January 2009

Sheila Clover-EnglishBook Vid Lit

by Sheila Clover-English

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

Can out-of-home markets be the secret to stimulating books sales? 

Scarborough Research, for one, thinks so.  According to its website Scarborough Research “measures the lifestyles, shopping patterns, media behaviors, and demographics of American consumers locally, regionally, and nationally. Scarborough consumer insights are used by marketers and media professionals to develop successful programs that maximize return on marketing and sales investments.”  When Scarborough researched the buying patterns of the of commuters for one of its clients – Transit TV – it found something that might not be a surprise to publishers; commuters read.

transittv-logo_mediumTransit Television Network, headquartered in Orlando, Florida, is the largest out-of-home digital network and provides information, entertainment and advertising to transit riders across North America.  Transit TVhas flat screen televisions on its buses in five major cities; Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando and Milwaukee. According to the company, 46% of its riders are aged 18-34 and 55% are female. But what percentage of commuters are buying books and where are they going to buy them?  That’s what Scarborough Research asked and we’ll review those findings in a moment.

Other than its statistical significance, there are a variety of reasons why the publishing world should take note of this information:

  • Favorable demographics – an audience of readers in major cities
  • A captive, repeat audience
  • High audience recall of the material shown

The Transit TV audience is preconditioned to accept book video as both content and purchase suggestions since they have been watching book trailers since 2008. Circle of Seven (COS) Productions signed a contract with Transit TV in March of 2008 to deliver book trailers as content. The relationship between the two companies started with a simple email from me, inviting Transit TV to look at some of our videos on YouTube.  I saw the Transit TV logo on the OVAB site and recalled seeing that on ExpandedBooks’ website. I knew there must be interest in book content.  And COS offers something different than ExpandedBooks so I thought I’d contact Transit TV and see what they thought of our content.  

 Jeff Hartlieb,Director, Content and Production at Transit TV, was excited by the audience reaction to the book trailers.  “I saw the significance of the Book Trailer segments and when riders started asking where they could purchase the books, I knew we had hit a home run”  Hartlieb went on to say, “The content is highly visual and well suited to Transit TV’s environment which is one of the major reasons it has done so well on our system”

cos_screen2Once book trailers began to play on Transit TV there was a brief period of adjustment where commuters would see a book trailer and had to understand what it was. Our book videos are meant to be entertaining; we don’t like overt advertising.  To reinforce the impression of entertainment (vs. advertisement), we created “bumpers.”  These are video segments at the beginning and end of a book trailer.  The bumper at the start of the book trailer is designed to tell commuters they are learning about a particular book genres.  The end bumper encourages them to read. 

We were contracted to provide content, not ads.  By creating a pre and post video that encourages the experience of reading, then putting our trailers between those bumpers as examples of what someone might read, we are able to treat our book videos are entertainment, not ads. 

The downside of being a content provider instead of an advertiser is that we don’t have the metrics or analytics that advertisers get. We know we will get 10 million impressions for each video, but we don’t get specifics and we don’t get to request particular spots or dates like an advertiser would.  The videos play within the month we submit them. Because the videos are taken as content and because of the lack of analytics we don’t charge clients for placement on Transit TV.  We do, however, charge a nominal fee for formatting and processing so it doesn’t absorb incidental costs related to the program.

The Transit TV venue has significant benefits, however.  For example, a 51% average advertising recall which is an amazing statistic, and one we have seen in action.  Consider the case of author Thora Gabriel. “I was excited when I opened my email to see that I had gotten a fan letter from someone who saw my trailer on the bus!” she told us.  The commuter was so enticed by the trailer that he noted the URL of the author and emailed her when he got to a computer. “Being quite a fan of various fantasy books and such, I was intrigued by the “trailer” for the book currently being shown on Los Angeles MTA bus monitors,” he wrote in his e-mail.  He recalled the book, the author and the URL after getting off the bus.   He was inspired enough to take action. That’s what all promotion is suppose to do.

Another important factor –  89% have a favorable opinion of Transit TV so the majority of people watching appreciate the content.  With so many people on advertisement overload, discovering a venue where the audience is happy to watch the material is itself a positive outcomes for advertisers.  Authors are excited about getting this additional exposure as well as the fact that it inspires action. “I’m getting more and more fan mail from people who saw my trailer on the transit bus!” say author Christine Feehan.

Scarborough Research learned interesting facts about Transit TV commuters. They did an index that compares the overall population of the city to those on taking the transit system. The index works by examining the concentration of a certain type of consumer compared with the overall city.

For example, in Milwaukee, there is a 22% greater concentration of people who purchase books online who are taking the transit system and watching Transit TV. The concentration of readers/commuters purchasing books online in Chicago is 12%. That means that you can find a 12% concentration of book buyers on the bus compared to the metro population index. The down and dirty of these stats tells us that a high concentration of book buyers are riding the transit system.

Where are these book buyers going to purchase their books?  The research shows not everyone buys online.  In Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Chicago, Waldenbooks was the preferred bookseller for commuters who watched Transit TV.  But, in Atlanta it is B. Dalton where the majority of commuters purchased their books.  Other stores where book buyers shopped included Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Half Price Books and then online at Amazon.

city-bus1In summary, there is a high concentration of book buyers taking the transit bus system who are spending significant and repeat time on the bus, watching Transit TV.  These book buyers are now attuned to book video that plays several times throughout each day, informing them of new books and reminding them of the entertainment of reading.

It’s only a matter of time before one of the booksellers will find a way to utilize this venue and drive foot traffic to their own stores.  They will benefit from multiple books being presented to these readers that they aren’t having to pay for. It will just be a matter of driving that traffic to a central or “preferred” point of sale.

Readers benefit from having this information given to them in an entertaining way, authors benefit from a book promotion venue that is targeted to a high concentration of book buyers and booksellers benefit from repeat messages telling people that reading is a major form of entertainment.  With bus ridership on the increase, it’s a rare win-win-win situation.

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Tim Ferris

Tim Ferris wrote his highly popular book, “The 4 Hour Workweek, about how to become one of the NR (the New Rich), back in 2006.  But rather than relying on his or his publisher’s intuition about a catchy book title, he decided to test it with the public instead.  He tested multiple titles using the Google AdWords serach marketing tool and used the winning title for his book.  He placed Adwords text ads, varied the titles, and chose the title with the highest click-thru rate.  He admits “The 4 Hour Workweek,” wasn’t his favorite, but understood that it had strong audience appeal.  His potential audience decided his title, which is now also his brand.

Marci Alboher & Tim Ferriss  on authors@google

John Graham-Cumming performed similar testing for The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive, which he describes as “a travel book for nerds.”  The book launches in April, 2009.  His experimented tested three ads.  The winner was A Voyaging Mind.  In this case his publisher, O’Reilly, overruled this title and substituted its own.  Mr. Graham-Cumming is undeterrred; he is sold on the power of this kind of experiment:

It seems to me that Google AdWords could readily be used for other such experiments: it’s cheap, it’s simple to target your experiment based on keywords so that you can choose the type of people exposed to the experiment and by setting up random display of a set of ads you can try out variations of an idea easily.

Obviously book titles are just one possibility. What other things could be tested using Google AdWords?

basic-adwords-account-structureThere are many ways, of course to test book titles.  This strategy is useful, however, in that it can help identify untapped niches in markets.  So what is the basic process for using Google AdWords to test the title of your book?   Here’s a regrettably brief flyover:

  • Open a Google AdWords account and set up your campaign.  Before starting, I highly recommend spending some time in the Google AdWords Learning Center to get familiar with the many features of AdWords.
  • Set up an ad group that consists of groups of appropriate keywords based on your keyword research.  Google provides robust keyword research tools which can indicate search volume over specified time periods and suggest related keywords.  This research is valuable in and of itself for learning more about the needs and desires of your audience, as well as discovering new audience segments.
  • Link each adgroup with an appropriate landing page and assign each adgroups with 2 or more compelling text ads (see diagram at right)
  • The headline of each ad should be the prospective book title.  The other two lines of text are devoted to messages appropriate for the subtitle fo the book.
  • Once you have completed these tasks, Google will provide you with total impressions and click-through-rates for each ad.  Total impressions relates to how many individuals were exposed to your ad; click-through-rate  (CTR) indicates the percentage of individuals who actually click on the ad.  A good click-through-score indicates that your title somehow engaged people who were searching for information related to the keywords in your ad group. 
  • Test for a few weeks and then select the title that achieves the high CTR.

The cost of a campaign is directly related to the cost-per-click (CPC) and the total number of clicks for each of your ads.  Your CPC is influenced by the maximum cost per click you specify when setting up your ad groups, the competitiveness of the keywords you are using and your ad’s quality score.  Quality score is determined by the relevance of your ad to the keywords and the content o the landing page.  The total number of clicks will be driven by how compelling your ad copy is, as well as the position of the ad in search results pages.  You can control your ad spend by giving Google a maximum daily budget to work with.

google-adwords-logoThe use of search marketing tools like Google AdWords to test book titles and marketing messages is that you get objective data to back up yours or your publisher’s  intuition about what is “sticky” and what is not.  The relatively small cost of this testing can have a big payoff in increased book sales.  No doubt this data willl hold some surprises for publishers and authors who have relied on “gut instinct” when it comes to coming up with book titles. 


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cpsc-logoThe tough economy looks like bad news for the children’s book market – for example children’s publisher Scholastic and bookseller Children’s Placehave reported declining sales and earnings.  But now publishers and booksellers are learning that with the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in August 2008, things may get even tougher. 

Book publishers aren’t used to having to worry about product safety.  After all, how dangerous can a book be?  But in response to a huge Mattel toy recall in 2007, over concerns about too much lead in its products manufactured in China, the government has passed legislation which is now causing concern among those who sell books to children. 

As US News & World Report commented in a recent article:

On the eve of holiday gift-giving, the activist group Public Citizen is warning about possible hazards from imported toys. Its report, called “Closing Santa’s Sweatshop,” maintains that U.S. trade policy and outdated consumer-safety protections expose America’s children to a flood of unsafe toys.

The report says that the United States will import $23 billion in toys-90 percent from China-this year and that imports account for 90 percent of the toys on U.S. retailers’ shelves. “Many nations producing our children’s toys have extremely lax safety standards and enforcement,” Public Citizen says. “Yet, while toy imports exploded by 562 percent from 1980 to 2008, the budget of the agency responsible for toy safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), was cut by 23 percent, with staffing cut nearly 60 percent during the same period.”

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act covers not just playthings but all consumer products intended for use by children 12 and under.  It has two primary provisions:  one lowers the lead content allowed in all products sold to these children and the other mandates that a third party certify the product meets the new requirements. 

Fashion Studio Beck & Mayer

Fashion Studio Beck & Mayer

Publishers who have children’s books or book related products manufactured in China are especially scrambling.  For example, Becker & Mayer, which produces children’s books and toys, recently discussed the extra measures they had to take to comply with the new regulations and still meet their holiday production schedules.  Many other publishers are still scratching their heads and trying to figure out how the act will affect their business.  In her article, Book Manufacturers Scramble to Comply With Child Safety Act, By Karen Raugust of- Publishers Weekly catalogued the industry’s responses.  While industry leaders applauded the need to regulate substances like lead in children’s toys, they felt that books should be exempted from the regulations.  After all, during the last two decades only one instance of too much lead in a book has been reported and that had to do with a spiral binding.

As Ms. Raugust lays out in her article, the impacts for publishers are significant:

Testing can cost from a few hundred dollars to $1,500 per item—more for phthalates—which can translate to 20% of the price of some titles. Depending on how the testing protocols shake out, the financial burden of testing each item could put some houses out of business or at least cause them to narrow their lists. Another ramification is the added production time. There are only two or three third-party testing facilities, which test products in all categories, and the extra one to six weeks it takes to get the results makes it more difficult to meet shipping deadlines. 

 If the regulations aren’t changed to exclude books, smaller publishers could abandon this market or cut back on the number of children’s titles they release.  It would be a sad commentary on our government’s ability to make reasonable policies if we were to see a smaller number of books for children at a time when there is great hand wringing about the decline of reading among children. 



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xml-tagMany publishers are debate about the benefits of a switchover to using XML (eXtensible Markup Language) as the native source for book content to ease publishing in multiple formats and context.  Proponents argue that while there are challenges to switching to an XML based publishing workflow, the benefits outweigh the costs and provide publishers with more flexibility to publish in multiple formats with less cost.  Many publishers have begun to adopt XML and the debate has moved to a new level; now it is about shifting from book thinking to content thinking.  In this view, the printed book is just one “output” in an array of possible outputs being generated from a single XML content input.

Some of the advantages cited for using XML are:

  • More uniform document structuring and styling
  • Meta information can easily be embedded, in addition to the book content
  • Content can be contextualized so that different content is displayed depending on the context – e.g. displaying hyperlinks for an ebook, but not a printed version
  • Allowing content to be more quickly searched, shared and combined to generate new revenue opportunities for publishers and authors

xml-workflowThe case for the XML centric viewpoint is most persuasively presented by Mike Shatzkin, co-founder of Idea Logical Company.   He argues that:

  1. Publishers have fewer traditional venues to promote and market their books, due to the reduction in in brick and mortar retail bookstores and the ongoing reduction in print media outlets where books have long been reviewed and marketed.
  2. As more promotion, sales and consumption of book content moves online, publishers need to provide that content in formats and “chunks” better suited to the online space, quickly and cost effectively.  This will ultimately provide more sources of revenue for publishers.
  3. Starting with XML as the native format allows publishers to provide the right structuring and tagging of content to allow this to happen. 

Mr. Shatzkin summarizes his argument thus:

Here’s what we call the Copernican Change. We have lived all our lives in a universe where the book is “the sun” and everything else we might create or sell was a “subsidiary right” to the book, revolving around that sun.

A contrary view is offered by Adam Hodgkin on the blog, Exact Edition.  He argues that XML hsa been around for over 10 years and while it has been used by publishers as a useful formatting tool, it is notyet at a point where it will displace book-as-book as the the critical output from publishers.  He cites the success of Google Book Search as evidence of his stance.

Some of the biggest obstacles publishers will have to address to adopt such an XML centric strategy are:

  • Staff (and potentially author) learning curves and the inevitable short term inefficiences that result in the transition to a new production technology
  • Rethinking the potential markets, uses and contexts for book content
  • Being driven at a much faster pace by technology and having to make the investmentss needed to keep up with that

confused-publisherOf these, I believe the last is the most challenging.   Publishers are being inexorably drawn into fast moving technology driven marketplaces that will require more nimbleness, investment and prescience than they have needed in the past.  An early bet on XML centric approach could confer competitive advantge and up the ante for laggard publishers in the new digital publishing world.   But picking technology winners  and losers can also be a dangerous business.

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