Why book publishers are struggling with direct to consumer sales

I recently had an experience as a consumer that highlighted several practical challenges readers face when buying books directly from publishers. I was lying in bed surfing Twitter, and happened across the mention of a kid’s book that falls very much into the vein of books we read at home. It was Canadian and had won all kinds of awards, so I followed the link in the tweet.

I landed on the publisher’s site and quickly realized it was going to be absurdly difficult to navigate on my phone, as the site was not responsive. Perhaps the publisher was so far behind that I wasn’t going to be able to buy the book? I wasn’t really interested in trying Amazon or Indigo and much prefer to support independent publishers when I can. 

With a bit of panning around on the page, I found an “add to cart” button. It had light green text on a light green background. It was barely legible on my phone and required some intense active squinting.

add to cart

Nonetheless, I made my way through the purchase process. Happily, my phone automatically filled in most of the fields for me, like my name and address. Scrolling past “Antarctica” and “Bouvet Island” to get to “Canada” was kind of amusing.

The shipping cost was surprisingly high and there was no visible reason for it -- no “2 day shipping” promise or similar. I recall the early days of e-commerce when you either charged a flat fee and ate the difference or didn’t charge for shipping at all. These days, there’s no reason for any of this, shippers quote the actual cost in real-time and that’s the the consumer’s expectation. In spite of the inflated shipping and the indifference to my consumerism, I soldiered on.

But then, the fourth page in the purchase process took me off suddenly to paypal.com. Disconcerting to say the least, but I was determined to see this purchase through.

Unfortunately for book publishers, most buyers are not as sympathetic to the challenges they face purchasing a book on their site.

Consumers expect the purchase process to be easy and seamless

Given the increasing rarity of bricks and mortar book sellers, the consumer expectation of accomplishing everything digitally, and the challenges of creating an effective and engaging digital presence, it’s no surprise that book publisher websites are generally underachieving when it comes to selling directly to readers.  

This is a problem, not just for the publishers that are lagging, but for the industry in general: If consumers have no reason to wander from Amazon and Indigo, they never will.

When we review a book publisher website these days, the first thing we do is make sure that it’s responsive. Sites that aren’t are definitely a second class kind of affair. The world has moved on from any discussion about whether people use and expect to use their phones to get stuff done.

Secondly, we look at the site’s meta data. Sites with complete meta data have a much higher success rate when it comes to discoverability and sales. In the case above, the book page did not mention the illustrator, who is a member of the Order of Canada and internationally famous.

Nor did the book page mention the other books in the best-selling series, which would have been a huge opportunity to upsell me.

We also advocate for an integrated e-commerce system to keep people on your site and to have full control over your relationship with customers. While Paypal is no longer the trainwreck it once was, it remains a source of friction in the purchase process: you’re going to lose sales for no good or apparent reason. You’ve passed off responsibility to look after your customers to Paypal and Paypal surely doesn’t care about them they way you do.

Furthermore, we build sites that automatically engage readers with tools like opt-ins and related content. In the example above, as a book-buying customer, I ought to have been prompted to opt-in to receive messages from the publisher; I ought to have been alerted to the fact that my book was part of a highly regarded series, and I honestly regretted not having the option to buy the entire series for some modest discount. And even aside from the series, there were no suggestions of other books that might interest me.

If all this amounted to an unusual case, I wouldn’t bother about it. But this is commonplace. Book publishers are missing critical opportunities to engage readers on their own sites. I get that there are reasons: still working the B2B model, lack of resources, and so on. But the point is: most consumers won’t tolerate these inconveniences.

As for me, well, I received the book a week later and had a fine evening reading and talking about it with my kids. It was everything I’d hoped for, even if the purchase experience was not.