January 2008

book vid lit iconSheila Clover-EnglishBook Vid Lit

by Sheila Clover-English

Sheila Clover English, the CEO of Circle of Seven Productions, has been a pioneer
in book video production, marketing and distribution for authors and publishers

up and down graphMonitoring the effectiveness of a book video campaign is essential for a variety of reasons.   First, it is exciting to watch the view count rise and see which sites the video is doing well on.  Second, the analytical information we monitor is actionable.  The video view count provides a sound basis for monitoring a video campaign and making informed decisions about marketing and promotions.  We can supply clients with up-to-date view counts in an easy to understand graph.   But this is just the beginning. From the video views we can establish a benchmark, which is very important.  This allows us to easily compare the progress of several videos at once and see how a video is performing relative to others of the same genre.  If one of our videos falls under our established benchmark, we can take action to bring that number up to expectations.  We can add more distribution, send out more bulletins about the video or create a blog that highlights the video in order to attract more views.Many have heard the old saying, “Only half of all marketing works. You just don’t know which half.”  Through experience and benchmarking you can come up with a pretty accurate formula for the performance of your marketing or promotional efforts.  By using emerging technologies, watching trends and applying educated intuition you determine reasonable probabilities for which efforts are most likely to be successful.Let me demonstrate this with a case study.Seven months ago we created a video for an author’s novel entitled Xen.  The author was happy with the product and the distribution.  Though that particular marketing campaign had ended, we kept the video available online for an extended period of time so new viewers might continue to discover it.  (This is something COS routinely does with client videos.)A couple of weeks ago I was monitoring our uploads. Included in the information that I get on a daily basis is the list of our most viewed videos on a given site.  I noticed that more than one of our sites listed Xen in the top 5 of “most viewed” videos for that day.  Keep in mind that this is a seven month old video.

I found it unusual for an older video to make out top list, but was even more surprised when this was repeated the following day. At that point I knew there had to be something driving the renewed interest in the video.  I called the author’s agent and told her about my observations.  I told her that I knew they were doing something because the video views spiked beyond our standard benchmarks.  The agent was thrilled to hear the news!

The book is about a future utopian society run by women.  The author had spent a week visiting universities and colleges, talking about the book to students and faculty, and suggesting that it be used in the school’s curriculum.   The college students, who represented the target audience for the book, were intrigued enough to look it up on the internet.  They also found the video.  They actively searched out more information about this book.  The combined effect of the speaking tour and a well targeted book video, inspired the student to take action.

Did it result in sales? In this case it did.  But, even if it is not possible to correlate sales with the event or the spike in video views, it was nevertheless successful and effective in motivating an audience into seeking more information about the book.  The more engaged a potential customer, the more likely a sale.

looking at analyticsFor example, if a client has specified a date for a special event and the campaign is geared toward this event, we can monitor through daily, weekly or monthly video views how active their campaign is as we near the event.  Should we see a dip in views right before the event, we can make decisions to help get views up, thus ensuring that the event date stays fresh in the minds of the online public.  We might have the client do a blog or a press release, or we may do one for them. We can ask the client to send out a newsletter or make a special announcement on their online groups.  We can refresh the campaign right before the event.

These are just a sample of the ways that authors and publishers can use analytics to get more from their book video marketing campaigns.

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alchemistEveryone loves a mystery – especially when it involves a secret code or an algorithm that only a select few fully comprehend.  Google’s PageRank algorithm is one example.  It has been the subject of hundreds of articles, blog posts and even a book.  Amazon’s sales rank algorithm is another example.  Like PageRank, it takes into account many factors, weights them and then produces a single number that indicates how well a title is selling.  There is mystery attached to all three areas – the choice of factors, the weights and the calculation. 

Amazon says very little about its sales rank number, providing only this modest overview of its basic function:

As an added service for customers, authors, publishers, artists, labels, and studios, we show how items in our catalog are selling. The lower the number, the higher the sales for that particular item. The calculation is based on Amazon.com sales and is updated each hour to reflect recent and historical sales of every item sold on Amazon.com. 

The sales rank is designed so that a lower value represents greater sales.  Typically your sales rank will decay (grow larger) when your title is not selling, and jump downward when  sales materialize. 

42There have been many attempts to analyze the sales rank algorithm.  Morris Rosenthal of Fonner Books provides a more detailed explanation with accompanying video.   His analysis shows  how the sales rank correlates to books sold weekly, for books with a rank of 1,000 or greater, and daily for books with a rank of less than 1,000.  Both plots show a gently curving line on a log-log scale.  In studying the algorithm over several years, he has found that the newer version (released in October, 2006) is less influenced by historical sales, and also that it is more predictable and correlates better with sales events such as promotions or reviews. 

Another analysis of the sales rank provided by Dog Ear Publishing, pinpoints some of the characteristics of Amazon’s calculation of sales rank.  These include:

  • Sales rank is based on a comparison of your success relative to about 5.2 million other titles that have sold at least one copy
  • Ranking are updated hourly
  • The top 5,000 books seem to follow a different ranking methodology than their higher valued cousins.  This seems to include considering the time between sales and averaging sales to keep rankings in this group more consistent over time.
  • Volatility is sales rank is greatest for books with a sales rank between 50,000 and 250,000.  Titles on either side of the sales rank spectrum tend to change more slowly over time.

Brent Sampson of the Web Pro News new analyzed the frequency of update for sales rank and provided an interpretation of what rankings in certain ranges indicate.  One interesting finding – the ranking is predictive in nature.  That is, trending calculation is applied to arrive at a computerized sales trajectory.  This can mean that even if a book’s sales pick up, it’s sales rank may temporarily fall. 

Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, has published the results of experiments he and others have conducted to study the effects of purchases on sales rank.  He has also used this data to determine the percentage of Amazon sales accounted for by titles in the long tail (i.e. – average sales rank over 100,000).  He concluded that they made up between a quarter to a third of Amazon’s overall book sales. 

As Google does with PageRank, Amazon periodically tweaks the algorithm and this is often the subject of controversy.  Freakonomics’ author Steven Dubner wrote in the New York Times recently about what he perceived as a change in the weighting of top ranked books which favored hardcover paperbacks over older, but still best selling paperback titles. 

There are a number of handy tools available for monitoring your Amazon sales rank.  If you want to quickly check your title’s sales rank without navigating through Amazon, you can use the applet at Sales Rank Express.   You can also install a handy Amazon sales rank  widget on Steve Weber’s blog.   Finally, Charteous has produced a nice tool for tracking Amazon sales rank over time.   The site allows you to track your Amazon sales rank over time as a line chart.  The charting begins when you sign up.  You can also compare your sales rank with other titles.   This is good intelligence to have when determining how you are doing relative to your category.  Two things you will need to do to use this functionality:

  • You’ll need to create an account (there is no charge) 
  • You’ll need the Adobe SVG browser plug-in to see the charts

Deep ThoughtPerhaps someday the arcane calculations within the sales rank algorithm will be exposed.  Until then, authors, publishers and curious onlookers will have to examine the nuanced correlations between book sales and sales rank and speculate about the algorithm’s internal machinations.  And of course Amazon will continue to adjust the parameters, weightings and equations, resetting the analysis and frustrating the cognoscenti.   A corporate powerhouse, using secret code administered by a techno priesthood to strike fear (and sometimes exhilaration) into an anxious population of authors / publishers – the whole thing has the makings of a good techno conspiracy thriller.

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cable TVWe hear a lot these days that the media are becoming more fragmented.   There are more media outlets competing for the attention of smaller and ever more specialized audiences.  In some sense, media fragmentation is really audience fragmentation enabled by new technologies.  For example, cable TV has enabled hundreds of channels vs. a handful of networks, and these cater to very diverse audience interests. 

fragmented kaleidoscope-collageFor a medium like television such fragementation is a relatively recent occurrence.  But book publishers have been dealing with audience fragmentation far longer.  In fact, books represent the original fragmented medium.  The number of books published in the US and UK in 2006 was 190,000 and 130,000 repsectively.  A gauge of the fragmentation is the number of books in the bibliosphere which can be derived from the size of R. R. Bowker’s Books in Print database, which contains over 7.5 million records.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of genres and sub genres with more being created every year.

book vendorThis has challenged publishers to find new ways to aggregate small audiences into a market with enough size to make a title profitable.  In this sense, the Internet is an ideal marketing medium.  Here are a few ways the web can be used by publishers to aggregate small adiences.

  • The first place to begin aggregating your audience is during the development of the title.   Using a blog to showcase your work acts as an audience magnet.  You can design your site and your posts to make it more likely to turn up in certain keyword searches.  You can measure the popularity of content (your posts) and determine what might be most effective in a title.  You can also see which sites and searches are referring traffic.  This can form the basis for understanding your audience long before the printed book is released.
  • Do some tag research to see whether your audience perceives your title the same you do.  Make a list of tags that you think best characterizes your book.  Then see what turns up when search for those tags on Amazon, LibraryThing or general bookmarking sites like del.icio.us.  Every set of tags has the potential to identify a new audience. 
  • Use your tag smarts to advertise more effectively online with tools like Google AdWords.
  • Take a blog tour (see Blog Touring 101) to sites whose audience and / or topic might be a good match for your book.  You can start with sites that already link to your blog and also use blog search engines to find those high authority, high traffic sites that can give your book broad exposure.  Blog tours are often overlooked.  But once you consider that blogs now represent some of the largest media properties in terms of audience size, you can see the benefits of using this lost cost tactic.
  • Use a book video to draw attention to your title and track who’s downloading it.  Adjust tags on the book video to test which tags attract the most downloads.  More clues to who your audience is and what they are interested in.

It’s nice to dream of publishing a book that sells millions of copies.  But the reality is that over 95 percent of books sells fewer than 100 copies.  This makes it imperative for every publisher to have a strategy for aggregating small markets into larger ones. 

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panic on wall streetThe warning signs of an imminent recession in the US are growing.  Forbes reported the weakest sales for the retail sector since 2002, indicating consumers might be financially tapped out and pulling in the reins on their spending.  The Associated Press, reporting on December 2007 retail sales figures released by the Commerce Department, said that sales of books, music and clothing – three consumer staples – had declined by 2 percent during the month.  Recession fears also seem to be spreading beyond the US as international stock markets today took a pummeling – some market indexes falling as much as 8 percent in single session. 

So how did book sales fare during the last recession in 2001.  According to a study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, growth in books sales actually remained positive and then rebounded quickly to their historic growth rate (see table).














Books came through this recession better than other forms of reading entertainment – e.g. newspaper and magazines which have a dependency on advertising.  Perhaps people read more during a recession, since this represents a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment.  Recessions, like mass extinctions, often pave the way for the emergence of new business models and buying behavior as they wreak their financial havoc.   So what might we predict from this recession?

  • More exports by US publishers as a weak dollar makes US titles less expensive for consumers in other regions with stronger economies
  • Greater growth in the use of  the book rental services and used book sales as consumers migrate to cheaper reads
  • Continuing growth in e-books and books via e-mail – though these will remain a relatively small markets compared to print
  • Accelerated dismantling of media conglomerates which have not shown the ability to create synergies among media properties with widely divergent business models
  • Continuing fragmentation of the book market, which could favor smalled, more focused publishers in the long term

prayingWhat type of books do well during a recession?  Consumer tastes are always difficult to predict, but here are some guesses that are probably safe bets:

  • Do-it-yourself books – why pay someone else to do it if you can figure it out yourself
  • How-to and educational books – maybe a recession  is a good time to learn a new skill; schools often find their enrollments pick up during recession
  • Self improvement titles – developing those aspects of character that will see you through tough times is the ticket

And for those watching in fear as the mortgage mess spreads, stock markets tumble and personal wealth erodes,  perhaps a title that offers spiritual uplift or religious guidance.

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storytelling around a campfireHumanity never tires of hearing a good story.  In ancient times, stories were told around a roaring campfire.  The oral tradition evolved and continues even after the written word had become the dominant way to retain cultural knowledge.   Radio and now podcasts are its modern incarnation. 

The  podcast novel is finding its place in the bibliosphere as a way for indie authors to build an audience when publishers won’t bite.  Some authors have achieved remarkable success telling their stories in the “podiobooks” format.   JC Hutchins is one example.  He has built a highly active Internet community around his work without ever publishing in print form.  He has finally relented and decided to publish one of his novels, 7th Son: Descent, which goes to print iin 2009

iPod podcastSo what is a podiobook?  A podiobook(or podcast novel) is a term coined by Evo Terra to describe serialized audio books which are made available in podcast format.   Innovative authors are evolving podcast novels by adding more production values.  In some sense, it may follow the creative arc of old time radio drama.  Some of these enhancements include:

  • Guest voices on a podcast
  • Sound effects
  • Music to heighten the emotional impact
  • Building community with the podcast audience by posting listener feedback on a blog associated with the podcast

All of these add emotional impact and help the reader better imagine the story.  Creating a podcast movel takes  work, however.  A lot more work than, say, creating and writing a blog.  Some of the considerations you will need to make include:

  • Format – i.e. whether single or multiple voices, other production values, how long each episode should be, etc.
  • Recording equipment and editing software – the tools you use will depend on the requirements of your podcast as well as your comfort level with technology; don’t underestimate the learning curve
  • Time investment – episodes can easily take upwards of 8 hours to fully produce and distribute; longer if you’re adding voices, sound effects and music
  • Costs for hosting, storage and throughput
  • Tracking downloads and getting / responding to feedback from your audience

There are many good references to help you get started.  One of the best I’ve found is Podcasting Bible by Steve Mack and Mark Ratcliffe.  The authors provide a comprehensive overview of the subject and take you through the four stages of a podcast:

  • Planning,
  • Recording and editing
  • Encoding
  • Distribution

One of the things you’ll need to be especially aware of – success has its costs.  Generally, podcast distribution services charge for storage and throughput.  Throughput can be expensive if thousands of fans start downloading your serialized story podcasts.  Be sure to check the terms of your podcast hosting service or distribution network and calculate what a popular podcast might wind up costing you.

Even if you’re writing a work of non-fiction, you can use a podcast to promote your book.  Patrice Anne-Rutledge published an article in Writers Weekly on promoting books with podcasts.  The article is a comprehensive collection of tips and resources that budding podcast authors will find very useful. 

father reading to childrenAs a yonng child, one of my fondest memories was being in school and having the teacher read a story to me and my classmates at the end of the day.  Podcast stories, when done well, let me recaptre that experience.  Podcast novels and poidobooks are just the latest step in the great oral tradition of storytelling.

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The idea that there are highly influential people who are trendsetters for the rest of us is very seductive.  So seductive, in fact, that it has held sway in marketing circles, in one form or another, for over five decades.  The media has picked up the concept by publishing lists of “top influentials” – e.g. The Atlantic magazine.  But this marketing orthodoxy is coming under greater scrutiny and being challenged by network scientists such as Duncan Watts. 

influentialFast Company, in its February 2008 issue, highlighted the new research and the ensuing debate among marketers in an article Is the Tipping Point Toast?by Clive Thompson.  The theory of “influentials” had its origins in the 1950’s with the work of Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld (authors of Personal Influence).  Its latest  proponents include Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) and Ed Keller and Jon Berry (authors of .Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy).    The influentials theory goes like this.  Target a sophisticated minority of  highly connected consumers (the “influentials”) and motivate them to talk up / recommend your product or service.  They will convince others to use the product or service and get a viral buzz going.

Duncan WattsDuncan Watts, a noted network theorist and author of Six Degrees, has challenged these long held beliefs with some new studies he has conducted while on sabbatical from Columbia University at Yahoo Research   His conclusion?  He finds that viral buzz is as likely to be started by poorly connected ordinary Joe’s and Jane’s, as by in-the-know hipsters.  What matters, he argues, is the readiness of the environment to accept the messages delivered, not the messenger.  In a receptive environment, a weakly connected individual can spread a trend as easily as someone with a large Rolodex.  Without that receptivity, even those highly connected hubs of society may be ineffective in a viral campaign.

Stanley MilgramHis findings were based on research that reproduced some of the original work of Stanley Milgram– arguably the father of the notion of six degrees of separation – except on a much larger scale.  Milgram had 160 individuals in Nebraska attempt to get a letter to a stockbroker in Boston by sending it to a colleague who they thought could get it one step closer to its final destination.  Only a small percentage of the letters made it to the stockbroker and these made the final step through the same three friends of the target.  Milgram concluded that the separation between strangers is generally 6 degrees or less.  Marketers concluded that the fact that the same three individuals appeared to act as gatekeepers proved that influentials were a critical part of communication among strangers. 

Watts’ study increased the size of the study by two orders of magnitude (61,000 participants) and used e-mail instead of postal mail.  He confirmed the six degrees, but showed that only 5% of the e-mails passed through hyper-connected individuals.  The bulk went through weakly connected participants.  He concluded that the apparent gatekeepers in Milgram’s study were a statistical artifact because of the extremely small sample size.  Watts has studied all sorts of human networks, from disease patterns to how rock bands become popular. 

So what’s the big deal?  Two things:

  • Advertisers and marketers are spending billions of dollars annually targeting so called influentials who they hope will spark viral campaigns
  • All of this money, time and effort may be wasted if what really matters is the receptivity of the general public to a new product, service or idea

One has only to think about the current presidential campaign in the U.S. to see how important Watts’ ideas could be.  In the world of book publishing, it may mean that we should find ways to gauge the receptivity of a market to a new author or title rather than hoping that some well placed book reviews will make the difference between failure and success.  Watts is the first to admit that some will find his conclusions counter-intuitive, but the science of networks and his carefully organized experiments appear to support them.  Relativity and quantum mechanics are counter-intuitive, but modern science and all the benefits it has bestowed would be impossible without these “unnatural” theories. 

Our intuition can be powerful, but it can be seduced and canalized by appealing ideas that don’t stand p under closer examination. 

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Cassie EdwardsThe New York Times reported that popular writer Cassie Edwards , who has written over 100 historical romance novels, was recently accused of plagiarism by bloggers at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books.  The bloggers discovered similarities between excerpts from several of Ms. Edwards’ works (Running Fox, Savage Longings, Savage Moon and Savage Beloved) and passages from various sources. 

In a follow-on post on Saturday, January 13, the same bloggers reported that a reader had found that Ms. Edwards may also have lifted text from Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the fictional work 1930.  The reader, a woman named Amy, sent the blog an e-mail which detailed 17 different instances where another of Ms. Edwards’ novels, Savage Dream, appears to have borrowed from Laughing Boy

Oliver La FargeEdwards commented that she didn’t realize she had to attribute her sources in a romance novel, saying “When you write historical romances, you’re not asked to do that.” 

Signet Books, a division of Pengin Group which has published a dozen of Cassie Edwards’ novels, said it was investigating the alleged plagiarism and was checking all of the works she had published with them. 

The bloggers at Smart Bitches uncovered the apparent copying by plugging excerpts of Ms. Edwards’ books into Google and then comparing passages side by side.  An article on the Marywood University Library website provides an example of how this can be done.  The University of Maryland College website also provides a list of plagiarism detection tools. 

Kaavya ViswanathanThe book publishing world has been periodically rocked by scandals involving plagiarism.  For example, Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was pulled from bookstores after it was learned that she had copied portions of another author’s work.  The problem seems to be getting worse.  A few years ago, an article apppearing in Slate entitled How to Curb the Plagiarism Epidemic, cited the gorwing problem of high rpofile plagiarism.  As plagiarism detection tools get more sophisticated, expect more instances of established authors being “savaged.”

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