Why All Publishers Can and Should Go Direct-to-Consumer

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

direct-to-consumer marketing sales book publishers HarperCollinsMany publishers think direct-to-consumer (D2C) programs are difficult to implement, expensive to operate and generate heaps of extra work that their bottom lines can never justify, leaving those initiatives the exclusive territory of only the biggest players in the industry.

But all publishers can and should be developing D2C strategies, including—and especially—small and mid-size publishers focused on a specific category or niche.
Many smaller and independent publishers have already proven that selling directly to customers is a necessity for remaining competitive, not to mention a major “value-add” that authors are looking for in publishers these days. But few of them have internalized the model as a defining feature of their brands and businesses.

The first goal for every author and publisher is to find 1,000 fans who will purchase your latest book the day it’s published. And the second goal is to give them not only an option but a reason to purchase it from your own website. Failing that, you should give those fans a reason to give you their contact information go on their way to buy it from an online retailer.

How come?

Because going direct-to-consumer isn’t just about the revenue you’ll gain from establishing a direct sales channel. Equally important—maybe even more so—is developing that customer relationship that in many cases doesn’t yet exist in the publishing world.

Speaking at Digital Book World 2015 last month, Squidoo.com founder Seth Godin underscored that point:

The key is knowing who that customer is so you can market to them much more effectively. In other words, D2C is at least as much about marketing and discovery as it is about sales. (After all, why do you think your largest retail partners, like Amazon, notoriously don’t share information about who is buying your books? It’s because they know that the most important thing is the direct customer relationship.)

And in that endeavor, small and mid-size publishers may actually have a leg up on their larger counterparts. Building out a robust D2C operation will be a long-term undertaking for even the most committed publishers. (HarperCollins, for instance, is putting considerable resources into to doing just that.) And historically, most publishers have shied away from going head-to-head with their biggest distributors in the process of building out a D2C program. But doing so is a necessity to survive in this industry and doesn’t have to mean biting the hand that feeds you.

Publishers focused on a niche area or genre stand a greater chance of identifying and building a fan-base that will buy direct than do large trade publishers with myriad imprints and vast catalogs—simply because those smaller presses already publish with a specific audience in mind.

One reason major trade publishers are thinking so hard about developing D2C strategies is precisely because readers so seldom say to themselves, “I can’t wait to buy that new Simon & Schuster book.” But smaller publishers can more readily get someone to say that of their own smaller, more tightly focused imprints and brands.

Potentially a lot of someones.

10 thoughts on “Why All Publishers Can and Should Go Direct-to-Consumer

  1. Marilynn Byerly

    In the early days of ebooks, the late ’90s and early 2000s, small niche genre publishers tried this, and it failed miserably because readers wanted the convenience of one-stop shopping over the cheaper prices of buying from the publisher. The only small publisher to do this successfully was Ellora’s Cave, the earliest and most successful of the erotica publishers.

    With contracts between publishers and places like Amazon that prevent the publisher from offering a cheaper price, the publisher offers nothing of extra value to compensate for one-stop convenience unless they stop using places like Amazon as a venue which would be financial suicide.

    In other words, good luck with this strategy. You’ll need it.

    1. Murray Izenwasser

      Hi Marilynn,

      So 2 items related to your comment (well, first – thanks for the comment!!):
      First, yes, I agree – if the publisher is offering a cheaper purchase price, they will fail. They won’t generate any customer loyalty, except for one that is incredibly price sensitive. Secondly, the world has come a long way since the 1990s and early 2000s. Just because it didn’t work back then (probably focused on price) doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t work now and isn’t a reason to not do so today, 10-15 years later.

      It’s not about price, and it’s also not about getting rid of alternate channels like Amazon (although there are some that have done this successfully). It’s about finding your fans, and then giving them a reason to continuously interact with your imprint/brand, your authors, and your books.

  2. Bruce

    I am never going to buy ebooks from a publisher that requires me to read it on their app or their website. If I can’t read it on the ereader of my choice (i.e., eInk with no ability to install publisher apps), and be able to save it locally in case the publisher goes belly up or decides that it’s not worth it to sell D2C anymore, and is only going to sell through the big name ebook retailers, there’s no reason for me to buy it from the publisher. Baen gets this, the big 5 do not.

    1. Murray Izenwasser

      Bruce, I agree. It’s all about giving the reader the choice, and that can change over the course of reading the book (at least it does for me), depending on where I am and what I’m holding in my hands. I, personally, like and want to be able to switch between formats while I’m in the middle of reading the book.

  3. Jeremy Wilson

    At Castle Hill Press we have been selling direct to customers since 1997. It is, I think, at least ten years since we sold a book through Amazon.

    Amazon (some might be surprised to learn) does NOT offer every title listed on Nielsen BookData (never use its listings as a guide to books in print).

    Yes, we sell very small editions of fine-press books to a niche market, but selling direct cuts out middlemen and therefore makes our publications pssible. To judge by the loyalty of our customers, the results are appreciated.

  4. Dan McFarland

    Has anyone seen what Diversion is doing in the D2C space? Their EverAfter Romance apps are multi-publisher, author-friendly and reader-focused. The catalog is better than Apple’s, the pricing is Amazon-comparable and so forth.
    If Diversion can do it, I don’t see any reason why ANY publisher can’t.
    I suspect the answer is in Seth Godin’s comment: Until the right question is asked, no answers can come.
    The trouble here (and where I believe many publishers will agree) is that the “who are our customers” question offers little help, because it’s not actionable. Even more than that, it tends to lead companies to the familiar-but-fruitless instead of strategic-and-successful activities. Guess what happens when top-management at a publisher asks its IT team for a D2C solution? — invariably a D2C website or something.
    Here’s a suggestion… Why not declare the objective as “25% of gross revenue must come from D2C” or “10,000 direct customers”, and then invite five outside companies to offer a plan to accomplish it in 12 months within a given budget? The questions I would pose to publishers is “Can you define your objective?” and “Have you invited others to solve your problems?”

    What I love about this article is that it’s raising the right kinds of questions. Great job Murray for bringing it up!!

    1. Murray Izenwasser

      Thanks Dan! I really appreciate the comments. And it is doable, regardless of the size of the publisher. One of our clients is a tiny (2 person) publishing house that publishes a handful of books a year. And they’ve consistently increased their fan base, and revenue. It’s a long term proposition, and they understand that.

    1. Murray Izenwasser

      Thanks for the comment Abe. I strongly believe that the smaller, niche publishers will have a real opportunity to compete here. And it doesn’t matter the niche (as long as there is one, maybe?).

  5. Murray Izenwasser

    Thanks for the comment, Jeremy! You hit the nail on the head with the word “niche.” By focusing on a specific audience, you can definitely create a following – and from your comment, it looks like you have done just that.



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