Changing your readership mix

(This is the seventh post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

The mix of reader types in your readership isn’t an unchangeable fact, a curse bound in iron by the gods of old, a universal constant for all eternity. It can be changed.

Actually, that isn’t really true. The readership mix for most titles and genres is probably set in stone, one of those big blocks of ‘fixed, can’t change’ that you just have to work around.

What you can do is create a new readership with a new product in a new product category, but one that uses the text, images, and other materials from the old product. A new product that appeals to a market that is different from your print edition.

Most of those new product categories are just rebadged interactive media, and to create those you need people who know how to create interactive media (interactivity designers, app developers, or whatever you want to call them).

Most publishers give the digital edition of a title thought only after the fact—after the book has been written, edited, proofread, line-edited, typeset, and on its way to the printers—preferring to see what they can accomplish by tweaking whatever piece of digital rubbish their print workflow automatically craps out, wipe the InDesign shit-stains off it, and call it an ebook.

If you want to do something interesting with the digital edition of the title, you need to plan this right at the start, before any work is done on the title. And please do involve a professional developer right at the beginning. Think of them as co-authors of the digital edition and not as carpenters putting up a shelf you’ve specced out.

Once you start, once you’ve planned the print version of the title, your options for the digital edition go down dramatically. At that point, the easiest thing to do is to gloss up the title with idiotic ‘enhancements’ or other interactive doohickeys. Anything else is too expensive because you are, in effect, reinventing your production workflow on the fly.

Don’t do that. That’s crazy.

If all else fails and you’ve been given the task of adapting a pre-existing title into digital, you have a simple set of options:

  • If the title is likely to have an ebook-friendly readership and the title is structurally an easy match for ebooks, just do a basic ebook.
  • If the title doesn’t have an ebook-friendly readership but is easy to adapt into an ebook, do one and hope you get lucky.
  • If the title won’t sell as an ebook and won’t be easy to turn into an ebook, don’t do an ebook. Do something radically different.

Avoiding wild dogs/ebook fanatics

One reason to do a totally unviable ebook that’ll just lose you money and only sell three copies is to avoid PR backlash. You see, people who want ebooks really want ebooks. They get very angry when there isn’t an ebook version and will complain loudly. It’s better to do what they—.

Hah! Had you going there for a moment. Don’t do that. That’s crazy. Here’s a simple rule for you:

Ignore crazy people who haven’t already given you money.

Which problem would you rather have?

  1. A few nutters complain on Twitter and on Amazon that there isn’t an ebook version available. Most people ignore them.
  2. A few dissatisfied nutters keep sending you support emails because the ebook edition you released is much worse than the print edition because it was a money-losing low-budget production.

I’d choose the first problem every time. The last thing you want to do is piss people off who’ve already given you money.

What does ‘radically different’ mean?

So, you’ve backed yourself into a corner. You have a title that probably has to be something other than an ebook.

At this point your only real options are:

Either do nothing (a perfectly valid choice, since nobody runs a business specifically to lose money, doing nothing is always an option)…

Or, you take the title and everything related to it, give it to an accomplished app developer, and tell them to make something out of it. Don’t tell them what to make because, if you work in publishing, you are almost inevitably clueless and incompetent when it comes to the web and apps. Give them a target audience they should serve. Any involvement by you beyond instigating the project will decrease its chances of success. Or, judging by some of you, it would massively decrease its chances.

Tell them to figure out a new product with a new title (the old title’s readership isn’t interested in digital, remember) using your materials. Set up whatever rules, goals, and benchmarks you need to feel comfortable. Set up whatever licensing agreement you both think will make you both some money. Then get out of the way because, honestly, if you’re in publishing, you probably don’t know what you’re doing.

(In digital media, I mean. Oh, you thought I meant in general? So, sorry.)

Best part? You can do this again with another developer. You can give another developer a brief to create another product from the title, for another target audience, with another name. Once you are playing at this level you are creating completely new products with new titles that just happen to be based on your stuff. Why limit yourself to one go at the roulette table? Especially if you can convince the developer to do the project without paying them up front payment while sharing the profits.

Even better, there’s a way for you to get almost unlimited tries at the table at little cost to yourself—all upside: just create a standardised licensing kit for a selection of your non-fiction titles. You don’t even have to do an API, just what you might call a ‘content developer kit’ or CDK: a zip package of the title’s content in a structured format that developers can license on whatever payment basis you want. Bonus points if you set up a self-serve ecommerce site where developers can buy CDKs at whatever price you set (preferably royalty-free; there’s room here for flexibility). Just lay down a few branding, contract, and promotional guidelines and you’re good to go.

You probably have to require your licensees to use something like “this app is based on X, published by Y” in their app or web descriptions, for the consumer’s sake, though.

Building up in-house digital product development is risky and expensive, especially at the start when you have to build up the necessary expertise and tools to do the job and change your organisations implicit value network.

The problem is that changing an organisation’s value network is next to impossible without firing everybody (yourself included) and replacing them with different people. Adding individuals who have different values from those prevalent in your organisation won’t change the value network. It’ll just make your new hires miserable before they quit or get fired. Which means that building a top notch, in-house digital product development team is going to be difficult for most publishers.

So, either partner up or build the team that is isolated and sandboxed from the rest of the company’s incompatible values. For most publishers, anything else is unlikely to work.

The various types of readers

(This is the sixth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

(Before I start, I’d like to make sure you know this is all speculation and probably wrong.)

My guess is you can break book consumers into broadly five different kind of behaviours. Emphasis here is on consumers so this doesn’t cover corporate, institutional, or similar professional purchases at all.

  1. Heavy reader. People who buy several books a month, read most of them, and still have a mile-high ‘to read’ list. This is relatively small number of people who have an outsized impact on the market and have mostly converted to ebooks.
  2. The literate reader. People who read anything from six to twelve books a year. How big this group is depends on the language and culture. In 2010 in Iceland, for example, an extensive survey pegged this group at over half the adult Icelandic-speaking population (PDF). For most countries that proportion will be lower. This group has partially switched to ebooks but at a much, much lower rate than the heavy readers.
  3. Blockbuster reader. The reader who only reads one book a year and then only a bestseller. These are the people that only buy authors like Dan Brown, J K Rowling, and whoever the dude is that writes those Jack Reacher novels.
  4. Super fans. They like this here one thing and aren’t ashamed of it. E.g. Twilight fanatics who haven’t read anything else in their lives. Harry Potter nutters. They’ve found that one thing they like and feel no need to branch out. More likely to reread and re-buy that one thing than to read something new.
  5. Gift givers. For whatever reason, these types have decided to forgo the universally accepted traditional gift of ‘cash in an envelope’ and foist their cultural selections upon undeserving relatives and acquaintances.

Group 1, heavy readers, is the one that has been driving most of the growth of the ebooks market so far. They’ve probably either completely switched over to ebooks or will have soon.

Group 2, is, in theory, the next major growth area for ebooks and also the one where ebooks are likely to stall. My guess is that most people in group 2 don’t read on the commute (if they did, they’d probably read more than 6–12 books a year) and so aren’t that affected by the bulk of your average book. A lot of the books they read are lent on or borrowed and so don’t cause major storage issues.

These people read a few books a year and share them with their friends. They have a lot to lose from switching to ebooks and little to gain. Ebooks in general are objectively more ugly. They can’t be shared easily with your friends. They require an expensive device that in many cases is shared across the household (i.e. to read on the iPad you have to take it away from your kids who are using it to play games). The specialised ereader devices cost as much as this reader’s entire year’s worth of reading (i.e. as much as six to twelve paperbacks would cost, but without the benefit of lending). Certain segments of Group 2 do benefit immensely from ebooks (those with poor sight who prefer bigger font sizes and those who do read on the commute). They are also the ones who have probably already switched.

Many members of group 3 will only ever buy an ebook by accident. If you do something only once a year you damn sure want a souvenir. I can’t imagine this group switching in big numbers. Nor should they.

Group 4 will probably buy their favourite book as an ebook, and a hardcover, and paperback, and the UK edition, and the Japanese edition off Ebay. They’ll hunt down a copy from the first print run. They’d kill for a copy of the limited first run from that small publisher before the title got picked up by the big publisher. They’ll read and write fan-fiction (so much fan-fiction). They’ll buy the book in Kobo, iBooks, and Kindle and compare the three but they won’t buy any other title because it isn’t what they love.

Group 5 is unlikely to ever give ebooks. Why give an ebook when you can just as easily buy an iTunes/Amazon gift card which you can then pretentiously wrap? Why give a gift card when you can give real cash? Why give cash when you can just confess that you don’t love the recipient enough to give their gift selection some thought, and tell them to just fuck off and not bother you again?

How these five groups divide the industry between themselves is going to vary wildly from market to market, genre to genre, and ebooks aren’t going to shift that composition in any major way.

Moreover, one person can belong to different groups depending on the market. Here’s Hypothetical Karen.


  • Is a huge SFF fan. Reads several titles a month.
  • Is a semi-regular reader of literary fiction. About six titles a year.
  • Only reads other genres when a mega-blockbuster comes along.

If my theory above is true, Hypothetical Karen’s SFF fiction library would be mostly ebooks, her literary fiction novels would mostly be hardbacks, while the blockbusters would all be paperbacks, probably borrowed from a friend, with the exception of the few that she bought cheap as ebooks. Her shelves would be dominated by SFF favourites—some that pre-date ebooks, some that are just too good to just own in digital—and literary fiction.

But most readers won’t belong to more than one group. I think it’s likely that Hypothetical Karen and her ilk have already had an outsized impact on the market as early ebook adopters but are too small a group to influence future developments to any substantial degree. If this is true then ebooks might have to cross a second chasm after crossing the early adopter chasm since the early majority group might well be smaller than expected and the late majority group could well be more recalcitrant than expected.

Of course, like everything else in this post, this is blatant speculation and probably wrong.

My theory is that these are the four basic reader archetypes (plus one buyer archetype) and that the split between these five groups varies dramatically from genre to genre, title to title. Romance novels are probably dominated by group 1 with a smattering of group 2. Since romance readers are a large collection of heavy readers, it’s unsurprising that the genre is an ebook powerhouse.

Genre readers, in general, are likely to be of group 1 or 2 with group 3 coming in occasionally with individual titles. Most mainstream fiction and non-fiction (like celebrity biographies and autobiographies) are dominated by group 2 with only a smattering of groups 1 and 2.

And a title that is almost exclusively bought by gift givers is likely to tank in digital unless the publisher lucks out in some way and it gets adopted by a niche audience of some sort.

Even though some market segments may well have a much lower percentage of ebook buyers than others, sales successes are likely to boost the sales of all of a title’s formats. A blockbuster in an ebook-light genre is going to sell more ebooks than a mid-list title in an ebook-heavy genre. Big sales trump customer mix every time. The problem is that blockbusters are unpredictable and somewhat random while building a solid genre mid-list catalogue is in theory less so. Which suggests that if you have capital, you should focus on blockbusters and lottery stakes, but if you don’t have capital but do have in-house expertise, you should focus on solid genre offerings.

Of course, this is all conjecture and probably wrong. (“This is all make believe!”)

Figuring this out for real

What you really need to do is to figure this out for your readership. Exactly how to do that is tricky.

You need to find out how reading activity is distributed among your readers (i.e. how many are light, moderate, or heavy readers). You need to figure out their past format choices. Don’t ask them their preferences; they don’t know and will make shit up—people lie. Ask them what they’ve actually done in the past, preferably the recent past. You need to find out how much of what they read they buy themselves. You need to know what genres they’ve bought in the past. You need to find out what they want from you, because that might not correlate with their past choices.

If it doesn’t correlate, then take it with a grain of salt. Only trust customer suggestions that they are willing to immediately back with money. You don’t have to take the money, but their willingness to part with it is an important indicator.

How do you find this out? Beats me. Almost every realistic and economically viable way of getting trustworthy information about your readers will be biased towards either heavy readers and super fans or towards digital readers.

If you figure out a way, let me know.

The unevenly distributed ebook future

(This is the fifth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Data serves the status quo.

Anything new or undiscovered by definition does not have a data footprint. Existing data collection and filtering techniques have biases that do not take the unknown or unfamiliar into account.

Unless you have a clear theory and a well-designed experiment to prove or disprove it, the only thing more data will tell you is that your preconceptions and existing biases are correct. With enough noise, your brain will find it easy to ‘discover’ patterns and correlations that support whatever it is you want supported. Data, on its own, serves your worldview.

This is the problem with almost all analytics systems in common use. Unless you are running a tightly controlled experiment, the only thing data will do is paint you a general picture of the status quo; it’ll give you the shape of, say, your web traffic—the ‘sources’ of the nameless mass that fills your comment threads with tripe—but it won’t help you discover any of the ‘whys’. Why are they here? Why did they read it? Why did they comment? Why did they (or didn’t) come back?

Why didn’t they buy my book?

To pretend that an A/B test can tell you why a reader decided not to buy the ebook edition of a footballer’s biography is to accept a worldview that is incompatible with the very act of publishing longform prose in the first place.

For a simple A/B test to be able to tell you why a reader made the decision not to choose a book or a format you have to believe that the human mind is a simplistic machine, driven entirely by pre-programmed responses to external stimuli, to be hacked by an enterprising grifter. A mind like that is never going to comprehend, let alone enjoy, extended piece of text. A humanity like that would never have risen out of the mud to read or write books.

You can A/B test small theories and small issues, but it is not an experimental model that will help you find answers to complex questions or understand complex problems.

Before we do anything else, when we have an issue, we need to come up with a theory—an idea for how things work that you can then explore and try to prove or disprove.

Then you need to figure out an experiment that specifically disproves that theory, which is sometimes next to impossible because, we in publishing don’t have access to the environment where the experiments need to be implemented and run.

If this method seems slow and awkward (the only conclusive result you can have is partial disproval, not confirmation), then that’s because it is. It’s also the only way to know. Anything else is guesswork.

It’s a classic quote that is tailor-made for the modern internet: short, facile, glib, simplistic to the point of being useless.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

—William Gibson

The problem with the line is that it’s using the term future as a shorthand for technology and the changes it engenders—equating it with progress.

It has a simple message: progress remains a two-dimensional timeline (past → present → future), but that places, markets, and cultures are unevenly distributed along that timeline. Crap countries are stuck in the past. Good countries have a head start on the future.

As such it isn’t much of an improvement over the standard progress myth. In fact, it makes it worse by adding a dollop of neo-colonialism into the mix. “They are savages because they just haven’t had their share of our ‘future’ yet—not because a broken global economic system is holding them in debt-slavery”.

The publishing industry has bought into this idea wholesale. Some publishing markets are, according to this worldview, further ahead on the progress timeline than others. It also implies that advancement along the timeline is inevitable, even if it progresses at varying speeds. Romance and other genre fiction tend to dominate ebook sales and so must have more ‘future’. Non-fiction less so and must therefore have less ‘future’ and more of that crippling ballast called ‘past’. Big mainstream titles hit the ebook market in seemingly unpredictable ways. Some garner decent ebook sales while others seem to sell only in print. There, the ‘future’ seems to be randomly distributed, like a stress nosebleed over a term paper.

This, obviously, implies that the ebook will either eventually dominate universally or at least capture the same large percentage uniformly across the market.

I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The various publishing markets differ in fundamental ways that won’t be changed by ebooks. As others have said, ‘ebooks are terrific and haven’t changed a thing’.

Some will switch entirely to ebooks. Some partially. Some almost not at all.

If you’re going to generalise about readers, try not to generalise too much and stick to specific tastes and behaviours. Anybody claiming or even implying that an entire age group or economic class broadly behaves in the same way clearly hasn’t been observing book buyers for a long time. Claiming that those under twenty-four prefer print or that the more affluent prefer ebooks is useless even if it were true (probably isn’t) because those categories are too broad for us to guess what sort of books they are buying. Knowing that buyers of a specific genre prefer one format over another is clearly more useful than finding out that two-thirds of the young people who couldn’t avoid your survey didn’t like ebooks. One is actionable. The other isn’t.

It would be even better if we were able to make an educated guess of how a genre’s readers break down into behaviour groups:

  • Does a single kind of reader dominate? (casual readers, heavy readers, blockbusters only, etc.)
  • Or, is the readership more varied than that?
  • Is the distribution of the kinds of readers reliable across the genre or do sub-genres or individual titles differ substantially?

We are largely working blind here and unless you manage to get a critical mass of readers to buy from you directly and then read the books in an environment you control (good luck with that), it will be impossible to get even vaguely accurate guesses.

Some titles aren’t going to sell well as ebooks and there isn’t anything we can do about it except pray they turn into blockbusters. Because, if the title does turn out to be a blockbuster, you can always pay for a proper ebook version once the money starts rolling in.

The converse also holds true for ebook-heavy genres where the credo “ebook-first, print if popular” might well be printed above the door of every publisher (self- or other-) in the future.

If you have a title that is:

  • Visually rich.
  • Or, poses in some way to be an ebook production challenge.
  • And, is likely to appeal mostly to a print buying audience (this can happen for a variety of reasons).

Then the logical action to take is to quite simply not make an ebook version. Unless a high quality ebook is an almost free byproduct of your production workflow spending money on creating an ebook version of a title like that is likely to be a waste of money.

Conversely, print will not be viable for some markets within the industry, generally those dominated by ebook readers or have been thoroughly disrupted by apps and websites.

Either way, the single biggest concern publishers should have is to figure out ways to either discover or change the composition and shape of their readership. Making decisions on digital production will be next to impossible without that knowledge.