What Makes Books Different

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November 2014
by Mike Shatzkin
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Back in pre-Internet times, books, music, and video generally had their own retail networks. But when media became largely digital in the first decade of the 21st century, the digital companies that decided to establish consumer retail operations tried to erase the distinction that had divided reading (books) from listening (music) from watching (movies and TV).

The three principal digital giants in the media retailing space—Amazon, Apple, and Google—all sell all these media in their “pure” form and each also maintains a separate market for “apps” that might contain any or all of the legacy media.

The retailing efforts for all of them are divided along legacy media lines, acknowledging the reality that people usually shop specifically for a book or music or a cinematic experience. Most people probably do not choose which they want based on what’s available at what price across media.
(This is a popular meme at the moment: books “competing” with other media because they are consumed on the same devices. Of course, only a minority of books are consumed on devices, unlike the other media. Even though this cross-media competition might be intuitive logic to some people, it has scarcely been “proven” and, while it might be true to a limited extent, it doesn’t look like
a big part of the marketing problem to me.)

Amazon and Barnes & Noble appear to have a distinct advantage over all the other competitors in the e-book space because, with books—unlike with movies and TV and music—most of the audience still toggles between print and digital. And this might not change anytime soon. The stats are scattered and not definitive, but a recent survey in Australia found that 95 percent of Australians under 30 preferred paperbacks to e-books. Other data seem to indicate that most people who read e-books also read print. To the extent that is true, a book shopper—or searcher—would want to be searching the universe of book titles, print and digital, to make a selection.

In the digital age, therefore, and as compared to other media, books are definitely different and success in books, whether print or digital, is dependent on understanding that.

Making the case that “books are different” requires me to unlearn what I was brought up to believe. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, used to ridicule the idea that “books are different,” which was too often (he thought) invoked to explain why “modern” (during the 1950s and 60s) business practices such as planning and forecasting and measuring couldn’t be applied to books, as they were to so many other businesses after World War II. In fact, Dad shied away from hiring people with book business experience, “because they would have learned the wrong things.”

If he were alive today, I think he might agree that the physical book will not go the way of the Dodo nearly as fast as the shrink wrapped version has for music or TV/film.
It hasn’t and it won’t. There are very good, understandable, and really undeniable reasons for this, even though it seems that many smart people expect all the media to go all-digital in much the same way

Three Significant Differences

First of all, the book—unlike its hard goods counterparts the CD (or record or cassette) and the DVD (or videotape)— has functionality that the e-book version does not. Quite aside from the fact that you don’t need a powered device (or an Internet connection) to get or consume it, the book allows you to flip through pages, write marginal notes, dog-ear pages you want to get back to quickly, and easily navigate back and forth through the text much more readily than an e-book. No comparable capabilities come with a CD or DVD.

Second, the book has—or can have—aesthetic qualities that the e-book will not. Some people flip for the feel of the paper or the smell of the ink, but you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with the craft of bookmaking to appreciate a good print presentation.

Third, and most important, the book is has distinct advantages in terms of content. When you are watching a movie or TV show or listening to music through any device, the originating source makes only the most nuanced difference to your consumption experience. Yes, there are audiophiles who really prefer vinyl records to CDs. Probably, there are also people who maintain that the iTunes-file version is not as good as the CD. And everybody who has watched a streamed video has experienced times when the transmission was not optimal; almost certainly some music and movie aficionados insist on a hard goods version to avoid those inferiorities.

But the differences between printed books and digital books are much more profound and they are not nuanced. In fact, there are categories of books that satisfy audiences very well in digital form and there are whole other categories of books that don’t sell at all well in digital. That is because, while the difference between classical music and rock and the difference between a comedy and a thriller aren’t reflected in any difference between a streamed or hard-goods version, the difference between a novel and a travel guide or a how-to knitting book is enormous when comparing a physical and a digital format.

This is partly because the book—static words or images on a flat surface, whether printed or on a screen—is often a presentation compromise based on the limitations of “static.” The producer of a record doesn’t think, “How would I present this content differently if it is going to be distributed as a file rather than a CD?” But the publisher of a knitting book that shows a stitch in eight captioned still pictures in a print edition might well decide to show the stitch with a video in an e-book. And that would probably be a good decision.

In fact, this might be the use case in which the consumer’s decision would be media-specific. If you know what knitting stitch you need to learn, searching for a video might make more sense than trying to find instructions in a printed book.

Losing the 1-to-1 relationship between the printed version and the digital version adds expense and a whole set of creative decisions for publishers that their music and movie/TV equivalents don’t face. Although these decisions are not a concern for the publisher of a novel or a biography, they are big concerns for everybody in the book business who doesn’t sell straight-text immersive reading.

The point is that screen size and quality are not—and never were—the only barriers in the way of other books making the digital leap. So even though fiction reading has largely moved to digital (maybe even more than half ), most of the consumer book business, by far, is still print.

The E-Books Only Disadvantage

In fact, apparently, even heavy e-book readers still buy and consume print. We don’t have a lot of clear data about whether “hybrid readers” make their print-versus-digital choice categorically or some other way, although some anecdata suggest that some people read print when it is convenient (when they’re home) and digital when it is not.

Judging by the number of bundling offers to sell both (including offers from publishers and one called “Matchbook” from Amazon), today’s publishers certainly seem to believe there’s a market of people who would read the same book both ways at the same time.

What that all seems to say is that the retailers selling e-books only are seriously disadvantaged in terms of getting searches for books from the majority of readers.

Do we have any independent evidence that selling to the digerati only—selling e-books only—might limit one’s ability to sell e-books? I think we do. Although Barnes & Noble’s Nook sales numbers are a small fraction of Apple’s Pad sales numbers (let alone its iPhone sales numbers), Nook continues to sell more e-books than Apple. (This fact May soon be in the rearview mirror with the apparent collapse of Nook device sales.) I will be so bold as to suggest that this is not because Nook has better merchandising than the iBookstore. More likely, it is because the B&N customers are heavier readers than the Apple customers and prefer to do their book shopping—and even their book device shopping—with a bookseller.

Motivation Considerations

There is one more huge distinction between books and the other media, and it has to do with the consumer’s motivation. While TV or movies might sometimes be consumed for some educational purpose, most of the time the motivation is simply “entertainment,” as it is with music. And while analysis of video or music previously consumed and enjoyed might provide clues to what should be next, figuring out what book should be next is a much more complex challenge.

The clues don’t come just from books previously consumed and enjoyed. Books are bought because people are learning how to cook or do woodworking, or because they are traveling to a distant place and want to learn a new language or become familiar with local customs, or because they are going to buy a new house, or they have suddenly been awakened to the need to save for retirement. You can’t effectively suggest the next book to buy to many consumers without knowing much more about them than their recent reading habits would tell you.

Most e-book-only retailers don’t know not only what your current activities are; they also don’t know what you searched for when you were looking for print. And, even if they did have that information, the fact that they operate in an e-book-only environment means that many of the best suggestions for appropriate books to address everyday needs are off limits for them, because many of those books either don’t exist in digital form or aren’t as good as a You-Tube video for satisfying consumers’ requirements.

In other words, it is the sheer granularity of the book business—so many books, so many types of books, so many (indeed, innumerable) audiences for books—that makes books so different from the other media.

Of course, one company—Google—is not only in the content business and the search business but also handles granularity better than any other company on Earth, down to the level of the attributes and interests of each individual. Google not only would know whether you were moving or traveling; it would be in a great position to sell targeted ads to publishers with books that would help consumers with information needs related to those activities and a million others. (It also knows about all your searches on YouTube.)

But because Google’s retailing ambitions are bounded by digital, it is walking past the opportunity to be the state-ofthe- art book recommendation engine. It’s applying pretty much the same marketing and distribution strategy across digital media at Google Play. It isn’t seeing that book customers want both print and digital. It isn’t (yet?) seeing that books are, indeed, different.


A Distinctive Difference in Agenda

A few years ago, trying to explain the difference between how books had weathered digital change and how other media had, I formulated the paradigm of the “unit of appreciation” and the “unit of sale.”

The music business was roiled when the unit of appreciation (the song) became available unbundled from the prevailing unit of sale (the album). Newspapers and magazines presented individual articles that were appreciated within a total aggregated package that were the unit of sale. The ability of consumers to purchase only what they most appreciated shattered the business models built on bundling things together.

This played out in a more complicated way in the book business. For novels and narrative nonfiction, where the unit of sale equaled the unit of appreciation, simple e-books have worked. But a big challenge to publishers remains.

The “unit of appreciation” for many books is the author, and the “unit of appreciation” is also the “unit of marketing,” but the industry hasn’t yet fully figured out how to bring publishers and authors together to maximize the value of the author brand.

This is a problem with no single or simple answer.


Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company, has been an industry consultant formore than three decades. His blog, The Shatzkin Files (http://idealog.com/blog), is the source of this article.

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