Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
We all know publishing is a club that has somehow lasted several centuries and often defied the odds to produce works that have changed history. We also know that as an industry we don’t like outsiders, preferring to speak with and complement each other. And, as with many industries, it starts to appear increasingly small, everyone apparently separated by six degrees.
Speaking from the UK market, and I have a feeling it was the same in many others, how it used to be was certain publishers published certain works that would be sold by certain bookshops who were not only certain about having customers but usually had a regular customer base. With a now seemingly crazy number of links in the publishing chain, publishers didn’t have to speak to the end customer. In many cases, they barely had to speak to their authors.
I feel like I have written ‘bubble burst’ a number of times so won’t cover old ground, but needless to say that has happened. Self-publishing has gone from vanity to swamping the bestseller charts and a large number of self-published authors, often burning from being barred from the club in the past, are quick to take a shot at traditional publishing.
Then we have the internet, the biggest market and media development of at least the last century, providing a free voice to customers, beyond the control of anyone. And possibly the biggest corporate entity to emerge on the internet is Amazon, under the control of someone, and who are currently turning the screw on even the largest publishers to extract even better terms.
Publishing has now embraced the need for change and understands that a big part of this is engaging more directly with the customer. But, inevitably, the steps to date have been tentative at best. An example of this is direct selling – publishers add books for sale on their website and sit back for the sales to come in. They aren’t and they won’t, not without any form of customer engagement.
Another example is the recent spate of focus groups – a good idea and which play a key role in many industries – but we take this good idea and talk to each other. Which could be done in any bar within a one-mile radius of any major book fair. The entrepreneurial self-published authors then say they should be included in the focus groups, which is reluctantly agreed, but who is missing? Yes, the reader – the one that actually buys the products. How can we expect to learn anything before speaking directly to them?
This extends to stats – we love to look at graphs of ebooks sales, physical sales, market shares and so on. But where are the stats directly from the readers? What are they liking, how do they buy, what do they want to see? We are too keen to ask the same people the same questions in the vain hope of finding anything new.
And back briefly to the entrepreneurial self-publishers – they have made a huge impact within the industry and publishers could learn a great deal from them. But what’s this talk about a revolution? Only the reader, the buyer of the books, can cause a revolution in the industry by changing what they buy, and they couldn’t care less how they were produced. Self-publishing is not a revolution but a shift in the production chain – admittedly a less dynamic-sounding statement. However, even with no revolution, the bestselling self-published authors have been much more forward-thinking in marketing directly to the customer.
And now back to Amazon – their name will be bemoaned in any one of those bars surrounding the book fairs and, from tax to using its bargaining power, they create and purposely operate from an unlevel playing field in many ways. But what is too often missed in these complaints is their ingenious focus – on the customer.
Every part of Amazon’s brand, service and operation is focused on the customer. The suppliers are there to battle, a battle the customer pays for. And this focus is because Amazon knows that even for its mighty, gigantic, endless business, its main threat, the one main threat to its business is the customer. The customer provides the water for the tree to grow but if it takes it water elsewhere, it doesn’t matter how big the tree – it will fall.
I don’t know if we ignore the customer in publishing out of ignorance or fear, possibly both. But the sooner we realise they are the boss – they pay for the wages, the print bills, the royalties and the offices themselves – the better. And we have a wider range of routes directly to them than ever before – 20 years ago we would have had to write letters; now through the internet and social media, we can be in touch with them at any moment of any day.
There are some positive moves – recent Penguin Random House and HarperCollins initiatives and our publishing company Legend Press’s partnership with Virgin Trains as examples. These need to be built on and then built on some more – it is not publishing’s club that matters but that we need to find the customers’ club and a way to be let in. We all need to repeat – it is the customer we work for.
So, rule number one of publishing is the customer is key. As for the second rule, we should let them choose that for themselves.
Happy to hear your thoughts as always – @Tom_Chalmers