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Direct-to-consumer: Can you change buyer behavior?

Shopping-cart-728408_1920I recently visited a mid-size publisher to discuss direct-to-consumer (D2C) strategies with their sales and marketing leaders. Towards the end of the session I was asked the most important question of the day and it’s something publishers pursuing a D2C solution need to carefully assess: Can we really change buyer behavior?

The point is that most consumers are trained to buy from Amazon. Further, those same consumers don’t want to bother with multiple bookshelves and accounts. Once you start buying from one ebook retailer you tend to stick with them.

I’m an Amazon Prime member and that means Amazon is the first place I look to buy just about everything. Heck, we even “subscribe” to dog food on Amazon for our three basset hounds, so I’m a textbook example of a consumer who’s been trained by Bezos & Co.

My answer to the question was simple: No, you can’t change buyer behavior…unless you can truly offer a compelling reason for consumers to buy direct.

Simply adding a shopping cart to your catalog pages won’t cut it. You’re also not going to make a dent trying to beat Amazon on pricing, so why create a race to the bottom?

In order to change buyer behavior you’ve got to think about how you can offer something consumers won’t find anywhere else.

I told this publisher’s sales and marketing leaders they need to envision a product assortment that showcases items not available on Amazon or any other retailer. I’m talking about short-form content that complements their books, video material that’s only offered on the publisher’s site, and yes, even some full-length ebooks that aren’t distributed through traditional retailer channels.

Samples are another way of creating a compelling D2C solution. Publishers should super-size the samples they offer on their site. Make them longer than the ones consumers can get elsewhere and, when possible, add elements to make them richer as well.

Timing of samples can also be leveraged. Why not make those samples available earlier and exclusively on the publisher’s website? One of the things that frustrates me about upcoming titles is how the sample isn’t available till the book publishes. Why? OK, I know the goal is to have a coordinated launch date so that title rankings will all benefit from a synchronized release. Fine, but let me grab the sample before publication and backorder the title so I don’t forget about it. Publishers, you should offer samples exclusively on your website a month or so before the book actually publishes. Attract consumers and train them to come to you for the sample, not the retailer.

For publishers willing to acknowledge that digital rights management (DRM) only provides a false sense of security, sell your ebooks without this annoying limitation. Also, provide all formats to consumers when they buy direct (e.g., EPUB, mobi and PDF). Leverage services like Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” to push your D2C books onto the consumer’s Kindle bookshelf.

Turn all these services into a club readers can join then focus on surprising and delighting them every step of the way.

I admit this isn’t a model for all publishers. If your title list is wide and shallow, offering only one or two titles each on a large number of topics, you’ll never make this work. But if you cater to a particular genre or subject and your title list has plenty of depth you’ve already got the foundation for a compelling D2C solution.

Also, don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to build and maintain D2C momentum. You need to plan a steady stream of exclusive content offerings and services, just as a magazine publisher creates an editorial calendar. Don’t assume you flip a switch, offer a few exclusive items and you’re done. This requires an ongoing commitment of dedicated resources.

If you’re one of those publishers with a deep foundational list you have two choices: You can either diversify your channel strategy by investing in a strong D2C model or you can sit back and let the big retailers determine your destiny. I strongly believe those who choose the former will be in a much better position to survive and thrive. 



There are a couple of points worth emphasizing. Amazon is not really in the bookselling business; they're in the customer acquisition business. And the customer "value proposition" they tend to focus on is low price and ease of ordering--though there are others, like bunding of media, etc.. Anyone wanting to acquire book buying customers should run, not walk, away from anything resembling Amazon's value propositions. One example you highlight is the strategy of offering exclusive content--books or digital products like digital shorts that are not available on Amazon. That's one, but designing value propositions that suite your particular consumer profile is, well, particular. It's more about a way of thinking, a strategic orientation, that's required.

One other point, which is encouraging for would-be B2C booksellers, is that Amazon has approximately 50% of the market share of all books sold in the U.S. Why is this encouraging? It means that half the market is not fully on board with Amazon's value propositions. One question is to ask--for your particular audience--is why? If you can discover what works for your particular audience you can focus you marketing outreach effectively, competing with Amazon by NOT competing with Amazon.

Joe Wikert

Excellent points, Peter. I hadn't thought about all those non-Amazon customers out there but yes, they represent a large chunk of potential D2C prospects.


Thanks for the article, Joe. I agree with Peter Turner's comments as well. Well done. As a publisher part of your angst for preview materials/sample chapters comes from fast-track manuscripts. We just don't have the luxury of time because editorial is moving so fast we have real books at the same time we'd need samples.
We've had limited success D2C and usually always offer something unique and different that Amazon and B&N can't offer—extra content, bulk discounts, etc.
Thanks for your insights.


"You’re also not going to make a dent trying to beat Amazon on pricing" -- Well, why not? If you are the producer, you can always beat Amazon on pricing. What is harder is to beat the myth that Amazon always has the lowest price on everything. Amazon Prime creates lazy consumers who don't shop around.

Joe Wikert

D, many have tried and I'm aware of none who have succeeded. Don't forget that most publishers are obligated to let Amazon offer the same deep-discounted price as a publisher offers direct. So you're just chasing your tail by trying to beat them on price. You're absolutely right that Amazon doesn't always have the cheapest price on everything. However, trying to beat them consistently on lower D2C prices via a publisher website isn't a viable formula, IMHO.

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