New Survey of Book-Buying Behavior Provides Good News for Indies

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At Tuesday's ABA Day of Education, Jack McKeown, industry consultant and director of New Business Development for Verso Digital, presented consumer demographics and book-buying preferences from the "2010 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior With Verso Digital."

At Tuesday's ABA Day of Education, sponsored by Ingram, Jack McKeown, industry consultant and director of New Business Development for Verso Digital, presented consumer demographics and book-buying preferences from the "2010 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior With Verso Digital." The survey, conducted and analyzed between ABA's fifth Winter Institute and BEA 2010, is the most up-to-date consumer book-buying information available.

Among the good news for indie booksellers, McKeown reported that not only is the survey's core group of book buyers loyal to the print form, but younger readers also state that the independent bookstore is their preferred place to buy books.

The 2010 survey, conducted in April, followed and expanded Verso's " Survey of Book Buying Behavior," presented at February's Winter Institute. That original survey, conducted in November and December of 2009, shed light on the profile and preferences of book buyers, including those whom McKeown described as "avid readers," approximately 62 million Americans who are "disproportionately buying books."

Based on the two Verso surveys, which were statistically weighted to mirror the U.S. population age 18 or older, avid readers (those who spend five or more hours a week reading) comprise 28 percent of the population. These readers skew older into the Boomer cohort, and 63 percent -- or approximately 39 million -- are female. Importantly, actual book purchase behavior showed a similar pattern in the Verso survey, with avid readers buying 10 or more books a year.

In McKeown's estimation, these numbers raise both an important question and a potential for industry growth. Older Americans represent two-thirds of avid readers, but what's not known is if that pattern is specific to Boomers, or a reflection of any generation's aging. In either case, McKeown said he believed that the current market of Boomer book buyers is a decades-long opportunity -- if booksellers encouraged their avid Boomer readers to buy two more books a year, the result would be $1 billion "of top line growth."

The data also show that contrary to popular perception, young people "appreciated the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience" in significant numbers. In the demographic group of 18- to 34-year-olds who buy books, 37 percent prefer to buy them from independent bookstore.

An important disparity that the data reveal, said McKeown, was the difference between how positively avid book buyers view indies, and how often they actually shop there. While independent bookstores are the first or second choice among 42 percent of book buyers, indie booksellers' market share falls far short of that. That is the difference between "mind share," the perceived value of the indie shopping experience, and market share, as revealed by the Verso survey discussed at Wi5.

Another problem for indies is "leakage," when a consumer browses an indie and then buys someplace else. According to the Verso survey, 26 percent of indie bookstore customers engage in this practice at least "occasionally" (three to four times per year). The lost revenue to booksellers is as much as $260 million and a lost market share of 1.6 points, according to McKeown.

The most recent survey examined the incentives with a potential for closing the mind share/market share gap as well as decrease leakage. Three factors highlighted in the survey were discounted bestsellers, better selection, and closer proximity. Among women, 43 percent considered discounted bestsellers an incentive to shop at indies, whereas 32 percent of men considered discounted bestsellers a draw. For 42 percent of men, a better selection was most important.

In surveying which level of discount would be optimal, the survey found that 15 percent was the "sweet spot" that produced a four percent sales increase overall. Other benefits of discounting included customer retention, lower returns, and word-of-mouth sales.

Another way to close the gap of mind share/market share is to increase bookstore visits among customers. McKeown said the Internet is ideal at targeted marketing, helping to create a "virtual proximity." What's more, close to 60 percent of those age 18 to 34 were willing to provide their e-mail address, and of the base of those who visit indie bookstores, close to half were very or somewhat willing to provide their e-mail addresses.

With so much talk of e-readers radically changing the book buying market, McKeown presented some numbers that suggested that this theory is, if anything, premature. "Two things limit the penetration of the market," he said. "One is the number of people resistant to owning an e-reader." He underscored that among 50- to 60-year-olds, 65 percent of them said they would not buy an e-reader, a figure that had grown since the earlier Verso survey. And it is this demographic that buys 75 percent of the books in the U.S. McKeown said this is an "absolute factor that constrains the level of penetration of e-books."

How confidant is McKeown about the data results? McKeown and Denise Berthiaume, president of Verso Advertising, plan to open Books & Books Westhampton Beach in Westhampton, New York, in July. The 2,000-square-foot store will be affiliated with Florida landmark Books & Books, owned by Mitchell Kaplan. Kaplan has served as an advisor to the Westhampton store, which will be independently owned and managed by Berthiaume and McKeown.

To see the full results of the most recent Verso survey, visit