COVID-19 and The Publishing Industry, Part 2: Tips to Optimize Books for Online Sales Succes

March 26, 2021
Pete McCarthy & Jess Johns
COVID-19 and The Publishing Industry, Part 2: Tips to Optimize Books for Online Sales Succes

Strategies and tactics to increase book sales now.

In part one of this two-part blog series, we discussed the consumer trends and behaviors we’ve observed over the past year and how it’s affected books and changed the book industry as we know it.

In Part two, we’ll offer our top 10 tips to capitalize on the shift to online sales and position your books for continued success. Discover the tools, resources and best practices that can ensure you not only survive this new industry norm, but have your book sales thrive.

10 Tips to Optimize Books for Online Sales Success

1) Ensure your whole list is working for you

Pay Attention to a Broader Set of Titles (Frontlist & Backlist)

According to NPD BookScan, backlist sales are up as a percentage of overall sales in terms of units, when looking at 2019 versus 2020. This can be attributed to an increased online usage by consumers with the rise of online shopping, resulting in more activity on more of your titles.

Therefore, your frontlist activities will reach a point of diminishing returns much more quickly than ever before. Pay attention to your whole list and make sure that everything is optimized, not just your latest titles.

Market Relevant Backlist Alongside New Release

Source: Riveted by Simon Teen

Your front and backlist can be easily combined and provide a better experience for consumers. You can thematically promote new books alongside older books, and an older book the consumer hasn't seen is new to them.

Look across your entire list when thinking about digital marketing efforts like social, email, advertising, etc. Less focus on the frontlist, a little more emphasis on the backlist to align with trends, and you can market both at the same time - you don't have to do one at the cost of the other.

Pro Tip: Look for evergreen titles across your list. Find those gems that people want to keep coming back to and grow over time.

2) Cover All Formats and Channels (Sales + Marketing)

Make sure you are marketing and focusing efforts for all of your books, across all formats and channels.

Readers Like Different – Often Many – Formats

Pre-pandemic all formats were popular, with many readers using multiple formats and audio formats rising. Since the pandemic we’ve seen a leveling of audio but no evidence that the multi-format readership has changed. We’re not seeing a negative impact or a cannibalization on other format sales, but a rise in readership which is really increasing sales across channels and formats.

Ensure Channel & Consumption Model Coverage

Make sure you are ensuring a broad, consistent and strategic availability across all of your retail partners; this is as critical in the online space as it is offline.

Consider these popular Ebook, Audio and Digital Library Partners:

New models are seeing an uptake. If they work for your business financially and strategically, consider testing them out. Otherwise, you could be letting down consumers and foregoing revenue that does not cannibalize other revenue.

Ingram supports physical distribution, but we also have a robust digital distribution program with CoreSource, that reaches many of these channel partners. For more information about Ingram’s CoreSource program, click here.

Ensure Accurate, Complete Metadata for Channels

When looking at your retail markets, make sure your product data is supporting those efforts, is available everywhere and is giving you visibility across all your channels. Whether using CoreSource or another digital asset management and distribution platform, make sure the product data is up to date and complete, and that your price is competitive for every model, format and product.

Link to Multiple Channels in Your Marketing

As you venture into the market and look to reach consumers directly in the online space, let them know where they can find your books! Link to multiple channels in your marketing and let them make the choice. What we have observed from consumers is they do buy in different places and have loyalties to certain retailers in some cases. The more purchase options they have, the greater chance you have of making the sale in the end.

3) Optimize Titles for Discovery & SEO (with a Focus on Metadata)

Think Like a Reader

What are people looking for? What words are they using to talk about those things? The key to thinking like a reader is mindset - most readers have likely never seen or heard of what you have to offer, they don't know the authors necessarily, they've never heard of the titles, etc. They're just looking for things (rock music biographies, craft books for adults, political thrillers), and they're talking about them in a way that we as publishers may not. Get in their mindset and use their language for your chosen keywords.

What Drives Discovery at Retail?

The first source of keywords for Amazon - and any retailer or search engine for that matter - is your core metadata. Amazon crawls your title, description, off-page keywords and other descriptive metadata elements like reviews and author bios.

These should be keyword-rich, not keyword-stuffed – real and relevant terms that consumers use to find books and that fit with the content of your title.

Rich, Complete Marketing & Audience Metadata

It’s important to focus on the metadata that matters for consumer discovery – things like:

  • Audience Codes
  • Age & Grade Levels for kids' books
  • Keywords
  • Genres
  • Series & Series Name
  • Which number the book is in the series, etc.

For example, the CEO of Kobo, the book company, recently gave a talk about how series buying was one of the most important trends on their platform, making series metadata extremely important for them.

One way to ensure you have rich, complete metadata is looking for gaps in your list. Consider downloading your titles and looking for those that do not have any keywords, and adding them.

Book Descriptions that Get Found & Sell

There is a best practice when it comes to structuring your book description, based on a study of more than a million products on Amazon, including books. And it's basically three paragraphs - a short headline that's mobile friendly, an exposition in the middle and a quick close at the end.

Remember to say whom the book is great for and why they should buy it. Use bullet points when it's relevant, especially for non-fiction and how-to titles where you can outline some of the discrete topics that you're covering.

Making Wise Use of Off-Page (aka “Retailer”) Keywords

Off-page keywords allow search engines (notably Amazon) to understand which queries match your book. Amazon will take all of those keywords and index your book for all of the various combinations of those terms.

When choosing off-page keywords, use best-practices like:

  • Combing terms into phrases
  • Not repeating words or including both singular and plural versions
  • Not counting spaces and punctuation against character length recommendations
  • Keeping the most important terms in the first 250 characters

4) Consider Advertising (especially Retail Advertising)

With so many consumers searching online, and ~28 million books listed on Amazon U.S. alone at any given time, there's a lot of competition out there. This makes it hard for your books to rank organically when searching. If you’re making the effort to drive consumers to your books using your website, social platforms, emails, etc., consider adding advertising as an effective tactic.

When Does Advertising Make Sense?

To determine if advertising will work for you, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Do you have a clear audience and goal? Is it targetable, controllable, measurable?
  • Could you reach your audience without advertising? Do you have another way to reach them without paying like organic ranking, a strong brand awareness or media attention
  • Can you reach and convert them profitably with advertising? Look at factors like cost, competition, whether you've got the right book with the right margin - for example books in a series can lend well to advertising because they provide a knock-on effect (as people read the first book, they're going to buy the others). Time is also a consideration as advertising can save time in certain instances or can take up additional time.

Keyword Advertising: Mix of Volume & Intent

Keyword advertising is a popular form of advertising right now, and involves targeting people who are searching online and getting your book in front of them (on Amazon, Google,  Walmart, etc.).

One way to think about keyword advertising is looking at search volume and intent. High search volume terms are very general, those we're going to see a lot of searches for. They're also very competitive and hard to rank for, and it's hard to discern a lot of intent. Take for example searches around “baking”:

You can see the medium volume phrases with the orange arrows – these show you’ve got something relevant but may not be ranking yet, and is where you should consider keyword advertising. Medium volume, medium intent - there’s opportunity for growth there.

Audience Targeting: Mix of Core & Adjacent

You can also do advertising that targets audiences - so rather than relying on people performing certain searches or behaviors, you can go into an environment (like Facebook or Amazon) and target your audience based on certain attributes, demographics and psychographics.

The framework to think about this is to include a mix of your “core audience” and “adjacent audience”:

  • Core Audience – fans, subscribers, social media followers – the people who have raised their hands to say “we’re interested!” They are aware of a topic or author or title, and they're likely to buy.
  • Adjacent Audience - the real goldmine of readers that drive bestsellers and cross-over hits – people who have similarities to your core, but are not yet aware of, or looking for, your books.

Retail Ads & Amazon Ad Types

Retail ads are incredibly potent right now due to the increased number of people visiting Amazon, Walmart, etc. Amazon is also one of the top five search engines in the world, and their ads are all done through a self-serve platform.

When considering Amazon ads, we like the following ad campaign types:

  •  Sponsored Products – allow you to promote products to shoppers actively searching with related keywords or viewing similar products on Amazon.
  • Sponsored Brands – helps shoppers discover your brand and products on Amazon with rich, engaging creative.
  • Sponsored Display – grows your business by reaching relevant audiences on and off Amazon.

Amazon isn’t the only advertising option of course – there are other retail options like Walmart and Target, although they are less sophisticated and less self-serve, and the audience-to-title fit is key to their success.

There are also advertising options on social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest and search platforms like Google. These can provide a large audience and give highly targetable and customizable goals, however they can also be competitive, and you’ll want to keep in mind they are not a traditional retail environment.

When it comes to choosing which channel/platform to advertise on, let your content, the audience and your goals guide you to the best option. We always recommend spending low and testing first to find what works.

5) Optimize Your Own Website for Discovery & Engagement

Engaging, Useful Content & Links

By optimizing your own website, publishers, authors, and booksellers have the chance to build a hub for their books, and really talk to their readers directly. As you build out your content, it’s important to focus on what is important to your readers - what they want, what they’re looking for, and what they need to know.

Think of their journey and use engagement tactics like:

  • Blog posts/landing pages – reflecting to your catalog, speaking to your audience
  • Linking from other pages on your site or your partner/referral sites
  • Linking to relevant authors, retailers, social media, etc.
  • Book and author landing pages
  • Shopping options (selling direct or linking to retailers)
  • Email newsletter sign-up (offering incentives)
  • Featured titles and lists (by category, by audience, by topic/area of interest)
  • Promotions and events (giveaways, contests, author tours, etc.)

Measure and adjust as you go by evaluating key performance indicators like page visits, engagement metrics (time on page, bounce rate, etc.), goal completions (clicks to buy, sign-ups, etc.) and SEO ranking/visibility for key terms.

Technical SEO

Is your site fast? Secure? Mobile-friendly? User-friendly? Look at things like how quickly your website pages load, how quickly your site responds to user interaction, and how the content moves around. Also make sure your pages are crawlable (can be indexed/understood by search engines), and limit dead links and duplicate content.

Some tools and plugins that can help include Yoast, GTMetrix, Google Analytics and Google Search Console.

6) Help Your Authors

Engage with Author-Related Content

Engagement with author related content has a strong causal relationship to an increase in sales. Therefore, author website page views, Goodreads fans, Facebook and Twitter likes/mentions/retweets of author content – can all make a difference. Make sure your authors have good websites, and that they have a presence in all the key places.

7) Develop Direct Reader Relationships

It’s important to build those direct reader relationships (and use the ones you have), particularly through email.

Email is a Consistent Performer

According to an Adobe study done on email usage, Americans report spending 5 hours/day in work email. A majority also report that email – both work and personal – is their preferred channel for receiving offers.

Source: 2019 Adobe Email Usage Study

For many readers, books are products that they buy and being told of new ones, price promotions, and more is an “offer” to them (though we may think of it differently, depending on our roles and goals).

Email is also historically efficient. It has a high ROI, and every address that you capture is one person you can go back to and reach without paying another cent.

Gather Email Addresses in a Variety of Ways

There are many ways to collect email addresses. Make sure to focus on user satisfaction, balanced with your own goals. You don't want to pester, but it’s ok to ask when the context makes sense. Sometimes what might seem intrusive can be seen as friendly to your customer if it's really a reminder.

For example, use your website for a newsletter sign up featured in a consistent banner, so any page that’s visited, they have a chance to sign up and hear more from you directly. Site pop-ups can also be incredibly effective, especially with the right offer/incentive. You can also get email addresses from social sign ups like your Facebook page - consider a sign-up link and call to action for all your Facebook followers.

Offering free content can also be successful when building email lists, like ebook giveaways, a free sample or chapter, as well as the back of your ebook with back ads. These can be incredibly effective especially in certain genres or topic areas.

Send Useful Content, Offers, etc.

As you build your list, make sure you're providing relevant information and things that your readers will care about like:  

  • Forthcoming titles and events
  • Targeted newsletters by author, genre or topics of interest
  • Relevant blog posts and book lists
  • Special offers, deals and giveaways

Grow, Segment, Test, Measure

A few email marketing best practices include:

  • Build your list across all your presences (especially your website and social)
  • Offer deals, giveaways, and other incentives to encourage sign-ups
  • Display Clear branding and consistent engagement
  • Give relevant content based on user preferences
  • Test subject lines, calls-to-action, and content types to know what works best

Manage your email marketing by using tools to segment your lists, measure results and adjust your efforts. A few to get you started include:

Pay attention to open rates, clicks, unsubscribes, etc. to know what is working and what is not.

8) Consider Direct-to-Consumer Sales

When Does Direct Selling Make Sense for You?

Consider your answers to the following questions:

  • Do you have a direct audience reach? This includes website traffic, a growing social presence, consumer relationships and a comfort with end-readers.
  • Are you ready to sell direct? Consider operations and logistics like fulfillment and customer service, and the ability to comply with applicable taxes and laws regarding privacy and security.
  • Can you offer a clear and compelling experience? Is there an easy path to purchase, secure transactions and clear pricing and promotions?

You’ll also want to consider your willingness and ability to sustain these efforts, as things change constantly.

Consider Out-of-the-Box Options and/or Affiliate Models

There are many ways to “go direct”. Consider tools that reduce complexity while allowing for core eCommerce capabilities - and you can use multiple at the same time! Some key considerations around the type of tool to use include the cost (for you and your customers), operational complexity, scalability and service, and the consumer experience.

Integrated site ecommerce options include:

There are also more simplified bookstore options that can take care of eCommerce complexities, like out-of-the-box or affiliate models:

  • Out-of-the-Box: Aerio is a great out-of-the-box bookstore builder. With the use of Ingram’s wholesale inventory, you can search and add books or upload your own ebooks and immediately begin to sell directly to consumers. All fulfillment, returns and customer support is managed by Ingram’s world-class systems and experienced book experts.
  • Affiliate: You can be an affiliate of a place like Bookshop where they give you a percentage of sales that you drive on their website. Amazon and Apple are also examples of affiliate models.

Aerio is true D2C in terms of having a direct relationship with the consumer at the end of the day, as they allow you to capture consumer emails. Bookshop, on the other hand, is more that affiliate model where they still own the consumer relationship. It's all a question of balancing your direct efforts, but it's worth considering different models nowadays.

9) Engage in Social (Meaningfully)

If we think back to what consumers are looking for in the brands they're engaging with, the bar they’re setting is definitely rising. They're looking for relevant information.

Relevant, Social, Tagged (#) for Discovery

It’s called social for a reason, right? It’s important to engage and be useful to your audience. Here’s a great example of Kwame Alexander doing an Instagram live reading to students who are remote:

Source: Instagram @kwamealexander

Make sure to use clever hashtags to aid reach and engagement, so it's not just the people who follow you but the people who follow those hashtags as well. Build the fabric of who you're engaging with in these channels.

Use Social to Drive Sales

Don't forget to drive sales from social, as more and more people are buying from the stream. Consumers are now looking to social as part of their product research and discovery path. Consider promoting your products, storefronts, any discounts you might be offering or special partnerships you're promoting through retail partners. Don't be afraid to include these as part of your social content strategy.

Measure and Adjust, Mine for Actionable Data

As always, measure your efforts and mine your audiences for insights – who are they, what do they like, what do they do? Look at those key metrics like reach, engagement (likes, shares, follows, etc.), actions (clicks, emails, purchases), and your audience demographics. Use these insights to make the most of your social presence and grow your direct reach from your site or other marketing channels.

10) Use Data, Tools, & Services to Make it Efficient

Digital Marketing Requires Tools

Digital marketing can feel overwhelming, and there’s a reason there are many tools to support these efforts…we need them to get it right! Make use of tools for email, for design, for advertising, for social media management….test different ones and see what works best.

If some tactics take up a lot of time, look for a free or inexpensive tool and/or consider if it’s worth the effort compared to another tactic.

Here are a few tools to get you started:

Direct-to-Consumer Relationships, Sales & Meaningful Social Content

As mentioned above, Aerio is Ingram’s “out-of-the-box” direct-to-consumer book selling solution. With Aerio you can set up your own online bookstore quickly (1-2 days tops) by applying custom branding and curating your selection of books.

Because Aerio is powered by Ingram, they take the business processes and risk off your plate by handing all fulfillment, returns, customer support, sales tax and credit card fees. Your job becomes outreach, building relationships and curating meaningful content.

Aerio can also be used to capture consumer email addresses and ensures compliance with the latest privacy and security laws.

You can use Aerio to take your marketing a step further by creating digital book previews - this is an optional ad-on service that enables great engagement on your own website, in social platforms and on author websites.

Are Your Book’s Ready for Online Sales?

Let our Digital Solutions help ensure your titles are in the right formats and set up for the best online discovery and sales.

Digital Distribution

Guarantee your ebooks and audiobooks are up-to-date, accessible, and optimized for sale. Convert titles into industry-standard digital formats so they are available to the right distribution channels.

Online Discoverability & Sales

Increase the discoverability and sales potential of your titles with tools like previews, metadata improvement and targeting verified readers. Ensure your books are working at full capacity to get discovered online and bought.

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COVID-19 and The Publishing Industry, Part 2: Tips to Optimize Books for Online Sales Succes
Pete McCarthy & Jess Johns

Pete McCarthy & Jess Johns

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