It’s Time for Publishers to Think Outside the Market

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

publishers, books, ebooks, sales, retailersOver the last 12-18 months, after a challenging, industry-evolving 5-7 years, there is a growing sense of cautious positivity in many parts of the book world. Print book sales are rebounding (or at least not still sliding, depending on whom you listen to), and ebook sales are now on a more predictable, if slower, and more diverse trajectory.

Publishing being publishing, terms like “gentle” and “cautious” are applied to any emotive description, whether optimism or despair. But for those remaining, the sense of a new dawn for the industry is unmistakeable.

That said, new dawns shouldn’t be basked in for long, and this is the starting point publishing needs to work and grow from.

Note, this is a new start, not a return to how everything was before, which I don’t think I’d want even if it were possible. It is important we accept where we are: while the print market has stabilized, after nearly a decade of shrinking year on year, it is still smaller than it once was. Furthermore, while ebook sales are diversifying a little, no one else has come through yet to even barely rival the brilliant but uncompromising and supplier-challenging Amazon.

Put frankly, today’s bookselling market is not big enough for all existing publishers to survive and thrive in. As a result, publishers can fight to the bottom and see who survives in this new world, or they can be smarter and seek to expand their market. Publishing businesses need to consider the basic business maxim: if the pots are smaller, you need more of them.

In this now digitally-connected world, international opportunities, despite Brexit for UK publishers in Europe, are now within grasp for nearly all businesses. International growth is a key part of the strategy for our publishing businesses, and I have written about this elsewhere. For this article, however, I want to look at thinking outside the current market as a complement to stretching it across international borders.

When I started my first publishing business, in 2005, I went to a talk shortly after on “non-traditional sales outlets” that I thought might give me some insight into selling into gift shops. I left shortly after the first three items: selling “on the Internet,” through new retailer “Amazon” and through “WHSmith.” There was clearly little to be learned, but this anecdote emphasizes how far we’ve come and also how far we can now go.

Publishers are—or should be—expert producers of content that, even with greater competition, still has massive global appeal. People may read differently, but in this digital age and with international efforts to improve literacy, they also read more than they ever have before. The first thing publishers now need to do, rather than focussing on retail outlets, is to identify where there is or would be reader demand in the wider market.

To support this, one of the largest growth areas highlighted by the Publishers Association’s annual Statistics Yearbook was in non-consumer -books sales. It also highlighted that school spending on books in the UK has grown significantly over the last year. Furthermore, UK libraries may have significant funding issues, but that isn’t the same in all countries where some libraries still benefit from strong spending support from their governments. And in addition to the sizable corporate libraries, many of the huge growth tech companies regularly look for employee perks (to counter the long hours and pressure, and what better than books…).

Many publishers have recognized the need to work more closely with the customer and have then gone on to waste large pots of budget on trying to infiltrate book groups, revamp their websites to sell directly, etc.. Customers are now key, but they won’t come to the publisher and are not interested in the publisher coming to them. Therefore, the only solution is the third option: put the publisher’s product where the customers are.

And there is a relatively easy way to do this: working with targeted intermediaries who also have a vested interest in putting your products in the same place. Whether budget-spending libraries, governments, institutions or organizations looking to please or support their employees or customers, there are many options out there that will add significant further lines to publishers’ annual budgets.

Looking outside the market is a process we have only just started to embrace, but the early signs are already positive. In 2017, we expect non-traditional sales routes to generate up to 10 percent, possibly more, of revenue across our publishing businesses.

In summary, we may have reached a new dawn, but rather than sit still and watch it fade, publishers must take this opportunity to stretch their reach and creative imaginations to expand their revenue lines. If the money pots are now smaller, it is time to have many more of them and watch them grow.

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4 thoughts on “It’s Time for Publishers to Think Outside the Market

  1. Michael W. Perry

    One major limitation on book sales is the time that people, particularly busy people, have for reading. That want-but-can’t market could very well be the chief limiting factor in book sales.

    Someone should research what I suspect—that a large slice of the fiction book market is driven by sales to people who have lots of time and little else to do. Unless you want to turn our Great Recession into another Great Depression, there’s no way to grow that market. Of course, a still worse economic downturn would dry up the money people need to buy books.

    Audiobook sales may be going up because they partially counter that trend. Even busy people have time during which they are commuting and doing other activities that allow them to listen but not read. They can’t read but they can listen.

    Publishers might want to expand that potential by reversing their thinking. Because audiobooks require a narrator who needs to be paid, publishers tend to think that the cost of an audiobook should be that of the print book plus some sum. But that is not the only way to think.

    Perhaps publishers should think of audiobooks as more like ebooks, meaning they should be sold for the print book price less the printing cost. After all, an audiobook can be sold and distributed as cheaply as an ebook. There’s no need for printing, warehousing, shipping and dealing with remainders. That should be reflected in the price.

    Publishers might also think ‘out of the box’ in another way. Go to the Apple Store and you’ll find, tucked almost out of sight, a “certified refurbished” section, with prices typically 15% or more off. It’s the same Mac or iPad that Apple sells elsewhere and with the same guarantee and support, only absent the fancy packing. While does Apple do that? Because it knows that a certain slice of the market isn’t going to buy new at full retail. Better to make a refurbish sale than no sale at all.

    Publishers might look into growing their sales in a similar fashion. Take good books in their backlists, books that sell well but not spectacularly, and create the audiobook equivalent of a refurbished market for them. People who wouldn’t buy the print version given their limited free time, just might buy a discounted audiobook version they can listen to on the go. Better that sale than no sale.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Embarrass Less: A Practical Guide for Doctors, Nurses, Students and Hospitals (just out)

    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Michael and good point on available time of readers – we as publishers spend so much time and money trying to push the consumer into a certain place or to convince them to pick up a book rather than any number of other entertainment sources.

      We need to instead discover those moments, however rare and fleeting, where the customer does pick up a book and focus everything on them. In this world of perpetual motion, the book is one of the few items that provides a stop and respite and publishers need to focus on that.

  2. Umesh Chhikara

    Hi Tom,

    We envisaged this one year back when we approached you at last Frankfurt book fair 2015. Sadly, things didn’t move but I do hope that your team will realise the potential of Indian market soon.

    Well put and very nicely written.


    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Umesh, glad you liked it. I assume the meeting relates to IPR License – I sold my shareholding in the company in April but definitely get in touch with the team to continue the conversation.

      Best wishes,



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