With the closure of Borders, shrinking library budgets and the pressure independent bookstores and Barnes & Noble are under due to the rise of ebooks and online book sales, bookstore and library shelf space has been shrinking markedly in the U.S. for several years. With less shelf space comes fewer opportunities for publishers to display their wares to consumers — and publishers are starting to come to grips with that future.
“We’re focused on what we call our post-bookstore book world,” said Marcus Leaver, chief operating officer of UK-based Quarto, an illustrated book publisher, speaking on a panel of senior-level executives at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo. “Less than 15% of 2014 of our sales are going to be in traditional bookstores.”
Quarto will be focusing on growing its sales in specialty stores — like art stores — and gift stores as well as developing an aggressive “hyperlocal” sales strategy, said Leaver, meaning that to stem the tide of waning physical bookstore sales, Quarto is investing in old-fashioned publisher-to-bookstore sales. At the same time, the company plans on focusing on growing its direct-to-consumer online marketing efforts, as are other publishers.
“In this world of declining bookstores it’s incumbent upon us to reach the consumer,” said Gary Gentel, president of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “Now what we do – including things like metadata and marketing copy – it’s no longer to reach a buyer, it’s to reach a consumer.”
But marketing directly to consumers is not as easy as launching a Twitter feed. Publishers have, historically, been business-to-business concerns. Transitioning to talking to consumers is a tricky proposition. First off, how do you find them?
“How do you break the children’s book discovery gap online?,” said Karen Lotz, CEO of Candlewick Press, a children’s book publisher based in the UK and U.S. “How do you [help readers] find great children’s books online? The children aren’t searching for them themselves.”
Children are the key to dealing with a post-bookstore future, the executives agree, because they’re the future of reading. Candlewick’s solution to its problem of reaching kids might inform the solution that other publishers learn from.
“If a majority of kids now go to Amazon to look for material, well, in that case, we better start reaching those kids,” said Gentel.
One way in which publishers are trying to cope with a world in which their sales channels may change or even dry up is through trying to sell directly to the consumer. Some publishers, like F+W Media (the publisher of this website), have had success building e-commerce business and selling to consumers, said David Nussbaum, CEO of F+W, who moderated the panel of senior-level executives.
“We are selling direct-to-consumer and have been for some time,” said Gentel. “It’s something we’re keen to get better at.”
As much as it’s hard for publishers to transition from business-to-business firms to ones that talk directly with consumers, it’s harder to enter a whole new business: online retail. This is especially true for small- and medium-sized publishers.
“To do these things properly you have to put a lot of systems in place,” said Lotz. “The infrastructure, the tax setup in all 50 states [in the U.S.] and as a medium sized publisher that’s challenging.”
At HMH, Gentel said that it’s a struggle to convey the value of the company’s brand to consumers and therefore create a fertile e-commerce environment at a site the company runs.
At Quarto, e-commerce is not a solution that’s as much in favor, especially given the stiff competition.
“We have a website that we sell to people on,” said Leaver. “I’m not convinced that we’re good at it or that we’re ever going to be good at it. Frankly, we’re never going to have as good a website as Amazon.”