Grub Street Books — Melbourne Australia

At what point is it worth that price?

I travel a lot, and that makes me a lucky man indeed. One of my favorite ways to unwind , no matter which city I am in, is to hit up the local bookstores. A few weeks ago now I discovered one of the best that I have been to in a long time.

It’s no secret that the book industry has been hit hard — as has the music industry, which I have written about and worked in for most of my life — and this evening it occurred to me that they both suffer from a remarkably similar illness. They both suck at selling things.

I learned how true this was during the founding of my first company, PledgeMusic. Throughout those early years, my life (along with my co-founders and team) was spent convincing artists, their managers, and record labels, that making more money per transaction was not worse than making less. That $55 for an album that had yet to be recorded was not worse than $9.99 from iTunes or $0.005 per stream from an album that had. Or that going into debt and giving Apple, Spotify, and Google all your fan data was not better than…well…not going into debt and giving away all your customer data to Apple, Spotify, and Google. But that’s what we had to do. Most people looked at us like we were from another planet, and a great many still do.

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” — John Maynard Keynes

But back to my new favorite bookstore. Books are an inherently different experience from music in that they take longer to consume (and often to write and produce), but they also differ in that it’s really hard to sample a decent amount of a physical book, and although easier with digital, the experience is pretty basic and I have found it to be largely unsatisfying. Here’s where I think the opportunity lies.

I want you to think of one of your favorite books. Picture holding it, reading it for the first time, and savoring those final pages. And now I want you to think back to when you first picked it up or loaded it up on your Kindle. As an example, I bought Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 first on Kindle for $12.99 (but didn’t start it for a while) and then in paperback. $12.99 felt like an OK price, but for a digital product maybe not so much. Sometimes digital prices feel high enough at the outset to avoid altogether, or to encourage getting the product free via less-than-savory means.

It’s also a damn long book and so what if I don’t make it all the way through? I can’t do anything with it? What if I don’t like it? I still own it? You get the picture.

But since I like his work I ended up buying it again for $16.99 in paperback as I wanted to give it another go, and from the moment I started to read it I was in love. I was riveted and I ploughed through it while traveling and at odd hours where I could, and wished as it came to a close that it didn’t have to end.

If I had to break down what the book was worth to me at various points during the reading of it I’d break it down like this:

On first seeing it in the store — $2.99–4.99 digital or physical — Since I don’t know how good it’s going to be and it’s massive and therefore might just sit on my shelf and make me feel guilty for not having read it yet.

¼ of the way through — easily $12.99–16.99 — no question I would have forked over this amount.

½ of the way through. I’m hooked — $20–25 no problem.

¾ of the way through — $40–50. I’m in it to win it. I want to own the hardback, I want a signed copy.

The end — $75–100 for a signed copy, a limited edition, bonus interviews, copies for friends, etc. I want to buy it again every time I see it.

Judging a book by it’s price?

So for the majority of books I buy I’m offered a set price, normally heavily discounted at the release of a book, and there’s nowhere to go from there.

I want more but I’m being offered less. In fact it’s almost less attractive to me as they are selling it cheap on opening day? Why? Isn’t it good? Why does it need to be sold for less? What’s wrong with it? They can’t give the damned thing away?

So I guess here’s what I’m saying. Why not give me the book for free in exchange for, say, some data on who I am, and then check in with me to see if I’m liking it? That way, if I’m into it, you can ask me what I want to pay. This is obviously easier to achieve with a digital book as you have a buyer’s info locked in (and it should be this way), but I think that it would work for a physical book, as well.

Imagine if instead of $10 now for the book, the store owner just gave me the book in exchange for an email address or SMS, then logged which book I had taken and messaged me a few days later to see if I liked it, and what did I want to pay for it if I did? A minimum could be set (or not) and a link sent to buy it at whichever price there and then. A bookmark could also be put into the book with a QR code (iOS11 has this built into the camera now) and so you could go that way, too. This would work for used books and catalogue, but for new books why not have chapter prompts with QR-style tech to check in during the story?

I guess what I’m saying is that this might not be for everyone, but as with music — and I’m sure with film — there are superfans out there who will always pay more than just the minimum. The great Mark Mulligan from Midia research showed that 17% of music fans account for 61% of all the music revenue, and I’m sure that there is similar data that would reflect this in the book market. Further to this, the 17% is today limited in what they can spend on the items and experiences that they want, because as I stated above , both the music industry and the book industry suck at selling things.

Never confuse things being sold badly with people not wanting to buy them.

So I get that it’s not for everyone but I loved my book shop experience today and I wanted to do more, to be a part of the community, to belong.

Grub Street’s “Don’t judge a book by its cover” promotion really struck me as an opportunity. Since the shop is set up to be curatorial and not just to sell stuff, I wondered how many books they would sell for over $10 if they just gave them away in exchange for data and the chance to pay more later? Return if not wanted, etc.?

I realize that this might be a step too far for most consumers, but then again who are most consumers? I spend a lot of money on books, as I do on music. I’m in the superfan 17%, but 99% of the media that I consume is gated (usually by the platforms) at either a single price point on the way in or, worse still, a low monthly, one-size-fits-all, subscription. I literally cannot spend as much as I would like on the things that I love, and I know for a fact from years of experience in the music business that I’m not alone.

I think it’s worth asking questions like these at a bare minimum, and it’s worth experimenting with staged and variable pricing for the superfans of all content. Making more money from, and getting more data on, your most loyal customers is not a bad thing, even if most industry incumbents act as though it is.

“Utopias offer no ready-made answers, let alone solutions. But they do ask the right questions.” — Rutger Bregman