Monday, January 28, 2013

eBook Publishing Part 1: The Black Libary

I have often shared my frustrations with the ebook marketplace. Many of them deal with the lack of innovation with the ebook format and the distribution of ebooks. Ebooks are simply shoehorned into traditional publishing models in order to protect the current model or to avoid investing into future models. I think publishers have a golden opportunity to capitalize on this moment of transition, and I am frustrated that they either squandering the opportunity or, in some cases, actively opposing it. In Part 1 of this opinion piece, I want to discuss The Black Library as an example of a publisher who understands the ebook market. In Part 2, I will discuss where I think the ebook market should be heading.

Ebooks provide number of key advantages that I believe are largely ignored. However, there are a few publishers who embrace them and none more so than The Black Library. While I do not think The Black Library is perfect, they are quickly innovating their business model and are moving in the right direction. I think they succeed in a few key areas: leveraging technology, monetizing their IP, and marketing.

The Black Library has clearly embraced technology and the internet. The clearest evidence is their shift to direct sales and the way they own the customer relationship. Not only do they engender loyalty, but they also gain access to customer data. Right now, Amazon and others are notoriously tight-fisted about this data to ensure that their customers are loyal to Amazon first and the publishers a distant second. The Black Library’s access to customer data, buying habits, credit card information, etc. is an invaluable tool for developing new marketing strategies. It also allows quicker access to performance data and helps them to adjust their strategies accordingly.

Technology has allowed the Black Library to become more flexible and experimental with their product offerings. Instead of being limited to standard novels, The Black Library now offers short stories, monthly magazines, audio dramas, and exclusive time-limited, print-on-demand titles. In addition, by shifting to a digital first outlook, their offerings can be quickly repackaged. Short stories that appear in their monthly Hammer and Bolter offering can be re-sold individually or bundled into a coherent collection at a later date.

Perhaps the most aggressive move to embrace technology is by The Black Library’s parent company, Games Workshop. Games Workshop now offers their core rulebooks in the iBook 3 format, creating an extremely convenient interactive and auto-updating product. They also regularly post rule clarifications and updates to their core rulebooks. Normally this would become cumbersome to the customer over time. By embracing technology, Games Workshop has created a better product and a satisfied customer base.

Technology has also provided The Black Library the means to more effectively monetize their intellectual property. After all, everyone wants to get paid for their work. The greatest sin of publishing are the hard price points of hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and mass market paperbacks. I feel that this leaves entirely too much money on the table, and it doesn’t even address the entire available market. Some fans are willing to spend much more money on their products (e.g. collector’s and limited editions) while some fans only have enough money to purchase products at an entry-level point.

The Black Library’s approach has been to create a wide spectrum of goods at multiple price points. At the low end, there are $2-$4 short stories and the monthly subscription to Hammer and Bolter that allows readers to sample new authors and new settings. It also gives collectors another place to spend their money. At the high end, there are The Black Library’s exclusive collector’s editions which sell for $50 or more. In between, there are novellas, ebooks and audio dramas. Even here, prices vary with products such as enhanced ebooks which may contain exclusive artwork or premium formating.

Extending this publishing model even further, The Black Library monetizes non-traditional offerings. For example, they offer fans a way to purchase the excellent cover art commissioned by The Black Library. Instead of giving it away as promotional material or not offering it for sale, The Black Library sells oversized poster formats in digital and physical forms. Another example of their non-traditional offerings are the scripts for their audio dramas. Rather than simply sell an audio product, The Black Library cleans up the scripts and sells them as premium hard cover collectibles.

The Black Library is also brilliant in their use of exclusive content. Most of their catalog is offered on their website several months in advance of other retail partners. These products are sold at full list price. Mixed in are niche products that might not be received well at retail but become exclusive offerings on The Black Library’s website.

All these examples simply highlight how The Black Library works to expand their market and give their biggest fans more ways to spend money by reusing and repackaging the content it has already produced. It creates additional revenue streams and higher profit margins while satisfying their best customers and attracting new ones.

The Black Library is also very savvy in their marketing. In particular, I feel they have avoided the biggest mistake publishers make-- creating a community portal. While the work produced by Tor.com and Suvudu is first class, it also directly competes with the publishers’ biggest fans. Now, fan-created sites such as Dragonmount and Westeros.org have to vie with the publishers for traffic. While the relationship between these sites and the publisher may be cordial, their visitors’ time isn’t infinite and the competition can negatively affect ad revenue.

Instead, The Black Library has made their website dedicated selling product rather than hosting a community. This enables The Black Library to focus more on their books, rather than creating editorial content or community features that might not translate into sales. The Black Library engages and encourages their fandom by promoting reviews and coverage that are already being produced by fans.

The Black Library has also been innovative in creating ways to entice customers to return to their website. One means of doing this is the top-notch newsletters they produce. Not content to send simple text-based missives, they instead sends a newsletter that is well-formatted, informative, and full of great artwork. The Black Library is also careful not to flood your mailbox by carefully coordinating their marketing campaigns. The campaigns are varied, but they have a few staples such as ebook Mondays when they release new short stories. More complex campaigns are carried out during the holidays. For example, during the Advent Calendar event, a new short story is released every day leading up to Christmas. All of these events help drive traffic to their site.

The Black Library is also successful with their targeted campaigns in preparation for big releases (e.g. a new Horus Heresy novel). But their best work is reserved for their exclusive collector’s editions. During the build up to a release date, The Black Library will preview new artwork, interviews, and video trailers. While none of this is particularly shocking or revolutionary, the overall quality of their marketing is so impressive that it is effective at generating interest.

The surprising aspect of this marketing is that it continues after the sale of the book. With the time-limited collectibles, there can be up to eight weeks between the order date and delivery date. The Black Library wisely finds a way to engage the customer in this window of time by sending out status updates on the production process, wallpapers, story excerpts, etc. All of these updates not only keep the customer excited while they wait for the arrival of their order, but they also keep the customer returning to the site and generating traffic.

The Black Library’s marketing success isn’t limited to great newsletters, smart marketing, or promoting web traffic either. They are great at branding their product lines. While there is a clear distinction between Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000, these two categories are still rather broad. The Black Library wisely breaks them down even further-- particularly with Warhammer 40,000K. In this universe, they have grouped titles under series titles such as The Horus Heresy, Space Marines Battles, and Lords of the Space Marines. Within each of these categories, The Black Library maintains a specific tone and subject matter. In this way, they provides a neat structure to their catalog, allowing their customers to more easily find what they want.

Wrapping everything up in a tidy bow is The Black Library’s website. It is easy to navigate, great to look at, and updated frequently. The Black Library doesn’t have much of an option in this regard; by engaging in direct sales with the customer, their website has to be top notch. Frustration would mean lost sales. It seems like common sense that locating a product and buying it should be a seamless process, but at many publishers’ websites, this simply isn’t so. The Black Library nails it.

The Black Library isn’t perfect but they are clearly working hard at it. They are leveraging technology to engage their audience with a variety of efficiently produced products. They find creative ways to monetize all aspects of their intellectual property, allowing them to be more creative and adventurous in their catalog. Finally, they engage in high-quality marketing by drawing their customers in and keeping them. The Black Library trusts their customers, providing DRM-free ebooks and a pragmatic, easy-to-read usage license.

Overall, The Black Library has been most successful at increasing the value of their product. While publishers routinely bemoan the devaluing of books due to self-publishing and ebooks, The Black Library has managed to not only hold the line, but to actually advance. They give nothing away. I think there is something that other publishers can learn from The Black Library and their methods. I am very excited to see how they continue to evolve in the coming years. In the meantime, I will continue to buy their books -- direct.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss what I envision as the future of selling ebooks.

Image Source: The Black Library

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