Publishing Rule Number One: Customer is Key

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

We all know pubcustomerlishing 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

Expert Publishing Blog
Tom Chalmers

About Tom Chalmers

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Times, a group of five publishing companies he has founded. He started his first company in 2005 when aged 25, Legend Press, a book publisher focused predominantly on mainstream literary and commercial fiction. Chalmers subsequently acquired Paperbooks Publishing, and later launched Legend Business, a business book publisher, followed by successful self-publishing and writer workshops companies, New Generation Publishing and Write-Connections, respectively. He also founded IPR License in 2012, a global rights licensing platform, which he sold in 2016. He has been shortlisted for UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year, UK Young Publisher of the Year, UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year, and longlisted for the Enterprising Young Brit Awards. He also speaks regularly on publishing and business and is an Enterprise Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust.

7 thoughts on “Publishing Rule Number One: Customer is Key

  1. Dianne G Sagan

    As a hybrid with experience in both camps, I completely agree that the key to success as an author or a publisher is the reader. If we don’t reach the reader and they don’t read/purchase the books, then we don’t last. Good article and well put.

  2. Dianne G Sagan

    Well said and I agree. As a hybrid with experience traditionally publishing and indie publishing, I’ve always thought that the reader is the key to our success. If we don’t reach the reader, then we won’t be around for very long. We depend on them. They are as much a part of the “formula” as the author and you are right that they don’t really pay attention to how the book is produced.

  3. Rudy

    Get rid of DRM in e-books or at least make it device independent. Then I’ll be happy to buy direct or from stores other than amazon. I already do–from publishers that have eschewed DRM. And let me OWN the book. Enough with this licensing thing. And while I’m at it: Make distribution rights language-based, not country-based. I can buy a print book published in any country in the world. It galls me (and many other book buyers) to see a book I want available at and not at And treat libraries better. And, while I’m at it, stop paying writers starvation royalties. There are good editors out there; pay them too; won’t cost you much since many books show very little sign of having been edited.

    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Rudy and good to hear something of what a book buyer is looking for. If industry listens more to customers then that should feed down to authors and editors getting paid more (hopefully)!

  4. Jeremy Grainger

    Your basic point is well-taken. However, as the participants in today’s #DigitalBook14 IDFPF # BookExpo14 panel on Indie/Hybrid perspectives pointed out, the customer is absolutely key in self-publishing models. All three authors, Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, and Barbara Freethy, all very succesful authors, spoke of the power of direct engagement, feedback, and interaction with their readers. Howey said he got more from readers reacting to his self-published work than he ever got from his MSM published books. That it seems to me is “Revolutionary,” and NOT as you say simple a shift in the production and supply chain! Cheers,

    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Jeremy and sounds like it was an interesting event. Note: I didn’t say ‘simple’ shift in production – there has been great effort behind it from a huge number of writers and it’s something they should be proud of – and I still don’t believe this qualifies as a ‘revolution’. Hugh Howey’s points are excellent and in my view unnecessary hyperbole shouldn’t distract or detract from some fantastic customer engagement and sales and marketing work.



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