Don't tell Paul Slavin that book sales are stagnant.
Slavin is the CEO of Open Road Integrated Media, a digital marketing company founded in 2009 by HarperCollins global CEO Jane Friedman.
“When we put a book in front of somebody, when we market that book, you will see it grow,” said Slavin, who became chief exec in 2016. “[Jane] and a team put together a really strong catalog of [about 12,000] books which became the wellspring of Open Road, and that catalog is something we still possess.”
While Open Road built its business on the strength of that digital catalog, it soon realized the value of its technology-driven marketing engine, called Ignition, and data analysts, which could present to consumers the content they’d want to buy.
Today, Open Road focuses on connecting consumers with a publisher’s backlist titles, which are older books that have been around for a while, instead of more recently released titles. But Slavin questions the value of even making that distinction.
“To you or me,” he said, “a book that came out 20 years ago on a subject that I'm interested in is a new book.”
Slavin said Open Road is profitable, with sustained revenue growth over the last three years, and he expects growth next year of at least 35%.
AdExchanger spoke with Slavin about targeting titles to readers, growing sales and people who love books.
AdExchanger: How are you planning to reinvest your growing revenue?
PAUL SLAVIN: We've almost doubled revenue in the last two and a half years. Our investment over that period of time and going forward has been putting together a world class data team, putting together a really great and very productive tech team and building an audience. As we go forward, our investments will continue to be in tech, because that's how we're able to scale. it will continue to be in data, because every decision we make here is backed by data.
Is your audience mostly subscription-based?
We have approximately two to two and a half million people who love books who are coming to us routinely. I'd say it's 50/50. About 50% of them are active book buyers or subscribe to our newsletters, and another 50% are people who are coming in and out of the websites and just enjoying the content we have there.
About 75% of your subscribers are ages 45 and up. Are you looking to reach younger readers?
Yes, through adjacency, but we're not too concerned about that. Our audience is primarily female and over the age of 40. It way over-indexes for household income and education. Mostly what we're looking for are people who love books. Whether they're men or women, rich or poor, suburban or urban.
How are you driving discoverability and matching readers to the kinds of books they want to read?
If you come in and you sign up for a newsletter, there's an opportunity for you to tick off those things that you're specifically interested in. We will watch your open and close rates a little bit and we'll watch what you're clicking on. If you seem to enjoy Amish romance, we will put more Amish romance in front of you, but also maybe experiment by putting narrative historical nonfiction in front of you, because we've noticed that people who like Amish romance also happen to like narrative historical nonfiction.
Which publishers are working with Open Road?
Everybody. We have 30 publishers who are working with us to one degree or another. Grove Atlantic [Publisher] Morgan Entrekin, for example, is super happy with what we're doing. We take the book, we redo the metadata, we redo the straplines, we redo the descriptive copy. We put it in front of the right audience. We'll put it on Facebook, we'll advertise on Google. We've been able to increase Grove Atlantic's sales on their books by 300%. We've done better with some other publishers. Those 30 partners have seen, on average, an increase just shy of 3X.
Who do you see as your competitors in this space?
No one. BookBub offers a wonderful service. They have a really good business. But you can come to us and say there's a reason why we want to advertise this book today and we can advertise it for you. We're much faster and more flexible, more facile.
Pardon the expression, but what's down the road for Open Road?
2019 is basically: Stick to strategy.
2018 was to fine tune our Ignition product, which really didn't begin until towards the end of the second quarter. From August to December, we took on a thousand books per month. All of those have to get processed. We had to reorganize to make sure we could do that.
We'll spend a lot of time and energy and cash on growing our audience of consumers, because that owned audience really de-risks the business for us.
You're coming to Open Road from Everyday Health, and then before that, from Disney. What specific kind of experience are you bringing to this space?
An appreciation for the consumer. I mean, I happen to love books. That's an easy answer. But I'm not a publisher. I have deep respect for what publishers do, but it's not my background. My background for 30 years has been giving consumers something important or great or wonderful – and giving it to them in a way they can appreciate and choose to consider or not to consider.