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The Wall Street Journal on Author Platforms

Building a Direct Relationship Between Publisher and Reader

Like just about anything in life, a “direct relationship” can produce good results or bad results. On the good side, it can cut out a middleman who seems to do nothing more than increase the overall cost (and therefore, the final price) of the product. On the bad side, that “middleman” might be adding more value to the formula than the producer or the consumer would like to admit.

Most publishers don’t seem to have a very good direct relationship with their true customers, the people reading their books. Why is that? It’s mostly due to the fact that the publisher views their job as one of developing and producing the best content available, not providing the outlet for customers to buy those products. That made more sense when it seemed very few people would buy a book without being able to flip through it first. Amazon (and others) have proven that’s not a requirement though – there are plenty of ways to use a website and entice a customer to make a purchase without ever touching the product.

When I buy online I’m often doing it to take advantage of the deeper discount. Just about every book is 30% or more off online, so why pay full price at a brick-and-mortar store? (The answer for most people is “convenience”, of course.) What if you could get an even better deal buying direct from the publisher?

Consider this hypothetical situation: A publisher decides to launch their own “frequent buyer club” where you’ll get a better discount (X%) on each book if you promise to purchase some minimum number of books (Y) over the course of a year. Each transaction is conducted via the web, directly between the customer and publisher.

There’s at least one other critical factor in this decision: the size and diversity of the publisher’s list. My interest in a program like this is directly proportional to the breadth and depth of the publisher’s program. The broader the title list is from that publisher, the greater the likelihood I’d give it a try.

How about you? Would you consider signing up for a program like this? If so, what would the values have to be for “X%” and “Y”?

Comments

Michael Miller

The problem, Joe, is that readers don't care about or even notice the publisher. In our business, they notice the topic first, the approach second (and that might mean the "series", in the case of Dummies and such), and maybe -- just maybe -- the author third. The publisher doesn't enter into it at all. You don't hear readers say "I want to buy a Wiley book today." No, they say "I need to buy an eBay book" or "I want that Dummies book about eBay." On very rare instances you might hear "I want to buy Michael Miller's eBay book," but more often than not the author is as invisible as the publisher.

(This wasn't always the case, of course. Back in the 1980s, there was a definite cachet about "Que" books, but that's long gone.)

This is even true in other forms of publishing. Readers buy books by specific genres and authors, but not by specific publishers. Have you ever wandered into a B&N and said to yourself, "I think I'll buy a Penguin book today." Nope, never happens. Publishers -- at least in the reader's eyes -- are irrelevant. (With the notable exception of travel publishing, where Frommers and Foders are the draw -- although you could argue they're the brand, not the publisher, given as they're both owned by larger corporate parents.)

See, you're thinking like a publisher. And everything the publisher does is important. So why shouldn't the reader think so, too? Publisher-centric promotions only work when they're also either (1) topic-centric or (2) series-centric. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of books.

As to building publisher loyalty across a variety of series and topics (the "larger list" you mention), now you're competing with retailers -- and offering a much limited selection. This is the equivalent of a publisher's book club, which has been tried, and has almost always failed. The reader either wants one specific book or the widest possible selection -- which is why we have retailers. Having a frequent buyer's program at the publisher level would be like Boeing having a frequent flyer program; totally irrelevant to the average traveler.

Again, the problem is looking at things from the inside instead of from the outside. Publishers would like to develop more publisher loyalty, readers couldn't care less. And in any contest, the reader always wins.

Joe Wikert

Hi Mike. You’ve jumped to a conclusion that I wasn’t really proposing: that this “frequent buyer club” is publisher-branded. I agree that there would be limitations with that idea, and that’s why I didn’t state it that way in my post. However, what if a publisher has an enormous science fiction program? Why not launch a frequent buyer program around that, calling it something like “The Sci-Fi Club”? Again, you apply the model where you offer a better discount in exchange for a guarantee to buy some minimum number of books over the course of a year.

Michael Miller

Not to be argumentative (no, not me), but what you're proposing smacks just a little of the old Tab book clubs. They started out offering their own products, but ultimately didn't have enough depth and ended up licensing books from other publishers. It would be the rare instance where a publisher offered all the selection a consumer would want. Again, that's why we have retailers -- to offer a wider selection from multiple publishers.

Ask the question -- does the consumer even know who the publisher is? With only a few exceptions, the answer is a resounding "no." For whatever reasons, publishing is one industry where the manufacturers have not established themselves as brands. The "brands" are the author (in fiction publishing) and the series (in some non-fiction categories). But, more often than not, people buy our products because they want or need that specific book -- not because of any publisher awareness or loyalty.

Again, I like the Boeing comparison. We all fly a lot of Boeing planes, but we're only peripherally aware of it; whether it's a Boeing or an Airbus or a whatever seldom if ever influences our purchase decisions.

Joe Wikert

Mike, we must not be speaking the same language… OK, you like the Boeing analogy. Let’s look at it that way. Sure, nobody is going to sign up for a Boeing frequent flyer club. But what if Boeing happened to start a “Worldwide Frequent Flyer Club”, where you’d earn points on any airline, flying in any country, as long as the journey happened to be on a Boeing plane? Maybe it could even be a program that co-exists with the various ones from United, USAirways, etc. In other words, you still earn points on those airline programs, but the Boeing one goes beyond that with other rewards. Hey, I think you’re on to something!

Actually, I think your Boeing example is off the mark. If you flip your Boeing example back to the publishing world I don’t think you get a frequent buyer program run by the publisher…I think you get one run by the printer. Can you imagine an “R.R. Donnelly Frequent Buyer” program? I can’t.

Also, keep in mind that I’m not proposing the publisher use their name on the program. You’re right. Nobody would care about a “Penguin Frequent Buyer Program”. I do think they’d be interested in programs that are built around and named for a topic area, however (e.g., the Sci-Fi one in my last reply).

Okay, but I still don't see the point. To make the consumer aware of the program -- and to encourage future sales within the program -- the consumer still has to be cognizant of the publisher, which he isn't. This still feels like a publisher-centric idea, rather than a consumer-focused one, IMHO.

Helmus

I am going to throw my 2 cents in here...I think that the only way to reach the consumer is via a brand of some reknown...As Mike points out the key brand in book publishing is the author and the other less frequent brand is series (like Dummies and Frommers). I am not confident that outside of those situations would a publisher be able to leverage (that said, O'Reilly might be the exception) a brand building campaign.

I actually laughed out loud the other day when Jane Friedman of Harper announced a branding strategy for the house...I mean, we all know that Harper sells lots of books, but nobody but the retailers know that....and maybe the shareholders.

Joe, I see your point and I also see Mike's point on this--perhaps it is worth trying but it would be really hard to do by topic without pretty much owning the topic area--Harlequin might be able to have a romance frequent buyer club (they actually may have one for all I know.)given their dominance in that topic area.

John Neidhart

I have to say that I entirely disagree that readers don't notice or care about who publishes a book. In fact, Michael almost refutes his own view when he talks about the customer who wants the Dummies book - that customer has, in fact, noticed the "publisher" - Dummies.
After twenty years on retail bookstore selling floors, I can say with absolute certainty that customers *do* just exactly what it is thought here that they don't: ask for books by specific publishers.
I have had numerous customers, after, say, picking up a Signet Classic edition of a book, ask me specifically for the Penguin edition. I've had many, many customers ask me if we had publisher catalogs available. And I've had a customer express surprise that a certain publisher "had stooped to publishing this kind of trash" - a direct quote that has resonated throughout my now nearly 30 year bookselling career. Customers may certainly confuse "imprint" and "publisher" - that is certain. But, even in the computer book industry, "publisher" clearly still commands attention in the customer's mind.

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