By Julieta Lionetti
The idle hours of the daily commute were reading time well before e-books and consumer intelligence became shibboleths of the industry. Trains, literature and reading have traveled a long way together. Who hasn’t enjoyed Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene or Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, not to mention the crucial role of Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross in the beloved Harry Potter series?
Robots and books haven’t been on the radar much until now, but their shared history is as long as that of the mass-paperback. It also started on a train platform, or so the legend goes. The Penguincubator, a “literary vending machine” installed by Allen Lane at Charing Cross in 1937, was the first serious attempt to aggregate trains, reading and ease of purchase. It was a success.
Penguin’s official story has it that, returning from a weekend at Agatha Christie’s abode, Lane was at the Exeter station, idle and bored, without any reading material on offer than old Victorian novels and third-rate magazines. The idea struck him to provide high-quality, low-price paperbacks featuring contemporary fiction to amuse readers on short journeys. We’ll never know how much of his inspiration came from the deprived passengers waiting with him, and how much from the impression left by the author of Murder in the Orient Express and Mystery of the Blue Train.
When Paxti Beascoa, marketing and business director at Random House Mondadori, was approached by the Conselleria de Cultura de Catalunya to be part of a campaign to encourage reading, the suburban trains run by the local government spurred his imagination. “Public transportation and reading is a match made in heaven,” he says, having just received the hot stats in his Barcelona offices.
The project, called Bibliotren, involved ten cars in ten different trains on the network, which were transformed into reading rooms for two months, starting on April 9th. “The feedback was so good that we had to stretch out the campaign for several weeks,” says Beascoa. In this case the robot wasn’t the ubiquitous vending machine, but QR codes that, once scanned, led the user to a mobile-optimized landing page with the first chapter of the book in HTML.
“QR codes are trackable and offer a valuable opportunity to gather user data. We have gained a treasury of consumer insight, much of which challenges previous assumptions about our readers,” says Beascoa. Curiosity alone does not guarantee that the user will scan the code, a process which causes many to lose their patience, but the environment chosen to display them was highly propitious. “When people are waiting for a train, they automatically get their smartphones out and start the tedious routine of going through their emails once and again, when they’re not playing monotonous games compulsively. They have the phones in their hands, they have the time, and they’re bored,” says Beascoa, and underscores RHM’s firm resolution to implement what’s known in marketing as a pull strategy. “If you offer the option of a more satisfying experience while they wait or travel to their jobs, like poking into the unknown world of a story, or plunging into new ideas contained in a book, you don’t need to push the QR codes aggressively into their attention,” he explains.
The campaign offered 40 different titles from the paperback imprints De Bolsillo and Rosa del Vents, its Catalan-language counterpart, displayed in ads that covered the windows of the car. At the end of that first chapter, users found a link that allowed them to buy the e-book through the major e-tailers (Amazon, Casa del Libro, FNAC) and from smaller bookstores associated with Libranda’s program for independent booksellers. The promotion also included traditional bookstores selling physical books, which actively participated through the trade association, Gremi de Llibreters de Catalunya, and were referenced in another link. “Physical bookstores and print books are still the bread and butter of the industry,” explains Beascoa. But impulse-buying favored e-books.
There were best-sellers, non-fiction titles and also more literary authors, like Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel García Márquez or the always challenging Jorge Luis Borges. “Spain is a market for fiction, and this is particularly true in Catalonia,” says Beascoa. “It might be that we reached a different public in the trains, but the conversion rate for non-fiction titles was higher than the market share they have in traditional bookstores.” The consumer data presented another surprise regarding literary fiction titles. “Among the top ten downloads, 40% of the titles are literary fiction,” he says. And certainly, that’s far from what makes into the best-seller lists published in Spanish newspapers and completely different from Amazon’s lists.
People who used the QR codes to get to the first chapter of a book spent a median of 5 minutes 20 seconds on the page, which Beascoa and his team see as an indicator of reading engagement. There were a total of 19,000 downloads, which amounts to 300 e-books purchased each day of the campaign. Beascoa will not comment on which titles won public’s favor, but he says that García Márquez was the unquestionable winner; an experience that Spanish publishers know very well each time a new book by the Nobel Prize winner hits the stores.
QR codes can be cost effective if well-used. Beascoa says that the campaign wasn’t inexpensive, but compared with promotional actions at bookstores, it required a far lower budget. “We ended with a reasonable cost per unit sold plus the qualitative advantage of gaining unprecedented customer insight for the company,” he says.
One of the questions raised by the experience is if readers, when exposed to a discrete selection of titles instead than being bombarded with the overabundance they find both at retailers and e-tailers, make better-quality choices. Do better books benefit from a pull strategy or, more simply, do good literature and trains travel well together?
What do you think?