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Posted by Kate, January 11, 2012

Are books and apps “bought” or “sold”?

I was interested to see this short article by Seth Godin.

He argues that some things are “bought” – they’re there, and consumers find them because they meet a need without the seller soliciting the sale, and others are “sold” – no sale happens unless the seller solicits the sale.

I’ve just read the piece, and don’t have huge amounts of time to think it over in relation to books and apps (I am in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronic’s Show, the Kids @ Play summit and to pick up the KAPi award for best ebook for our Cinderella app). The examples that Seth Godin gives are at the opposite ends of a spectrum, and I don’t really think that the things that we acquire can be put into boxes of “bought” and “sold”: instead, there’s a kind of continuum of push and pull, of desire and need, of opportunity and quest.

And I think that sometimes – as in the example of the Charles Dickens biography and War Horse below – something other than, or in addition to, the seller is “soliciting” or at least prompting the sale.

There’s also, in the case of books and apps, a question of who “the seller” is. Is it the publisher? Is it the retailer? It is, perhaps, the author or creator in some cases?

But it seems to me that books are both “bought” and “sold”. If I go into Hudson News or WHS in a station or an airport before a journey, and buy a book that I have never heard of before, that book has essentially been “bought”. Yes, the fact that it’s on a table rather than a shelf, or face out on a shelf, may make me more likely to notice it. Yesterday, I did just that. I bought a copy of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (so far, so American and good). Perhaps the “Winner of the Pullitzer Prize” badge was part of a “sell”, and, I suppose, the cover, the blurb and the review sources suggested it would be a particular kind of woman-skewed, middle-brow read that might work for me when I was a bit jet-lagged and on a plane that I knew already would be as uncomfortable and rammed as only an American Airlines (gosh, but I hate that airline) flight can be.

But when I acquired the Claire Tomalin biography of Charles Dickens (I went on to write about it here) from Amazon, I didn’t stumble upon it. That book had been “sold” to me by review coverage combined, of course, with the event of the bi-centenary of Dickens’ birth, which meant that the subject was very zeitgeisty.

I think the fact that the bricks and mortar bookshop example was an example of a book that I “bought” and the online bookshop example was an example of a book that I was “sold” is indicative of a shift that books are going through now between from “bought” to being “sold”.

At the moment, I still think most, but not all, of course, children’s books are “bought”. Of course, there are exceptions: the film of War Horse is currently “selling” War Horse.

I think that, as publishers, we need to get better at “selling” books.

It’s hard to generalise about apps. I think that, in our case, many of our apps have been “sold”, in that people have gone onto the app store looking for them because they’ve seen a great review, or read about us in a paper or magazine, or connect with us on Twitter or Facebook (and social media is, of course, one of the ways that publishers could get better at selling books too), or heard about the app from someone they know.

However, I also think that some of our apps have been “bought”, by people finding them on the app store. At the moment, one of the great challenges of the Apple App Store is how to find good apps, but being App of the Week, or being on the front page of the store or a section of the store, or showing up well in rankings hugely increases the chances of being found by consumers.

Unlike much bookshop positioning (whether online or bricks-and-mortar), you can’t pay for positioning in the Apple App Store. Apple chooses the apps it promotes. All we can do is make sure our apps are as good as they can possibly be. Oh, and it would probably help if you voted for them in the Best App Ever Awards!

I am still thinking about this, so this is a far from definitive piece of writing, but I’d be interested to know your views.

So, do you feel books are bought or sold? What’s your own experience? Is it different from what you think other people’s experience is?

Do you feel apps are bought or sold? What’s your own experience, if you’re an app buyer? Is it different from what you think other people’s experience is?

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