Filling the Evidence Gap: an Interview with Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Panorama Project

 

The lending of eBooks by libraries remains an area of controversy, with libraries often facing high prices and difficult licencing conditions, while publishers worry about impacts on sales and revenues to authors.

A key challenge in this has been the relative newness of the format, and the lack of a shared evidence-base for understanding both eLending itself, and its interrelation with wider markets. The Panorama Project is aiming to address this. We interviewed Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Project Lead, to find out more.

 

How well does anyone understand the eBook market and the place of libraries within it today?

 

The answer really depends on your perspective and priorities. The size of the overall consumer ebook market is difficult to measure because Amazon owns a significant percentage of it, especially on the self-publishing side, and they don’t publicly share any useful data. OverDrive is the dominant player on the library side, but NPD Bookscan doesn’t track ebook sales the same way they do print, and the American Association of Publishers (AAP) doesn’t break out library sales at all, so there’s no authoritative industry source for context.

Individual publishers generally have a good sense of where their ebook revenue comes from, but it’s mostly “last-click attribution” which heavily favors Amazon and OverDrive, and they generally don’t have a good sense of which factors might be impacting their consumer sales. They also don’t have deep data on what drives those sales, including the role of discoverability through libraries, nor any useful insights into print circulation. The combination of fragmentation and lack of transparency is one of the primary reasons the Panorama Project was initiated.

 

 

Why do you think that there is relatively little data out there?

 

Trade book publishing is a notoriously opaque industry, for a variety of reasons, including private ownership of most major publishers and intermediaries. Movies, music, and video games all have relatively transparent sales data that’s shared publicly and regularly dissected by their respective media outlets, but we rarely learn how many copies the latest New York Times’ (NYT) Bestsellers actually sold in any given week or year—unless it’s the rare breakout hit—despite it being one of the industry’s primary, albeit heavily curated and proprietary, measuring sticks. There are NYT Bestselling authors who’ve sold fewer copies of any book than the average middling video game, but they get to wear the badge anyway.

 

 

What impact has this had on the decisions that are being taken by different actors?

 

It’s led to some publishers making “data-driven” decisions about ebook pricing and access that lack proper context, potentially resulting in unintended changes to consumer behavior. Assuming library access is impacting consumer ebook sales and making strategic decisions based on that assumption is a risky bet—especially if Amazon is the primary source of the data driving that assumption. What if it’s not just library availability, but consumer ebook pricing, competition from other traditional publishers and self-publishers, or other forms of media, that is impacting your sales?

When you limit libraries’ access to your books, you cut off an important discovery and consumption channel for a segment of your audience. And when you do that purposefully, you’re as likely to drive readers to either wait until it’s available or borrow another book they’re interested in that is available, as opposed to converting them to buyers in another channel. If there was more transparency around sales data, and more understanding about discovery and purchase paths, the question of libraries’ actual impact would be a much easier question to answer. That requires purposeful, good faith collaboration. 

 

 

Where do you see the Panorama Project as making a difference?

 

Our primary goal is to encourage more productive, good faith conversations about public libraries in general—from discovery and engagement to direct and indirect impact on sales—so the industry can come to a collaborative consensus on how to measure their impact, whether it’s positive or negative. Our various initiatives are designed to provide data-informed insights on that impact in specific areas, while building a foundation for more effective collaboration moving forward.

 

 

How does the Panorama Project work?

 

A cross-industry Advisory Council with members from Penguin Random House, Sourcebooks, Open Road Media, American Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, NISO, Ingram Content Group, and OverDrive, serves as a sounding board for potential and ongoing initiatives. They offer insight and expertise in different areas to ensure those initiatives can have a measurable impact, and align with Panorama Project’s mission. We partner with different publishers, vendors, and organizations on specific initiatives, and I personally consult with a number of colleagues and experts across the industry for feedback and insights to ensure we’re on the right track.

 

 

How international is it or could it be?

 

We’re currently focused on public libraries in the United States, but we have occasional conversations about potential opportunities to expand our reach as there is international interest in our work. There are no specific plans currently in development, although I’d love to hear feedback from anyone who has ideas.

 

 

Clearly, support from OverDrive as one of the major commercial players in the market will raise some eyebrows. Should it?

 

It’s a fair concern and one I shared when I was initially approached to take on the role as Project Lead. OverDrive identified the need, helped convene the Advisory Council, and brought me on to run things—but our work is never tied to any specific OverDrive agenda, and everything we produce is fully transparent and widely shared for the benefit of the overall industry. The Advisory Council includes members from Penguin Random House, Sourcebooks, Open Road Media, American Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, NISO, Ingram Content Group, and OverDrive. One of our primary research initiatives for 2020—the Immersive Media & Reading 2020 Consumer Survey—is in partnership with the Authors Guild, ALA, Book Industry Study Group, Independent Book Publishers Association, and PubWest. I expect that kind of collaboration will become the norm for all of our future initiatives. 

 

 

What findings have you already established?

 

Some of our early initiatives measured the positive impact of library access on consumer sales on specific titles, most notably debut author Jennifer McGaha’s Flat Broke With Two Goats (Sourcebooks, 2018), the subject of our Community Reading Event Impact Report. Our Readers’ Advisory Impact Committee researched, documented, and analyzed the wide variety of RA title and author recommendation activities used in public libraries, and produced the Readers’ Advisory Directory. That initiative led to further research on Public Library Events & Book Sales which identified major gaps in publishers’ understanding and valuation of the monetary value of those libraries’ organic and purposeful marketing activities. 

 

 

What current work are you most excited about?

 

Our two main initiatives for 2020—the Immersive Media & Reading 2020 Consumer Survey, and Library Marketing Valuation Toolkit—grew out of the realization that a lack of transparency around data in the publishing industry is a major obstacle to establishing an effective foundation for collaboration. I’m particularly excited about the consumer research because it’s been years since anyone’s taken a good look at how book readers’ behaviors have evolved in the wake of ebooks and audiobooks, not to mention other immersive media like streaming and gaming. We’ve partnered with Portland State University and assembled a cross-industry committee to collaborate on developing the methodology and the survey itself, ensuring that the findings will not only be credible, but actionable. COVID-19 forced us to adjust our timeline, but we’re expecting to field the survey in the early Fall and have initial findings published before the end of the year.

 

 

How do you see COVID-19 changing the landscape of library eLending?

 

In the short-term, we’ve already seen reports of increased engagement with libraries’ electronic resources which, of course, leads to increased spending to meet that demand. Unfortunately, few libraries are going to come out of this period with increased budgets, so hard decisions will need to be made about materials budgets across the country. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely temporarily modified consumer behaviors will become permanent preferences, so I suspect we’ll see an acceleration in engagement with, and increased spending on, digital content. If schools face a prolonged period of remote learning through the Fall and into Winter, even if it’s a hybrid approach, that acceleration will probably be even faster.

 

 

What are the next big questions needing answering to your mind?

 

The main questions I proposed at the end of 2019 remain unanswered, and are arguably even more critical to answer in light of current events.

  1. How much of public libraries’ estimated $1.5 billion overall materials budget goes toward trade publishing’s estimated $12 billion in projected revenue for 2019, and where does that rank against other channels?
  2. How much marketing value do public libraries create for publishers through readers’ advisory services, physical shelf and online catalogue visibility, hosted author events, and community book clubs?
  3. How do library patrons discover and acquire the books they read and in which formats, and how does that fit with other media consumption and buying habits?

We’ve taken steps towards helping answer the second and third questions with our 2020 initiatives, while the first one still requires a level of collaboration across the industry that we haven’t seen yet. I’m hopeful that we’ll be in a better position to answer that one in 2021.

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