Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
I often stress in my posts here that the consumer runs the publishing business. It’s always sad when you hear those in the industry patronizing or criticizing the customer, even if it’s just a defensive response to readers failing to show enough interest in publishers’ own output.
That the customer holds all of the power is clearer than ever today, thanks to the Internet and the various forms of social media. No longer does our or any industry control the main filters through which information about what to buy reaches customers.
Although the broadsheet review maintains an important influence, book readers no longer wait for it before selecting their next purchase. Furthermore, the term “book buyer” is less defined than it used to be; the choice is no longer among different books but among various entertainment sources, all competing for the same customer’s attention.
The Internet has also changed customer trust. For instance, readers may place more trust in a blog they read regularly or in fellow customers’ reviews than in a publication with millions of readers that feels distanced from them. And choice can be both instantaneous—often just one click to buying—and contagious—as evidenced by an array of trends, in genre or otherwise, that have become history-making successes just about overnight.
So, with the customer now firmly holding the reins of power, the more foresighted in the industry are placing great emphasis on working more closely with them. Publishing has suffered over the last decade for operating in its own closed-off space, and those that have made the jump from the ivory tower should be applauded.
But even if the jump makes complete sense, the next part—figuring out how to build better relationships with customers—is less straightforward. Many publishers have tried hard to build their brands directly with consumers and, while this is being done in plenty of very creative ways, I am not convinced that it will ultimately prove successful.
With a few exceptions (Penguin Classics, Faber’s poetry…and the fact I’m struggling to think of a third tells its own story), the customer couldn’t care less about the publisher or, for that matter, publishing itself. If you see someone look at the spine of a book in the bookshop, you can be certain they work in the business.
I am very proud of the history of publishing and what we have provided culturally over several centuries, but ultimately we are product manufacturers.
Huge creativity and brilliance can still sometimes be put into that process, but it remains the case that even though we make the books, the relationship for readers is a direct one between them and the author. It’s no surprise that the publishers that have made the biggest impact on the customer (see Penguin paperbacks) have done so through new formats rather than anything to do with the subject matter of their content.
Publishers can still position authors as the centerpieces of their own brands, and this is an absolutely key part of their jobs, but with so many different authors being published, that doesn’t provide the answer for what strategy publishers should use for interfacing more directly with consumers. And this also extends to direct-sales websites; most publishers’ own sites are still very far down the list of where a customer will search for a title they’re interested in.
A route I am more excited about is the recent creation of new events, festivals and awards by publishers.
I think these make complete sense since they provide a strong balance between putting authors in front of customers (the most important part) and maintaining the company’s name firmly in the background. Live events, in part, saved the music industry from suffering worse than it did, and while you may not get 100,000 people at Wembley for an author reading, there is clearly demand and an opportunity that publishers are increasingly taking advantage of.
However, despite many great new initiatives, my view is that we are still missing a key part of the process—asking readers what they want. In fact, we should take a step further back than that and ask: Where can we access large quantities of customers that will tell us what they want?
Attempts were made a few years ago to infiltrate book groups, until we realized that those were mainly groups of friends who want to socialize and talk about everything, including books; they certainly weren’t interested in talking to publishers. Retailers hold a huge amount of useful data, but their customer lists are their lifeblood, and it is unlikely they will happily open them up to suppliers who want to speak directly to their customers.
One area that is underused are focus groups. When these were first mentioned to me, I for some reason felt an instinctive aversion, but they are fundamental to so many industries and there is no reason they couldn’t play a key role in publishing. Having a group of customers telling you what they think for a couple of hours could save many hundred of hours more for the industry unsuccessfully trying to determine what readers think.
So in summary, it is great that we are looking to work more closely with the customer, but we have to put the cart before the horse. First of all, we need to embark on a committed period during which publishers find meaningful groups of consumers and open up channels of dialogue. Only then, once we understand them better, will we stand a better chance of our readers allowing us to work with them as they continue to run our industry.