Forget the words “print” and “digital” even exist. Now, what is the transition in publishing really about?
Publishing is, and has been for many years, a B-to-B business. In fact, the walls of the publishing house have traditionally been closed off to anyone without an in. On one end, we have agents who work as buffers to the outside world, so we are not required to interact with anyone who does not have any official business. On the other end, book buyers shield us from having to interact with readers.
Almost everything about our industry is set up in a way that lessens contact with the outside world. The whole mystique of this industry is based on its inaccessibility to the outsider.
Some examples, to name a few:
Agents: Most publishers do not accepts direct submissions. This, in itself, limits front-end interactions with both published and aspiring authors. In fact, agents serve an important purpose, they act as buffers to the world-at-large, to all the people who think they can write a book. They are the first line of defense, as it were, to prevent contact from the (unsavory) outside world. For scouting works, for performing triage, for acting as a buffer, agents are compensated in percentages based on performance of those things they bring in from the outside.
Review pubs: Industry review publications seem to go beyond just buffering publishers from the outside world, by performing the task of marketing our products to ourselves. This is something that works perfectly in a B-to-B system; different houses vying for space in industry publications to look better than others, our books over your books, our authors have more name recognition than yours, angling for buyers’ attention always with the thought that they will order more copies. Are these publications relevant to the average person on the street who is going to visit a retail location or eCommerce site to purchase a book? No. Not at all.
Industry Conferences: Like review publications, many if not all of our industry conferences consist of self-referential presentations with little to no interest given to the outside world. While this is the case throughout many industries, we seem make a heightened effort to market and promote our latest titles at these conferences. Think about the amount of money spent on galleys, booths, travel, and accommodations for BEA. Take note of the amount, and remember it. It’s going to come back to haunt you.
Booksellers & Book Buyers: Programs are in place which allow publishers to interact with independent booksellers, giving both sides a voice in the equation. But, again, the bookseller is, like with the case of the agent, a buffer to the outside world. They are the ones who are depended upon to talk to the actual consumer. And, many publishers rely on feedback from booksellers to tap into the pulse of their consumers and to gather intelligence on consumer moods and opinions.
In the case of book buyers, they, too, are expected to provide intelligence as to consumer behavior in their retail locations. They act as gate keepers, taste makers, and trend setters. Book buyers can make a publisher change pub dates, change print quantities, change covers, cancel publications, etc. In fact, they play a powerful role in our business. They also interact with customers on our behalf, which earns them the right to wield such power.
Author Events/Tours: After publication, in the traditional system, the author is expected to go on tour, talk to readers, perform in front of them and sell books. While the publicity department arranges these tours, they are not the ones talking to the outside world. The PR director is not the person giving talks and answering questions.
It’s as if we are an industry of ninjas, or a group of faceless factory workers buying, creating, selling, and promoting products without one genuine interaction with the people for whom we are making these products. This, of course, makes sense because we are a business of taking someone else’s work and selling it to a third party. Had we been involved in content creation, perhaps we would better understand what it means to understand someone else.
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In the end, no amount of market research, anecdotal evidence, kaffee klatsches, or cocktail parties can ever replace actual and real interaction with our customers. Recently, I attended a conference where a panelist kept repeating throughout her presentation, “The reader is the consumer who is your customer.” I openly admit that, at the time, I begrudged this panelist for stating the obvious. Of course the reader is our customer.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized what she was really saying: in an age of digital books, in an age where many of this industry’s institutions are, one by one, going away or becoming irrelevant, we are no longer the industry we thought we were. And, the reality is this: we can no longer afford to act as a B-to-B business. The future, if we have one, depends on our ability to reconfigure as a B-to-C business and start interacting with readers directly free of buffers and intermediaries. From product development, to consumer feedback, to buyer-less sell-in for digital products, to direct to consumer sales, to verticality, to providing readers with what they want, a new wave of customer interaction needs to guide us along our paths to the future.
Now, do you remember that money which we took from marketing budgets slated for BEA? What if we funneled that money into establishing direct consumer contact? Think of the awesome changes we could make in place of printing thousands upon thousands of galleys that end up in the hands of someone who could get the book for free regardless.
I can only repeat these wise words, something I didn’t fully understand just a few months ago, “The reader is the consumer who is your customer.”