
However, the benefits of remote positions go both ways. According to publishing analyst Thad McIlroy, offering flexibility and remote work creates larger talent pools for publishers than they’ve ever had before, offering greater opportunities to hire specialized talent beyond New York City. It also allows for more diverse hiring. And as important as it is to hire more diversely, it’s also important to be intentional about onboarding processes and experiences for new BIPOC hires. If their experience is negative, it’ll be hard to retain that talent. According to Stacey A. Gordon, author of Unbias: Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work, having an apprenticeship model in the workplace is vital, rather than expecting people to show up knowing everything.
Additionally, productivity has demonstrably increased during the pandemic, with greater focus on outcomes rather than processes, virtual meetings being more efficient, and employees enjoying more autonomy and self-control. At the same time, employees are grappling with hyperproductivity, according to Tsedal Neeley, working 6.8 hours more per week than they were beforehand, largely because the hours they’d previously spent commuting are being replaced by work. So while remote work has many benefits, there’s still room for improvement to ensure employees have a fulfilling work/life balance, without experiencing exhaustion and burnout.
Analytical skills are desirable for marketing roles
For those looking for positions in publishing, job boards on Publishers Weekly and Pub Lunch can be great resources to peruse — and as Lorraine Shanley, President of Market Partners International, mentioned, “Everyone assumes they have to be an editor, but there are other fascinating jobs in the industry.”
At certain publishers, there are entire teams and/or positions dedicated to marketing backlist books. And for these roles, Matthew Shatz at PRH recommends having a revenue-driven and analytical mindset to be able to understand how to interpret and react to the data. For example, if you’re placing a lot of listings with BookBub, over the course of a month you’d want to look at which categories are working well for your titles, which price points are optimal, what happens if you have a BookBub Featured Deal running the same day as a Kindle Daily Deal versus one day later or one day before, etc. Get comfortable interpreting data on Amazon Vendor Central or other sources, researching Amazon and Google search terms, assessing Facebook campaign performance, and A/B testing on BookBub Ads and knowing how to analyze the results.
To help hone these skills, there are many webinars and courses available online. For instance, if you’re running an Amazon advertising program through a publisher, you can find great webinars — many by Amazon themselves, others by marketing agencies — that teach the best practices.
Did you attend the U.S. Book Show this year? What other tips did you come away with? Let us know in the comments below!
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