Book Video Drives Book and eBook Sales Increase

I've been running an experiment since January to see whether a book video would impact the sell through of one of my titles. The reason I ended up with a four month trial is that I forgot I was running it, so the numbers involved are large enough to offer some statistical significance. In brief, on January 21st, I began running the video embedded below on a dozen or so of my web pages related to the topic, including the order page for the book:

This "about the book" video has been viewed 22,953 times as of this morning, and the viewer attention span (as measured by YouTube) is decent, with the average viewer watching about half of the video. The video was made in a single take with my FlipCam, no script, and I never experimented with running different videos. If you sit through the video, you'll see it really is about the book, there's no "call to action", promise of enhanced performance, longer life, improved self esteem, or any of that good stuff. I don't have a same period last year to compare to as the book was only published last spring, so I'm comparing the last four months and ten days with four months and ten days immediately preceding.

Amazon Associates sell through:

Before book video - 8.39%
After book video - 9.54%

The Amazon Associates sell through increased 13.7% with the book video. Ebook sales are also 100% trackable through my site, and the sell through of my ebook licence agreement page was:

Before book video - 1.97%
After book video - 2.36%

The sell through of the ebooks directly through my site went up 19.8% after the book video was posted.

For the same period, book sales through stores that I don't have any way to track were also up, sales in the US rose 36% in the four months after the video was posted, sales overseas (printed by Lightning Source in the UK) rose 125%. But the untrackable sales increases could easily have been driven by the increasing visibility of the book online or by increasing word of mouth as the title became known in the relevant communities. And I should point out that total print sales for this book are still well short of 1,000 copies, it's just not a popular subject.

The trackable increases, the 14% rise in Amazon sell through and the 20% rise in eBook sell through, are adjusted for overall traffic to my website, so they represent real gains in sales. The questions I can't answer are:

#1 - Would the book video have driven much greater sales increases if the spokes model was (even) more attractive than myself?

#2 - Would the video have been more effective in driving sales if it took a hard-sell approach, with repeated calls-to-action - buy it or your house will catch fire!

#3 - Would the video have sold more books if it was professionally produced, rehersed, etc?

#4 - Would the existing video have had a greater impact on sales if my sales page contained a more aggressive sales pitch?

I've done a lot of experimenting over the years within the bounds of the soft-sell approach, changing the order links and location of book cover images on my web pages, etc, and I don't remember ever seeing a double digit increase in sell-through from any of those tweaks. I think that's largely because customers who respond to the passive sales approach based on content commit to the purchase at the time they decide to buy, so they will find the book even if it requires extra effort on their part. Publishers employing a aggressive sales tactics, on the other hand, may see significant increases through extensive A/B testing of the sales pitch, colors, pricing, etc.

Video production, whether you do it yourself or pay a professional, is not the real challenge here. Getting potential readers to view the video is the hard part. Note that 88% of the viewership for the book video in this example watched the video embedded in my web pages. Some publishers may harbor ambitions of producing viral book videos, with such great entertainment value that they garner a wide viewership through word of mouth and high visibility on YouTube. I'm sure that will work just great for one publisher in a thousand, or whatever the numbers work out to be, but it wouldn't be an efficient use of resources for most of us. If you think there's a one-size-fits-all answer for producing book videos, you may also benefit from my universal answer guide:

Ask Not For A Better Answer, Ask A Better Question

Conservatively, I figure I've responded to well over 10,000 e-mails since establishing an online presence back in 1995, and I've learned something about questions along the way. When I was a kid, I remember teachers trying to convince children that there's no such thing as a stupid question, which goes a long way towards explaining what went wrong with education in this country (see my detailed plan for education reform). But from the standpoint of somebody looking for answers online, the issue is less one of stupid questions, like, "How do I write a bestseller" than one of uninformed questions, like, "Where's the cheapest place to get a book printed."

The new answer engine, Wolfram Alpha, has been getting a lot of attention in the press for their one-stop shopping. Wolfram users posing a narrow range of questions, primarily mathematical in nature, can get an answer as opposed to a link to a page that may to address the question. If Wolfram, or an advanced version of Google, Ask, Yahoo or Live eventually adopts this approach to more general questions, it will result in a lot of very bad answers. The challenge for people seeking answers online is not that the information doesn't exist or that Google can't find it. The challenge is that people who don't already know the answer can rarely do a good job formulating a question.

It's easy to understand why a new self publisher would assume that the first step to starting a profitable publishing business would be to hook up with the cheapest printer. It's also easy to understand why after writing extensively about why printing cost is less important than the overall cost of getting books into distribution, I would get a little frustrated that people who claim to have done their homework keep asking. And while you'd think that all these years of answering questions would have taught me to quickly recognize a faker, some people are such accomplished liars that it takes quite a few back-and-forth e-mails to figure it out. It's extremely annoying to write a detailed response to a sophisticated question only to find the person who asked was just repeating a question from another source in an attempt to look intelligent. In reality, asking questions with technical terms or references that you don't understand is the best way to arrive at the wrong answer.

If Wolfram was smart enough to parse and understand the question, "Why isn't my self published book selling?" and if it had access to Neilsen Bookscan data, it might look at the derivative of the sales curve for the rate of change and estimate a projected rate of sales. The answer will likely be, "Your book is selling within the normal parameters for a self published book." While such an answer might cheer the heart of an author with a bruised ego, it isn't go to help sell more books. A similarly innocent question might be, "What can I do to sell more books." A really sharp answer engine could come up with a whole variety of answers, like "Make a personal appearance on Oprah," "Start a marketing campaign," or "Lower the price." Does anybody believe those answers are actually useful?

Unfortunately, a "smart" answer engine with enough access to data could come up with very precise answer to the question, "Where's the cheapest place to get a book printed?" And after two weeks or a month, the lucky publisher who asked the question would end up with a garage full of books that, if he could find a distributor to take them, would result in a financial loss on every copy sold. So much for, "I know what I'm doing, just answer my simple question."

There's only one way to ask smart questions, and that's to educate yourself in the subject area until you reach the level of understanding required to ask smart questions. Too many people figure that the fastest path to knowledge is to find somebody who knows more than they do and to ask a lot of questions. Unfortunately, that's not an education, it's an open guru test. School teachers don't assign homework out of pure sadism. It's only through hands-on experience solving problems, writing essays, reading books, etc, that the educational process really takes place. Asking a lot of questions is no replacement for learning, you may as well use my universal answer guide on your next standardized test.

Do Print Books Sell eBooks By Lending Legitimacy

One of the publishing questions kindled by Amazon's Kindle reader and the general growth in eBook sales is whether selling eBooks hurts the sales of print books. There have been anecdotal reports from Jeff Bezos down to myself suggesting that the opposite may be true, but I'm still working on the numbers. In the meantime, my current experience trying to sell an experimental ebook about mortgage math makes me wonder if it works the other way around in some case. I've received a couple questions lately from aspiring eBook publishers asking if publishing a print edition is necessary to demonstrate legitimacy for the paid download version. The jury is still out, but here are a few of my experiences.

A little over a year ago when I got back into the eBook business, I started by publishing the eBook version of my latest title nine weeks BEFORE I published the printed version. I sold 113 downloads during the nine weeks before the printed book was available, and 109 downloads during the following 9 weeks, when the printed book was available. Of course, those 9 week periods aren't equivalent because selling in April and May isn't equal to selling in June and July, but there certainly wasn't a striking difference. I also compared the first six weeks of eBook sales from 2008 when there was no printed edition available to the exact period this year, when the print book and the eBook are well established, and the download sales are actually up, 75 copies in 2009 vs 64 copies in 2008. Of course, you can argue that year over year comparisons are just as flawed, due to the economy, etc, but again, for this particular title it looks like the introduction of a printed book had no impact on the eBook sales.

Now let's take a look at the other side. A year ago last week I published an updated eBook version of my oldest Foner Books title, which has been in print since 2002. Over the course of the year, the eBook has sold 274 downloads. In the corresponding period from 2007/2008 (before the eBook was available), the print book sold roughly 1,200 copies, while in the 2008/2009 period with the eBook available, the printed book sold roughly 1,000 copies. So at first glance, it would appear that the eBook sales came largely at the expense of the print sales. But here are a few caveats. First, the print sales in the first four months of this years are actually up year-over-year, by nearly 20%. So a good part of the difference may be due to the fact that this business title did poorly during the long period of financial uncertainty last year. It's also worth noting that the eBook version is more profitable than the printed version.

But now we get to the case of my experimental book about mortgage math and the idea of legitimacy. I started offering this title for sale last month as a stand-alone ebook. On a little over 300 order page views, the eBook sold a total of 3 downloads, or a 1% sell through. That's far and away the worst sell-through I've seen for an eBook download on my site, not to mention that there were no print sales taking away potential eBook buyers. I have three main candidates to explain the difference, the first two being that there isn't a printed version of the eBook to lend legitimacy to it and the second being that people interested in mortgage math aren't looking for a short book on the subject.

I saved the best explanation for last, which is that it's priced too cheaply. Since the eBook is only 40 odd pages, I initially set the price at $3.95, because that's what I'd be happy paying for it as a customer. After a week with only two sales, I tried dropping the price to $1.95, offering a money back guaranty, and finally trying 99 cents with the tag line, "download the eBook for a song." No sale. In fact, I didn't sell another copy until I raised the price to $4.95 two days ago! So it may be that a low price raises a red flag with potential customers, leading them to think it must be a scam or a pirated book, while a higher price actually encourages sales. As much as I'd like to experiment with pricing further, I don't want to sell the eBook for more than $4.95 because that's about the limit of what I'd be happy paying for it myself based on page count.

Strange as it may sound, I've paid $25 or $50 for books and been perfectly happy with the purchase if the book contained one fact or procedure that I actually used, even if it didn't occupy a full page. Would I have been happy paying $25 or $50 for just that page? I'm afraid not, I don't have that kind of executive mindset. I want some weight for my money, even if it's just electrons.

Class Of 2009 and Unpaid Internships in Publishing

When graduation rolls around every Spring, I start getting career guidance questions from a new crop of English Lit majors seeking editorial jobs in the New York City publishing scene. This year is a bit different, because the Class of 2009 will be competing tooth-and-nail with the last 20 or 30 years worth of graduates, who have decades of experience and bigger bills to pay. History teaches that those new graduates who fail to get work in their chosen field will lag students with better timing for the rest of their careers. But new graduates with deep pockets (ie, families who are desperate to keep them from returning home) actually have an advantage over publishing staff with years of experience. It's called the "unpaid internship", and it's a legal way for employers to get slave labor in return for supposedly useful job experience. Just don't take an internship at a newspaper or a magazine.

Despite the overly optimistic outlook of young people doing their best to sound jaded, they are still a more realistic group than former trade authors and other trade publishing casualties. While the Class of 2009 may be willing to work for coffee and a place to go eight hours a day, at least they're in a position to see any publishing work as a step up. The funny thing is potential "employers" can pretend that they are doing the kids a favor by taking advantage of them, because you never know, it may just lead to a great paying job. New graduates who want to become editors could do worse than getting any sort of editorial assistant or gopher work in a publishing office, and those who want to become agents are right to accept an unpaid guy or gal Friday spot with a real agent if their parents can afford it.

Experienced publishing staff and authors don't have that flexibility, though they often pretend that they do in conversation. They have mortgages and insurance premiums holding them back, not to mention the need to support their own children in publishing internships. But they struggle to overcome the lack of interest on the part of any manager to hire overqualified personnel. After all, hiring an assistant who's better at your job than you are is a good way to lose your job. Ownership is always keen on cost cutting in tough times, and the best cost cutting method of all is to replace senior positions with junior positions. In other words, the senior editor you hire as your junior editor will keep her new job doing your work (at junior editor pay) when your senior editor position is eliminated in the next cut.

I've made it a point over the years to hire college students as proofreaders on my books, primarily to give them something to put on their resumes, and I'm happy to let them stretch the description to copy editing. The only thing sadder than a new graduate's resume with no relevant work experience is an experienced employee's resume with thirty years of history. The reactions of a potential employer seeing a resume detailing a full career in publishing run the gamut from, "This person will want too much and always be looking for a better job," to "Why did this person get the axe when their former employer is still in business?." And that doesn't even touch on the issue of age.

The only patent medicine I have to peddle for the for these issues is self employment, but our accelerating tendency to big government solutions and the growing need for tax revenue means self employment is likely to trend in the direction of freelancing. Simply put, it will be easier for the government to control a small number of large outsourcing businesses, in terms of monitoring revenue for tax purposes and mandating "benefits", such as health insurance and retirement savings. Once a high quality and social acceptable freelancing system is in place, large publishers will be able to eliminate the majority of their non-management positions, replacing those employees with temporary telecommuting staff. It may even be a boon to those employees who have the means and the desire to work part time, meaning that new graduates will also have to compete with retirees trying to rebuild their cash piles or just keeping busy.

When I see the useless template content being churned out for massive websites by freelance writers who think it will lead to trade publishing work down the road, it makes me cringe. The only skill they're learning is how to write keyword spam, which in the long run is about as valuable as being able to arrange names in an alphabetical list. Of course, it's probably not a bad job match for those who went through school "repurposing" articles from encyclopedias. You can fool the search engines, if that's your goal in life, but you can't fool the readers. And don't get caught up in thinking that boning up on the latest technology will give you an edge in the workplace. Publishing and content exist in opposition to each other, and it's the content that always wins in the end.

Post Script:

A few hours after posting this I thought to check Craigs List for Manhattan writing and editing jobs. The very latest posting happened to be:

Unpaid Internship - Literary Agency - (Gramercy)

"One of NYC finest literary agencies is looking for an intern..."

There were 71 internships posted in the past month!

Defacing Feeds and Google's Garden of Eden

Last week I received a couple "friend" requests, or whatever they're called, for my Facebook account, which reminded me that I have a Facebook account. I should say, had a Facebook account, because I unenrolled, or whatever the process is called. I don't remember why I'd joined in the first place, somebody I respect must have invited me. My online presence is based on my website, with YouTube bringing up a far second place, so Facebook was just another place for a clever vandal to draw a virtual mustache on my nonexistent profile image without my noticing. So I've defaced my own online presence by exiting Facebook.

I also defaced my atom feed, at least I'm sure that's how it looks in a feed reader. For the past year, I've already been manually editing my atom feed down to the last three posts, since Blogger wanted to include the last 25 posts and I couldn't figure out how to stop it. The three post atom feed still eats around a half a gigabyte of bandwidth a week, which strikes me as a criminal waste of electrons. So starting last week, I've replaced the full text feed with a simple notification service, that will supply a link to the actual post on my website. I'm open to other suggestions from readers if this is a hassle, I don't subscribe to any feeds myself so I don't know the relative pluses or minuses.

As my regular readers know, the goal of my online presence is to draw new readers through search, and these days, you can pretty much substitute "Google" for "search." Of course, there are plenty of snakes creeping around in Google's garden of Eden, and it's always been a bit of a puzzlement to me why Google doesn't cast them out on to slither on their bellies for the rest of time. I do spend a reasonable amount of time following Google's limited sourcing on this subject, especially Matt Cutts, and my conclusion is that Google is more like the old British Navy than a patient gardener.

Gardening is not a thrill a minute occupation for even the dullest human, it involves a lot of weeding, watering, watching and waiting. The goal in gardening is not to suppress the unwanted plants (even though that's a big part of the job), it's to encourage the desired plants to reach their full maturity. The gardener rejoices not in killing weeds, but in watching the fruits and flowers grow, often giving away the bulk of the produce. The gardener fights the weeds, the weather and the occasional bunny rabbit, but there's no joy in the battle.

In the days of Pax Britannica, the British Navy secured the trade routes for merchants and colonists around the world. But if you'd asked a British sailor in those days what the function of the Navy was, the answer would probably have been, "Fighting." The Navy fought pirates (when not acting as pirates) in addition to the French, Spanish, Dutch, Americans, and anybody else who cared to challenge their business model. The business model of the British Navy was prize money, which was shared amongst the crew, though not as democratically as say, pirates. Terrifying as flying splinters or getting eaten by sharks may sound, fighting was a welcome break from being crowded under the decks of a smelly, leaky wooden vessel and getting flogged.

In the days of Pax Google, the fun is apparently all in fighting the pirates, at least the 364 days a year they aren't talking like pirates. Google serves a nation of shopkeepers and shoppers, but fundamentally, it's fighting the spammers and sharp operators that makes the Googlers eyes light up and puts a smile on their faces. "Here is a foe worthy of I" quoth the computer engineer, "This beats spending a year tweaking the algorithm to determine which site explaining the role of worms in gardening should come out in the top of our search results." And that may explain why the British Navy hung pirates, while Google slaps them on the wrists and sits with them at SEO conventions. Pirates are fun, publishers are boring.

Rather than getting prize money for taking pirates (or removing their sites from Google's index), Google and its employees benefit from the improvement in their search results. As Google has the best search results around, by more than a small margin, they must be doing many things right. My take on how Google functions is entirely based on public comments of their employees and peculiarities I see in search results from time to time. It could be that they employ massive crews of gardeners who are entirely focused on getting the best discussion about worm poop to the top of the search results, but who can't say much about it in public.

But that doesn't explain why Google continues to index sites with hundreds of thousands of pages of computer generated content aimed at capturing long tail phrases. Some of these sites use scraped content from legitimate publishers, others present endless pages of search result extracts for key phrases. As near as I can tell, Google sees it as a challenge to ignore these "naughty" pages without penalizing legitimate pages on the site. Why not simply wipe them off the map? And why not attend publishing conferences rather than blackhat SEO (Silly Engineering Optimism) galas. Why not?