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Nook Sales Fall Off Cliff and Other Irregularities - Big Problems at Barnes&Noble

Mar 17, 2014   [permalink]

First off, let me say sales at ReAnimus Press are doing great. Very healthy and growing. Over 100 new and backlist titles released or in the pipeline from award-winning and best-selling authors. Yay!

In that context, it's very odd that our Barnes & Noble / Nook revenue chart looks like this:

Yeah, that's an 80%+ plummet in sales since a year ago. B&N is a small part of our overall sales... and getting so small as to be irrelevant. To reiterate, our sales elsewhere (Amazon, Apple, etc.) are healthy and increasing, so this problem is isolated to B&N.

I saw articles like The Case of the Missing Nook Sales and got to wondering, and, to the extent possible, investigating.

Hanlon's razor says, "Never attribute to malice what can be explained as incompetence." Whether it's false reporting or just incompetence isn't clear to me. It's quite possible B&N is losing a bunch of money too. In any event, this doesn't portend well for the future of the Nook, nor B&N.

Here's some of what I've seen:

1) Their author/keyword search system provides dismal results. Absolutely dismal.

Background: Our bestselling author is science fiction author Ben Bova (a six-time Hugo award winner and well known name in the field). We've got about 20 of his books.

For comparison to bn.com's search results, let me preface this with the results of searching for "Bova" on Amazon.com, which returns this list (notably all but one written by Ben Bova), including three of our ReAnimus Press editions in the top 10: The Exiles Trilogy (ours), New Earth (Tor), The Star Conquerors (ours), Farside (Tor), The Dueling Machine (free, public domain), How the World Works (textbook by a different Bova), Mars Inc. (pre-order, Baen), Mars (Rosetta), Star Watchmen (ours), Mars Life (Tor).

Searching on bn.com for "Bova" gives this bizarre list of titles, with their bn.com sales rank:

Title Author Sales rank Notes
1. Tony Bova Jesse Russell None: no copies sold! Absurd #1 result: Self published wikipedia content, 90 pages @ $19. That nobody has bought.
2. Bova (Russian edition) Aleksandr Radishhev None: no copies sold! Absurd #2 result: Ebook in Russian (even the description is in Russian).
3. The Dueling Machine Ben Bova 287,825 Only slightly less absurd result: Right author, but a public domain short story available free elsewhere (including free on Amazon). However, it is far from Ben Bova's best-selling work, even on bn.com, nor his best known, thus not "top matches."
4. Bova, Calabria Zheng Cirino None: error, page not found! Absurd result: Priced at $35.89, further research finds it is, like #1, free wikipedia material. That nobody buys.
5. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria-Bova Jesse Russell None: no copies sold! Absurd result: Free wikipedia content again, priced at $19.
6. 59 Sci-Fi Classics for the Ages Many 23,307 Eh, it contains public domain short stories, including one by Ben Bova. It is selling better than some items, but at $2.99 is making B&N less revenue than other titles, nor is it a strong case that it's the 2nd "top match" book to readers looking for Ben Bova, since it has only one of his short stories out of 59 total stories in the book, and that one story is available free elsewhere.
7. New Earth Ben Bova 107,199 Finally a relevant title, a recent Ben Bova novel. Buried at #7.
8. Farside Ben Bova 813,226 Less relevant for a top ten position: a barely selling backlist title.
9. Voyagers Ben Bova 86,897 Relevant, and should be higher than #9 given its sales rank.
10. Leviathans of Jupiter Ben Bova 579,863 A 600k sales rank sandwiching an 86k sales rank and below an 800k rank. ???
51.The Exiles Trilogy Ben Bova 109,275 Our own ReAnimus Press title — our bestselling title for Ben, and, indeed, is Ben Bova's #1 selling title on Amazon. With a sales rank of 109k (which used to be much higher) it shouldn't be buried down at #51. Aha! No wonder we have dismal sales!!
56. The Star Conquerors Ben Bova 141,452 Our #2 best selling title for Ben Bova, and #3 overall for Ben Bova on Amazon. Despite a sales rank that should put it in the top 10, it is buried at #56.
This is using their default search type, called sort by "Top Matches."

Apparently if we want sales, we should label our books as free Wikipedia material and charge ridiculous prices! :) But, oh, wait, those aren't selling either; they just get top billing.

I realize that sales rank isn't equivalent to "top matches," but I would expect it to be a highly significant factor for those titles that match the keyword terms. Chances are, the better selling titles are the ones the user is searching for, thus they are more relevant.

The "top matches" situation is not appreciably better if one searches specifically for "Ben Bova." The top search results are all over the map on sales rank: The sales ranking of the top 10 results are 107k, 813k, 87k, 242k (a low ranking book nothing to do with Bova — it's Jack London!), 580k, 454k, 50k, 486k, 100k, n/a (a pre-order). Our titles that are Ben's #1 and #3 selling title on all of Amazon, are still buried on the 2nd page of search results, despite their higher sales rank and direct relevance. There are a great many titles with higher sales rank that match the query than these seemingly random choices. These aren't the highest relevance to me as a reader. This makes it clear why our sales have fallen off a cliff.

On a Nook, but with its smaller screen size showing fewer results per page than a browser window, this only exacerbates the problem by hiding titles behind even more clicks to see the result pages. Users rarely click, so the user's impression must surely be that B&N has no relevant titles.

Thus, despite our having titles that have remained in the top positions for this author on Amazon, holding their ground against even his newest novels, demonstrating significant reader interest, they are invisible on bn.com.

This was not always so: Clearly from the sales chart one can see that this problem began forming about a year ago, worsened earlier this year, then really died the last few months. This does not reflect reader interest in these books—unless you can seriously say that overpriced wikipedia copies are what people are hungering for. (Er, Not. They aren't selling any copies.)

If one goes to the trouble of sorting the results by "bestselling"—as I'm sure you know how few users bother—one finds that our Exiles Trilogy is still at #7, despite sales having been killed months ago from invisibility.

Conclusion: B&N's default search of "top matches" is producing incredibly, painfully sales-killingly irrelevant results. It seems highly likely this disaster of a search system is also significantly decreasing Nook revenues for B&N as well.

2) My first thought when I saw this sales plunge was that B&N was simply not reporting sales, i.e., stealing them. However, having done more investigating and seen the incredible ineptitude of the search results, I'm torn between that and incompetence. There are these reported cases of demonstrated missing sales on the Internet. This isn't good.

3) The site is very slow. It often takes 10 seconds or more for pages to come up. I found this frustrating just checking these searches—I can't imagine customers hanging around. As I'm sure y'all know, responsiveness is critical, and customers quickly leave slow sites.

4) Searches and links often give errors. Many times clicking on a book cover link would return an error. Our searches often returned errors saying nothing was found, when we were searching on exact book titles or generic words. I mean searches like "Exiles Trilogy"—error. "Dune"—error. Those same searches would later work. Of course, we were being persistent—many customers would simply leave.

5) I have noted other irregularities as well. For example, we tested the price elasticity of demand: sales on Amazon showed that if we lower the price of The Exiles Trilogy from $8.99 to $3.99 our number of sales increased in a big way (as one would expect). When we did that same price reduction on bn.com, sales were flat. The exact same number copies sold during the month prior regardless of price.

Of course, since the search results are so useless, perhaps the experiment on bn.com was impacted by that. Anyway—a very odd result, one that doesn't smell right.

6) Another irregularity is that once we raised the Exiles Trilogy price back up to $8.99 on bn.com (if sales are flat, no use hurting oneself by taking a lower price!), weeks later we are still seeing sales at the lower price. Just illustrates yet another problem in the system.

The big issue really seems to be how awful their search system is. And how slow the site is. And that it gives errors. It strikes me these are how readers find (or don't find) books to buy. It strikes me that they should know this.

All in all, it really doesn't look good for the Nook, or B&N.

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