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How to Make Hundreds of Thousands Selling Backlisted eBooks to a (Really) Obscure Niche Market
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If you are trying to market books or ebooks online, trust us, you'll learn something from this Case Study. Doesn't matter what niche market you're in...

Our favorite data -- 30% of ebook shoppers will leaf through online sample pages prior to making their purchase decision. Plus, turns out sample pages are the best landing page for house email campaigns (instead of your standard store page). Here's more:

“We have to squeeze every little bit we can,” describes Alexander Gendler, President Varda Books, about his efforts to sell ebooks to a niche that most ecommerce sites might deem too tiny a marketplace to be worth mining.

“We’re not simply in a niche of Judaica,” explains Gendler. “If you take a look at the type of Judaica we carry – it’s not Orthodox Judaica, and it’s not secular. It’s in-between.” And, in the world of Judaica publishing, when you’re in-between, folks on both sides are more likely to ignore you completely than embrace you.

For years, Varda Books had been a successful pre-press vendor (typesetting, proofreading, etc.) serving publishers such as the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Chicago. “What I saw was they produce good literature. I suggested that maybe some of their books should be published in electronic format as a reference source,” Gendler says.

But the publishers were focused on the bigger business of marketing their front-list titles in print and developing new titles. No one really believed putting older backlist titles out in ebook format would be a big enough revenue opportunity to be worth the work. Frustrated, Gendler decided to show the print publishers that ebooks can be a winner.

First he established licensing arrangements for his favorite titles, agreeing to pay the publishers royalties based on sales.

Then he established a new division of Varda, dedicated to creating ebook PDF versions from print and then selling them online. It was both a daring act of love for the content and a bet that he could make relentless best-practices and guerilla tests in ecommerce content marketing pay off -- even in a nichier-than-niche vertical.

Gendler came up with a clever name for his new ecommerce site -- (shuk rhymes with book). But fun names do not guarantee sales.

Even if he got every single interested consumer in the world to visit the site, eBookShuk wasn't going to get giant amounts of traffic. To make the new division profitable, Gendler invested time, brains, and months of programming into turning his ecommerce site into a conversion machine. (Frankly, if other publishers invested half the effort that Gendler did, they'd get better sales too.)

In particular, four key conversion-building tactics struck our eye:

#1. Free preview-it-online (up to three times)

Because book buyers are used to having the tangible “feel” of a book in hand to review before purchased, Gendler’s programmers developed their own tech platform that allowed prospective buyers to preview the ebook’s contents. Key-- the preview function was more than just one chapter and the table of contents. Gendler developed technology that gives the shopper the ability to preview the entire book. That's right -- you can read every single page of a book at just as you could at an actual bookstore.

However, you couldn't copy or otherwise download the contents (or as Gendler notes, get coffee or fingerprints on them, crack the spine, or otherwise render the copy unsellable). Plus, for extra security the programming only allows a shopper to view a book up to three times. After that, the shopper gets an on-screen “it’s time to buy” pop-up message with hotlinks to make an immediate purchase.

#2. Upsells for additional features and bundles

Most titles at eBookShuk are offered in your choice of two formats -- the first is a server-side “read only” PDF. The prices range, but it's fairly inexpensive compared to what buying a print copy would be. The second format called "Scholar" version permits the buyer to print and copy the ebook. The second format is generally priced at 100% more than the first. Example, you can buy the 'Reader" version of 'JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus' for $24.95 or pay $65.00 for the Scholar version.

Gendler notes, “When we advertise, we often offer the reader version because it allows us to show our price for the same title to be significantly less than anything else available.”
He hopes potential shoppers will be enticed enough by the low prices to click through, but then convert at the higher price.

The site also heavily promotes bundles of ebooks -- discounted groupings of titles that make sense based on site data from searches and previews. “We noticed that individual books can sell quite poorly,” states Gendler. “When you sell a bundle, you create a different value that did not exist previously. You have a collection, and now, you can really discount if the person is interested.”

Copies of each shopper's collections are held for them at their personal online bookshelf for ready reference at any time.

#3. Steal smart from mainstream ecommerce sites

Gendler’s programming team aggressively added bells and whistles to the site such as a customer wish list, an “email a friend” utility, plus a contextual ad box that listed other Varda Books on related topics based on a site visitor’s on-site searches. They figured, if these tactics work to market consumer electronics, toys and apparel online, why not Judaic ebooks?

#4. Instill customer trust

To help potential customers feel comfortable with their purchases, Gendler added trust-building icons to every page of the site including the famed 'BBB" from the Better Business Bureau Online Reliability program, the VeriSign security icon, and a big round 'Money Back Guarantee' icon.

Plus, a toll-free number is displayed at the top of every page. “It’s important to build confidence with customers,” says Gendler. “The number is actually not used that much. People prefer to communicate by email than by (phone)…but getting a toll-free number allows them that option to have a live person on the other end.”

Next, in addition to search engine optimization, the team used three aggressive approaches to drive shoppers to the site (link to samples below):

-> Promote to targeted third party lists

“We advertise actively through direct email. We rely, by in large, on existing mailing lists,” says Gendler. He picks third party opt-in email lists from established publishers with readers in his market, and pushes stand-alone HTML emails to them, offering specific titles or bundles of titles in the offer. Gendler decides what offers to make by analyzing traffic on the site, and monitoring what visitors are searching for, click on, preview.

-> Launch a subscription book club with monthly email to increase repeat purchases

Gendler swiped this idea from offline bookstore chains…

Assuming that in a niche market of buyers with special interests the likelihood of repeat sales would likely be high, Gendler created a digital Judaic book club. Members pay about $36 per year to join. They get an everyday discount of about 20% off, plus receive monthly discount offers by email that range from 10-15% off.

-> Test weekly “mini-store” emails to house lists

To expand sales to the growing in-house list of buyers, Gendler tested a weekly email blast offering a “mini-store” of ebooks. “We select 10-15 items that we sell for like $5.95, $8.95 or maybe $20.00 or $30.00, but substantially less than what people would (normally) buy on our Web site,” describes Gendler. “But that mini-store functions only for two or three days.” If the prospect doesn’t purchase from the mini-store offer during that time period, the offer expires.

The email offers an icon of the book’s cover and a brief description. However, unlike most publishers' email offers, Gendler's team does not send clickthroughs to the standard book landing page. Instead, they send clicks directly into the book itself -- the free preview of the book opens and the clickers feel as though they've opened the cover.

After just two and one-half years in business online, Varda Books' division is boasting $400,000 a year in ebook sales -- and growing. They now have more than 6,000 paying customers, about one-sixth of whom have paid for an annual membership to join the book club. Gendler says the book club renewal rate runs at about 85%.

Upgrades to the premium Scholar PDF version are a winner, with about 90% of all buyers opting for the upgrade. “Even if they aren’t a scholar, they really want to print and copy,” says Gendler. Plus the bundles are another big hit. Therefore, although read-only versions of most ebooks in the store are fairly low-priced, the store's average sale is $120.

Gendler says that their in-house free ebook preview technology appears to be working. More than 30% of shoppers are preview sampling an ebook.

Is offering full free samples like this risky in the sense that the customer will read for free and walk away without buying? “On average, a reader actually does not read more than 15 pages,” says Gendler. “They (usually) make up their mind after two or three pages.”
Gendler mentions that this preview does more than attempt to convert prospects into buyers.

“The preview also allows us collect the data on the tastes of our customers.” Gendler’s system produces user reports on which titles are sampled and which pages on each ebook are previewed the most, which is handy data for making future offers. With this data in mind, Gendler's team can decide which titles are the hottest ones to offer to outside lists.

This research is one of the reasons why, currently, email campaigns to third party opt-in lists generate an average of $3-$4 in sales for every dollar spent. Gendler's one frustration -- there aren't enough niche lists to mail more aggressively.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from's marketing tactics:

Publishers Row Inc -- Varda Book’s sister company that developed the ebook preview technology (Note: Other publishers and online booksellers can license this technology now too):

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