Episode 4: Drs. Rachel Noorda and Kathi Inman Berens on Book Discovery

In this episode Joshua speaks with Dr. Rachel Noorda (@rachellynchase), Director of Book Publishing and Assistant Professor in English, and Dr. Kathi Inman Berens (@kathiiberens), Associate Professor of Book Publishing and Digital Humanities, at Portland State University. Rachel and Kathi are the lead researchers on Panorama Project’s Immersive Media & Reading Consumer Survey, a survey-based consumer behavior study focused on how book discovery works and how libraries fit into the book discovery ecosystem. This cross-media study included representative samples from across U.S. population demographics and regions, and provides some important insights into how book consumers discover and purchase books.

Book discovery is context-agnostic. People might see a book in a bookstore and buy that book online, or find it in the library and then go buy it in a bookstore. Sales data only shows us part of the picture, and book discovery is much broader than just word of mouth. There is no one formula for discovery, either, because consumers engage many different touch points, including many different kinds of media, in the process of discovering new books. Joshua, Rachel, and Kathi also talked about some of the surprising results from the study around book pirates, who are some of the most prolific book buyers, and how publishers can engage with them.

Listeners of the podcast are encouraged to read the full report, and take advantage of its insights and data as you engage future acquisitions, marketing programs, and more.

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Transcript

Joshua Tallent
So, this week on the podcast I’m excited to have Dr. Rachel Noorda and Dr. Kathi Inman Berens, from Portland State University to talk about data in publishing in a different way, and a research project that they’ve been working on.

Dr. Noorda is the Director of Book Publishing and Assistant Professor of English at Portland State. She is researching 21st century book topics, and has a book coming out from Cambridge University Press later this year called “Entrepreneurship in U.S. Book Publishing in the Twenty-First Century,” which sounds like a really interesting topic. So Rachel, it is great to have you on the program.

Rachel Noorda
Thank you, Joshua.

Joshua Tallent 
Dr. Kathi Inman Berens is Associate Professor of Book Publishing and Digital Humanities at Portland State. She also researches the book publishing industry and digital born literature. She was the U.S. Fulbright Scholar of Digital Culture in Norway in 2014-2015, which I think is pretty cool, and a Fellow at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. Kathi, thank you for joining me.

Kathi Berens 
Hey, it’s great to be here.

Joshua Tallent  
Rachel, before we talk about some of the results, can you give a quick overview of what the research project is? What are its goals? What was the big picture that you were doing for the research project that you published the report for last year, but are still continuing to do research on?

Rachel Noorda 
Absolutely. The two main goals of the project were book discovery—primarily, we wanted to know, how are people discovering books—and of course, how that leads to book purchase and borrowing and all of those things. And then the second goal was how do libraries fit into the ecosystem? Some of our partners, including our main partner Panorama Project, are really concerned about libraries, and this was all happening around some of the big events about libraries in the industry, like the Macmillan ebook embargo. So yeah, those were the two things that drove the study. It’s a survey- based consumer behavior study, cross media, and we had a sample size of over 4000 participants, and were also very concerned about making sure that the study was representative of the US population. So we were looking at—we had particular quotas that we were filling for age, and race, and gender, and also region too—because there are regional differences, of course.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s interesting. This is a US-based study. It’s informational toward the US book market. Obviously, there’s a lot more publishing going on, and I’m assuming you guys want to expand that in the future to other international partners as well and see if there’s more data to be discovered in that direction.

Rachel Noorda 
That would be one of the great next steps for the project: to think about international partners in ways that we could have this study be something that we get to see in Germany, or Canada, or other places.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s great. I think this is a really interesting topic, because how people discover books is going to be a big impact on how they buy them as well. And in publishing, we want people to buy books, right? We want to be successful in that; otherwise, we have problems. So let’s talk about some of the things that you’ve found, some of the interesting points that you’ve figured out here. Kathi, can you speak to that just a little bit—the types of things that you guys found that were interesting about discovery? And what was unique?

Kathi Berens 
The headline is that book discovery is context agnostic. People might find something online and buy it in a bookstore, which people did, much more than the recent article in The New York Times would suggest. People buy. People discover books in libraries, where it’s obviously very low risk because it’s free, and then they go out and buy books. We found that people did that 45% of the time. So, the headline here is that there’s an over-attribution to the end point. People say, “oh, gosh, everyone’s discovering books on Amazon.” Well, we’re not really sure that’s the case, because our data show that in roughly equal numbers, people find a book online and then buy it in a bookstore or discover a book in a bookstore and then buy it online. It’s actually far more fluid than just looking at sales data would suggest.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s interesting too, because [if] you think about—you know, the common knowledge is that I hear about books from my friends, and I’m going to go buy that book. But that’s not the case from what you guys have seen. Not that that’s not a part of it. But discoverability seems to be—discovery in general seems to be—much broader than that. And even little bits and pieces here and there kind of seem to come to the forefront. Is that right?

Rachel Noorda 
One of the things that we found [is that]—obviously—word of mouth was really important in the top categories for how people were discovering books in the survey. But even that was really highly dispersed. So you mentioned, Joshua, recommendations from friends was the top category for how people were saying that they were finding books. But that was only just above 20%, about a fifth. It wasn’t a majority, in terms of how people were discovering books. So, there are many different ways to discover books. And that, in some ways, is good news, too.

Joshua Tallent 
What were some other factors that you guys found were the key to discoverability? Some other things that were important factors in that?

Kathi Berens 
The diversity of ways that people discover books suggests that there’s no one formula for discovery. We do know that people have multiple touch points, and the very low [discovery method] rankings—for say, finding a book through a bookseller recommendation, which was only 4% of the [survey] population, or finding a book via an algorithm, which was only 3% of the population—we know that just the very design of the bookstore facilitates book discovery, whether those are shelf talkers, or call-out displays. There are any number of ways that just physically moving through a bookstore awakens discovery. We also know that people are largely unaware of how metadata works, how algorithms and recommendation algorithms work. So a question that would be super hard to capture in self-report data would be: how many times did you encounter this book before you finally decided to open your wallet? Or you finally decided to check it out from the library? That’s hard for consumers to be aware of.

Joshua Tallent 
I imagine—I mean, if you think about how advertising works online—I don’t know why I’m thinking that I need an Instant Pot. But suddenly, I think I need an Instant Pot. It’s probably because I’ve seen like multiple Instant Pots on certain sites or something. It’s really the algorithm. It’s actually an interesting question: Do people even think about it? When they saw that algorithm as an option in the list, did they even think about that? Or even, would they be able to itemize that? I couldn’t do it. If I were—and I’m a techie kind of guy—I could probably think about it a lot and figure out: “Okay, yeah, that’s why I figured I wanted that book, or I wanted that Instant Pot.” But it just seems like it’s such a hidden thing. It’s such a behind the scenes thing. It points to the real need for high quality data, the real need for publishers to think outside the box when it comes to discoverability when it comes to advertising, marketing, those kinds of things—because really, your book could be discovered by somebody in a video game. Or it could be discovered by somebody in a place that otherwise you would never think of it.

Rachel Noorda 
I’m so glad that you mentioned that, because as we were thinking about data and your listeners—and publishers specifically and where people might think about going for data beyond the sales data that they have—thinking about other media industries and consumption patterns is something that we would really encourage. Our study was a cross-media one, and what we found is that avid readers are also avid media consumers in other categories. They’re gaming, they’re watching TV and movies. And there is a really high discovery rate cross-media. About 60% of people are going from engaging with a book to then finding a new TV series, or movie, or game. 61% are going from TV or movie to then finding a book or a game. Games was the lowest [category for cross-media discovery]—but still, about a third, 33% [are] engaging with a game and then finding other media like a book or TV/movies. Cross-discovery is something I don’t think we engage enough with in the industry, to think about readers as cross media consumers.

Joshua Tallent 
I love board games. That’s one of my favorite hobbies, and I have friends who are really deep into certain genres of board games. And they’re also the same guys who love to read books in that same genre, right? So, if they’re playing a dungeon-crawling board game, they’re going to read a dungeon-crawling book. And I have a friend who actually wrote a book about a world that he created that he came up with because he loves that genre [of] board game. I think that’s really interesting. It’s very holistic when you think about it from a consumer perspective: that consumers are not just: “I’m hyper focused on this as a book,” or “I’m hyper focused on this as a movie I want to watch, or a game I want to play” or whatever else. It really is — we’re very holistic people. And so we think of the world in those terms as well.

Kathi Berens 
Yes, and to follow up on what Rachel was saying: an action item for publishers would be to think—there’s been an assumption that it’s a zero-sum game. That if someone’s gaming a bunch, then they’re not reading books; or if someone’s streaming TV and movies, then that’s taking time away [from books]. But people are also multitasking. The more that people can move easily in a device, like a mobile computing device—maybe moving between their Kindle, their Audible, and their Netflix [apps], and whatever games they happen to be playing—I think that’s a very real use case scenario. Publishers would do well to think: “how can I look to adjacent media? How are those customers also MY customers?”

Joshua Tallent 
Definitely. That’s another thing about customers, though. One of the things that you mentioned was really interesting is that pirates are actually book buyers. So let’s talk about that a little bit. What is it that you found in your research about pirates and how they become customers?

Rachel Noorda 
We’re really glad that we have some data on this. And there’s still a lot more data that that we need. That’ll be one of the great things about some longitudinal data: year-on-year getting more data about pirates. What we found in our survey was that this segment of people who said that they were pirating books were downloading and reading books for free that should have been paid for. They are buying, subscribing to, borrowing from the library—there are more library card holders among [pirates], you know—all of those more than the general survey population. And so that makes us ask the question: well, then why are they pirating? If they’re willing to pay, what is it? And they seem pretty passionate as well, like more into fandoms. They were downloading and reading fanfiction at twice the rate of the general survey population, for example. So and they’re more context agnostic. So this thing that Kathi was talking about where you’re discovering in one place and buying in another place, pirates are even more likely to do that sort of thing. So really: what we started thinking about was accessibility and the ease—that that is something that’s going to make or break it for piracy. Our recommendation, as we were thinking about publishers and authors, is that we need more data about pirates. Also: interact with your own book pirates to learn about who they are and what their needs are, because they will buy. We just need to figure out: What is that secret piece that will make them do so?

Joshua Tallent 
What’s the tipping point that’s gonna make them a consumer of that product, not just somebody who wants to figure out whether they want to buy it or not?

Kathi Berens 
Pirates are highly price sensitive, as you would imagine. But they are also two times more likely to buy books in multiple formats. So when they like a thing, they really like a thing. And again: what’s that sweet spot? What’s that thing that makes them say, “Oh, I need this in hardback, I need it in ebook”? For the authors out there who are concerned about piracy—of course, all authors should be concerned about piracy—if you would engage in a robust giveaway, where you attract some of those people who are very price sensitive and then gather data from them— try to learn a little bit about when they convert from being in that grazing mode to becoming a fan, or in some cases, a superfan. Right? Which is to say: People are out there writing in fandoms and really, really engaging [with storyworlds]. So, for authors, piracy is not just a threat; it’s also an opportunity.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s good. There’s obviously going to be more research done in the future. You guys are still continuing the project and doing some other things. Let’s get practical a little bit. We’ve had some practical advice for publishers, I think that’s the most important thing for me. But what would you say? If I’m a publisher, I’m thinking about, who my buyers are, who my consumers are. I’m trying to figure out how to know them better. I’m trying to figure out how to reach more people in all of these different cross media. What would you say publishers can do in that regard? Do you have any suggestions or advice to give them for, for taking advantage of the information that you’ve gathered in the study and putting some practical legs on it?

Kathi Berens 
I do want to note that our report is Open Access and freely accessible to anybody. I would like publishers to go look at the data on multitasking. Because multitasking is—you would be surprised to see that 60% of the time people are multitasking when they engage with an ebook. 70% are multitasking when they’re with audiobooks, and 31% are multitasking with printed books.

Joshua Tallent 
I’m sorry— I have to ask—what are people doing when they’re multitasking with the print book? I mean, I’ve tried to walk and I’ve tried to walk and read before, especially when I was a kid. I did that going to school and stuff. But it’s not easy.

Kathi Berens 
[laughs]I’m so getting a picture of that, Joshua. Well, at first, it sounds completely crazy. But then if you think about: maybe you’re at your kid’s ballgame, and you are watching your kid when he’s at bat, but otherwise you’re pretty much reading your book. Maybe you’re waiting in line for something, like you’re waiting to be called up at the dentist’s office, and you’re also reading a printed book. So I guess the takeaway for me would be: let’s think about the different types of attention that your customers bring to the products that you’re offering them. Is it easy for them to dive in and out of the formats that you’re offering? Can you chunk your work a little bit differently, so that you can attract people who can have both a long-form experience, but maybe they need those shorter bursts based on how they’re reading or engaging?

Joshua Tallent 
That’s good. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I multitask with that all the time. But I think there’s a lot of benefit in thinking about this from a content perspective. If publishers are content creators, and if we take ourselves out of the [mindset] “We’re going to make a book,” there’s value in a publisher thinking outside of that realm into the idea of content: thinking about short-form fiction, short-form nonfiction, thinking about putting content in other forms like podcasts, or things like that, that may be outside the realm of kind of normal publishing but definitely fit within the realm of content understanding.

Rachel Noorda 
To Kathi’s call to dig a little bit deeper into the report as well: because we gathered all this demographic data, and it is a pretty long report—75 pages, there’s a short version as well: you can dig pretty deep in there. And we do go into all of the different demographic pieces. You can get pretty specific about, say, if you’re wanting to target Asian American women, for example, within a particular region of the United States, then you could think about the discovery patterns within that very specific demographic. As granular as you can get, because, you know, the more targeted to your particular audience and books and all of that, the better. The report and the data in there can help you do that. These big findings that we’re talking about aren’t that granular. And then, something we haven’t talked about but that did come up in book discovery was genre and an author being recurring [touchpoints] particularly important for purchasing decisions. Genre was about 40% of why people decided to buy a book; author came second—author was also in the top favorite author, top for book discovery. So think about author brands, whether you’re an author or publisher, about genre categorization, [and] the metadata that goes along with that. All of those things are quite important for making sure that your book gets seen.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s good. Genre characterization is really a big deal. If you talk to any publisher, figuring out what categories it goes into, and also beyond the categories themselves—beyond just BISAC or Thema, or whatever you’re using for that, thinking about the genre being a deeper understanding of what the book is, it’s not just about a category of fits in, but really an understanding that you can put into keywords and put into your description and help people understand this book fits your specific fandom in a very clear way, or your specific interests in a clear way.

Thank you for joining us today. I really appreciate this. I think a lot of times when we look at publishing, we look at the data we have; we don’t understand where people are learning about books. So it’s great the work that you guys are doing. I really appreciate the fact that it’s Open Access, and that you’ve done all this hard work to help us understand discoverability. Thank you for that. And thank you for being committed to helping publishers with that, because I think it’s gonna change over time. Obviously, a lot of your research you did in the midst of the pandemic, but you’re [also] asking people for their thoughts from before. I’m assuming that things are changing. And maybe you guys are able to talk about that in a future episode? We can talk about how things played out through the pandemic, and whether there were major changes in how people consume their content or discovered the content as well. This is just such an interesting situation. I’m glad you guys joined us today for the podcast. Thanks.

Kathi Berens 
Thanks for having us.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s it for this episode of the BookSmarts Podcast. If you like what you’ve heard, please leave a review or rating in your podcast app. And if you have a topic suggestion or feedback about the show, you can email me at joshua@firebrandtech.com. Thanks for joining us and for getting smarter about your books.


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