Unbelievably, the holiday season is upon us. Q4 is here and your readers are looking to buy.
We’d say “Wintering is coming” but if you’re reading this from Cape Town, that means winter is already here. Either way, there’s an interesting Q4 ahead.
The lists of challenges are long, but so are the opportunities. The best place to start is with consumer demand and the trends leading up to the holiday season.
In-person gatherings are influencing demand. There’s been a great resurgence in sales of religion titles since churches started reopening. The expectation is similar in the academic space as students start going back to colleges and schools.
This has led to the immeasurable return of — word of mouth marketing, even absent bookstore events.
The good news is not true of every market in the entertainment industry. Two weeks ago, Netflix reported that subscriber growth had slowed 85% in Q2 2021. They lost about 400,000 subscribers in the US and Canada. As people started getting out more, fewer households decided that they needed a new streaming service.
That decline can’t be seen in books. People turned to books for comfort this past year, with Publisher’s Weekly reporting that reading time grew 21% in the second half of 2020. You delivered what consumers needed and they are paying that back in loyalties. You should be proud of the work that you're doing.
Across the board, consumers are reading more than ever, they're buying books more than ever, and they're online more than ever.
Prior to the pandemic, despite seasonal or category shifts, there was a flat book market with small, and predictable, changes in year-to-year trade book sales. 2020 changed that radically.
So far 2021 is outperforming the growth of 2020. NPD BookScan recently reported both print and ebook sales are up 18% through the end of the second quarter in the US.
Sales are strong across adult, juvenile, and young adult fiction, and non-fiction. The consumer habits right now for books and for reading are encouraging. What we know about consumers historically is habits are hard to change.
What the pandemic did was introduce tons of disruption into our daily lives, into the way we live our lives. People kept reading, and in many cases, increased or even started reading. Consumers:
What is encouraging as we head into this year is that habits don't appear to be shifting back quickly, if at all. Heading into Q3 and Q4, consumers' foot traffic to stores is starting to increase. That's across product categories, and books included.
But uncertainty around the Delta variant, back to school plans, and holiday travel seasons — still leave question marks around what to expect over the next four to five months.
The numbers are not yet at pre-pandemic levels, but they are on the rise. Expect to see consumers continuing to purchase online, even in places where they didn't before.
A Deloitte study recently showed that 50% of US consumers expect to continue shopping more online post-pandemic than they did before. Those habits are really starting to stick. A similar study in the UK showed 32% of UK consumers expect to continue their online shopping — but the online shopping behavior includes online delivery and buy online and pick-up in store patterns.
Consumers want to continue to support their local businesses, small stores, but want the convenience of online shopping. That middle ground is on the rise.
Keep in mind, the more people shop online, the more they expect to receive a discount. Full price purchasing online, especially in books, is not the most common or expected behavior.
Consumers want a deal. It doesn't have to be a huge one, but they are looking for a deal. They’re increasingly willing to buy from different stores. Amazon is, obviously, the largest online bookseller. That continues to be true.
What you may have seen through the pandemic was consumers increasing the diversity of places they shop. That continues to hold true, though to a slightly lesser degree than last year.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes, consumer patterns are changing, but consumers are still consumers. They are still looking for the same value. They still buy in lots of the same ways.
As you head into the holidays, there’s a seasonal buying shift. You know people buy more books for the holidays and they buy more in-person around the holidays. You can expect those things to hold true as we head into Q4.
Customers are loyal in their own ways.
In 2020, Walmart and Target shoppers, when they couldn't go into the store, started buying from Walmart and Target online in the US. Indie book buyers who couldn't go into their store started to buy from Bookshop.org.
The channel may change but the loyalty of a customer does not.
Looking back at the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, search patterns remain the same. There are still holidays when we have weird years and consumers still buy gifts.
When Thanksgiving happens, consumers look for cookbooks. There are predictable patterns that don't change regardless of the macro trends.
Now is the time to begin your marketing planning if you have not done so already. Be specific about what the holidays are. Think of going back to school as a holiday and what's happening right now. There is a surge in search activity around physical books with back to school.
Halloween tends to be children's books and YA and Thanksgiving tends to see a lot of cookbooks. There is some gift giving search activity that can be seen around Thanksgiving, too.
You can create holidays of your own. They can be the birthdays of your best-selling authors. They can be the anniversaries of your evergreen titles and they can happen during the holiday season. Being list-appropriate is the most important to making the “fictitious” holiday meaningful.
If you have titles that are good gifts, use keywords to speak to them. Be specific. A book isn't just a good gift. That's not how consumers search.
They search specifically. When they search for cookbooks, they search for specific kinds of cookbooks, like “Keto cookbooks for dads” or “How to cook a keto Thanksgiving meal.” Discoverability for these searches starts with your keywords and metadata.
Advertising gets expensive around Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and leading up to Christmas.
Cost-per-click goes up because you're competing with everybody in the world. Consider using your own platforms like:
Anything you can do to reach consumers during the holidays, all the better.
For example, everyone knows to advertise on Black Friday. But what if you don't advertise on Black Friday? Instead send an email to your fans and schedule posts on your social accounts on Black Friday; save the dollars and spend counter-cyclically. You'll be better off.
People tend to get devices around the holiday season, and they tend to fill them up. Ebooks and digital audio are two formats where search activity spikes and often lead to sales between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Is there validity in Small Business Saturday?
If you look at Google Search Trends in 2020, one of the top queries was “Buying books online, not Amazon.” Let’s say, shopping at an independent online bookstore aligns with values-based shopping and consumers are willing to pay more to shop elsewhere.
Not only is there a channel shift, but consumers are literally typing in their interest in shifting channels. Consumers will respond to messaging that says, "Do this because of the cause that you're supporting." Consider creative that can speak to the desire to support mission-based businesses.
Consumers aren't shopping for books most of the time, but shopping for lots of things all the time. With online marketing, you’re given a chance to be relevant to whatever consumers are doing online.
The Blackout Bestseller List last year grew out of some organic shifts in buying patterns. People started buying books around social change and social justice. Then the industry, authors, and readers made this moment around the buying pattern.
Remember consumers and buyers are people. They're living their lives and looking for opportunities to be relevant and valuable to lived experiences. Recognizing this will increase your sales no matter what time of year.
The word right now for Q4 supply chain is volatility.
Turnaround times vary depending on where you're sourcing from, where you're printing, and where you're shipping. There are challenges here for publishers going into the back half of the year.
But what can you expect to influence your supply chain right now?
You read earlier that a few consumer buying trends from 2020 have continued into this year. However, you should expect trends around supply to be fundamentally different.
Last year, the specific nature of disruption centered around industry partners, mostly printers. This year, the issues are more systemic, especially around freight and importing stock. Recently, The Bookseller reported freight cost for books coming from overseas was up 400% over last year. That's going to have a measurable increase in your cost per unit.
If you're publishing primarily in children's books, art and design, anything that uses coated stock, you're going to experience a little more disruption.
When supply disruptions are within the industry ecosystems, publishers have a little bit more control over how they can get themselves prioritized. If you've been working with a printer for 40 years, you might be able to say, "Hey, I need this frontlist book moved up to the top."
That's impossible when you're competing for a shipping container against other industries. Especially, a container that could be used for shipping semiconductors.
So, which part of the supply chain process can you control?
In Q4, online retail availability is the most important piece of metadata you can optimize for your books.
Two to three years ago, the assumptions were availability, specifically on-page availability, was not controllable by the publisher, but by the retailer. That's not the case anymore with the rise of consumer direct fulfillment.
Amid all this uncertainty you can lean on your partners to manage your supply and demand.
The easiest way to keep your titles available, even if a retailer runs out, is to have the book available at Ingram.
There's no action from the publisher when using CDF or GAP, you set it and forget it.
A lot of publishers have moved their book printing away from China and East Asia to Europe where there is some print capacity.
For those publishers outside of the EU, printing in Europe also gets around the paperwork and increased costs associated with freight and customs due to Brexit and EU VAT (Value Added Tax) law changes.
This is a great strategy for US publishers selling books in the UK. Previously, it's been books on boats to the UK, but with the current US carrier crunch and some of the long lead times — printing in the UK could prove a viable alternative.
Printing close to demand outweighs missing publication dates and then canceled orders and lost sales.
This model provides an inventory-free global sales strategy for you to ensure availability for your titles. Not all your titles need to be in a print-on-demand model. Some publishers move to a hybrid stock position and virtual stock. A print-on-demand or POD model allows you to print closest to your customer and reduce the shipping cost.
Your supply chain success comes down to knowing where your orders are coming from, where your readers are, and having a network where you can rely on in-market printing.