Using technology to grow the size of the book market

When you reach the end of a good book, you want to read another. This is a sentiment we hear readers express time and again. But, more often than not, people don’t reach the end of a book, let alone read another.

In this article, I lay out a path to growing the size of the book market by the designing of new reader experiences that can be enabled and measured by mainstream and emerging technologies. But first…

A backdrop of flatlining market size and low completion rates

The market size of the Book Publishing industry in the UK has grown only 0.1% per year on average between 2016 and 2021, according to reports by IBISWorld. The global book market shrank by 7.5% in 2019/2020 due to the pandemic’s economic damage, and is not expected to reach pre-pandemic size earlier than 2024.

Tsundoku is real. We already know that many books end up as ornaments designed to make would-be readers appear well-read. Can you imagine the vast amounts of great content that go to die locked inside books that never get fully read? Don’t. I’ll tell you.

A 2020 study conducted by Shulph found that only 13% of all sold units of books get read cover to cover. Trade fiction performed better than most other categories, while the numbers were stark for non-fiction, and even starker for academic titles.

According to reader analytics company Jellybooks, a book only needs to achieve 50% (or higher) completion rate to be considered high engagement, while fewer than 5% of books tested reach a completion rate of 75%. These are really low benchmarks we should be concerned enough to raise higher.

The fact that engagement numbers are low provides us a comfortable runway for improvement and, therefore, growth.

Product usage is more important than product purchase

Many consumers buy books they never read, and while this may not matter to us as an industry, I argue that it should. Growing completion rates will grow the size of the market. The reason is simple: a product that gets used often gets bought often.

Our industry rightly places a lot of emphasis on selling books, but a similar focus on usage is needed for the books we sell. Core reader engagement must extend beyond the sales and marketing activities that lead to the consumer’s purchase decision, and well into the actual consumption of the product.

Most of the communication any given consumer receives from a publisher or retailer will overwhelmingly be about buying the book, but very little (if any) about reading the book.

Publishers and retailers must strike the balance being a purchase brand and a usage brand. Usage branding is one the key reasons why technology companies are increasingly appearing in the upper echelons of the market capitalisation club – people are using these products and services so much, yet they can’t get enough.

We must measure engagement

In order for us to focus on reader engagement, we need to be able to measure it, in the same way we already collect consumer demographic and sales data. Although technology to measure the usage of physical books is currently some years away, big data and analytics tech is already here. Publishers, retailers and many service providers can already start measuring most digital consumption channels such as eBooks and audiobooks.

Understanding what, where and how much is being read will inspire informed commercial designs across the entire value chain including commissioning, editorial, creative, sales, marketing – you name it.

Technology, new reading experiences and never-reads

The potential of virality baked into the network effects of social media is one of the ways that technology has been contributing to the health of the global book market size. The increasing availability of consumer data and analytics is another.

Designing scalable, new reader experiences is the way to grow the size of this market. Technology is the most potent way to do it at speed and scale. Many mainstream and emerging new technologies I mention below provide opportunities to tap into a currently latent consumer base I refer to as never-reads.

Putting avid readers to one side, how might we convert more of the never-read demographics to casual readers? A never-read is someone who has read fewer than 6 books of at least 100 pages each.

People love to associate with books even if they never read them. Most of us are, in fact, never-reads, and there is clear aspirational intent in most people to read more. Our industry has an opportunity to exploit that latency.

Neither the opportunity nor latency is new. Both have been brewing for centuries.

eBooks and audiobooks were a start

Designing and nurturing new reading experiences will attract and convert more never-reads. More choice, flexibility and experimentation with new consumption models will inevitably fit more seamlessly into the lives of all different kinds of people.

For example, immersive technologies such as virtual reality have the potential to unlock exciting new, audio-visual consumption models for publishers. Similarly, the impending take-off of consumer augmented reality could provide opportunities for bookshops to facilitate serendipitous discovery in a physical retail setting.

Apart from the now-mainstream usual suspects like ecommerce, social media and mobile, here are the other technologies I am most excited about to drive the next wave of innovation, new audiences and growth for this market:

  • data analytics
  • augmented reality
  • virtual reality
  • computer vision
  • artificial intelligence
  • 5G
  • in-content personalisation
  • shared readership and reader networks

Are there any technologies or innovations you’d add to this list?

I am optimistic for the growth of the book market. I am comforted by the opportunity provided by low engagement and completion rates, coupled with a large untapped never-read demographic.

If it’s true that change is the only constant, then it is also inevitable that many of us will experiment, innovate, adopt and nurture new ideas that go on to do great things for the market and our readers.

Emmanuel Kolade is a digital technology executive with nearly two decades’ experience across sectors and household brands. He is managing director at multi-format book retailer Shulph. His mission is to design a future that helps people absorb new knowledge easier and faster, so that more of us can increase our capacity to accelerate the world’s collective growth.  Follow Emmanuel on Twitter at @ekolade.

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