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Direct sales and community building

JIIf you’ve been anywhere near publishing recently, you’ve probably been hit by the shrapnel of an exploding business model, a narrowing distribution network, or mind-numbing cutbacks. It’s fashionable for people who aren’t pouring their daily energies into words and stories to compare the changing ebook environment to the music industry. But it’s different.  Much more simple and complex at the same time. And I believe--even without gulping down an alcoholic beverage--that publishers and authors can come out on top when the dust settles.  

But it will require change. And partnerships. And innovation. We need to do what great authors do--draw readers in by telling an intriguing story and getting them involved. But this time it won’t be just into a book, but into the industry itself.

I’ve sat on both sides of the table, both as an author and an executive in the publishing industry. So I’m constantly viewing the future through the lens of a win/win scenario, where authors/publishers and readers thrive. And I believe that direct sales and community-building are an important first step. Having direct relationships and building audiences are instrumental to publishers controlling their own future. So let’s take a quick look at both...

Direct Sales

I recently had a conversation with a VP at a major publishing house and he/she said, “We’re not interested in direct sales. We have partners and retailers who do the selling for us.”  

Sensing that we were not speaking the same language, I asked a few poignant questions:

“Are you interested in having the contact information for anyone who buys your book?" 

“Well, yes.”

“Are you interested in better understanding the reading habits and preferences of your readers?”

“Yes”

“Are you interested in developing a number of creative marketing, sales, and promotional opportunity for your authors?”

“Of course.”

“Then you are interested in direct sales.”

As we began discussing further, we both realized there is a difference between building a direct sales channel and joining a direct sales channel. For the most part, “building direct sales” has been synonymous with “a publisher acting like a retailer and going direct.” In my opinion, publishers should not be interested in this type of situation. It is expensive, wrought with technical complications, and limiting for the end consumer. At a time when most publishers are pruning their teams, it is simply not a good strategy to tackle more with less. Moreover, readers accustomed to robust digital storefronts are not going to hunt down books at separate publishers.

But joining a direct sales channel is different. If a publisher can be part of a larger retail ecosystem but still enjoy the benefits of gathering contact information and staying connected to the end reader, it is the best of both worlds. Publishers can extend their reach from content acquisition all the way to consumption and feedback. Likewise, consumers can visit one location and find all the content they desire.

Direct sales is about visibility and transparency into the sales and consumption of a book. And who doesn’t want that? At BookShout!, we are making this a reality today. Working less like a traditional retailer and more like a retail portal and ecosystem, we are aggregating publishers together and allowing them direct access to the end reader. This includes allowing publishers to export contact information, create innovative marketing campaigns across social channels, and build author platforms.

Community Building

Seth Godin calls it “building your own tribe”. Others refer to it as “growing your audience.” Regardless of the terminology, community building is about bringing like-minded readers together and facilitating a discussion. 

Did you notice that I said “facilitating”, not “controlling?” Some of the most successful audience builders I know understand that growing an audience is like throwing a great party. Make sure there is enough food, the right music, a place to congregate, and a topic to discuss. Then stand back and just keep the conversation going. The community will strengthen as others step up and manage the discussions. Influencers will begin to emerge. People want to belong, and content communities allow for this.

We don’t all agree that the Yankees are a good team, but we all agree that word-of-mouth referrals are gold. When a friend recommends a great book to me, I’m ten times more likely to buy it than if I’m being sold by a third party. When we build audiences around verticals, brands, and authors, we can help passionate people share their experiences. Plus there is the added benefit that a growing tribe creates noise, which in turn, continues to grow the tribe exponentially. All of these things begin to move the needle on sales.   

Amazon didn’t buy Goodreads because they had an extra $150M+ lying around. They bought it because of the community aspect and the ability to tie these rabid readers closer to the buying experience. At BookShout!, we specifically built our platform around letting people create communities, what we call “circles.” We believe that if an author, publisher, brand, or book can establish its own community, they can better facilitate conversation, which in turn, develops more sales and marketing possibilities. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem that can feed itself.

One thing is certain--you won’t get it right the first time. Building a direct channel and an audience is an iterative process. Give yourself the right to pivot, change directions, try new things, create micro-genres, and start conversations. We certainly don’t have it all figured out at BookShout! but we are actively listening so we can continuously improve. The one thing you can’t do is nothing. If publishers and authors do nothing, nothing will be all that’s left.

This article was written by contributor Jason Illian. Jason is the Founder and CEO of BookShout!, an innovative reading platform that empowers publishers/authors and builds community around books.  BookShout! is working closely with publishers and authors to re-imagine the future of books.

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