by Suw Charman-Anderson, Contributor
I’m a geek & author covering self-publishing & crowdfunding
If publishers finally begin treating readers as their end customers, it will mean cutting booksellers out of the equation, said The Bookseller’s editor Philip Jones in last week’s editorial, Embracing Complexity (online as A Complex Trade). Jones wrote:
It has become fashionable recently to take booksellers out of the bookselling equation, to argue that publishers need to treat consumers, not booksellers, as their customer. The US author Hugh Howey said it recently in a characteristically forthright blog: “It’s the Reader, Stupid”, and Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, says it in the profile on page 18 of this week’s magazine.
I don’t argue with the logic. In basic terms focusing on the end-consumer can only be right. If every Thursday book buyers flocked to Vauxhall Bridge Road or the Strand to acquire the latest offerings, life would truly be sweet (for publishers). Think about it: no sales reps, no sales teams, no need for special sales, no distributors, no hub, no wholesalers. Simples."Except neither Howey nor Ross argue that booksellers aren’t important, nor do they argue that they are expendable and should be sidelined. And they certainly don’t say that publishers should fire their sales reps or circumvent distributors and wholesalers. That ‘logic’ is one entirely of Jones’ invention.
What Howey says is that the current ecosystem is a mess, with readers at the bottom of almost everyone’s list. He says (emphasis as original):
Publishers treat bookstores as their customers, not the reader. That means high e-book prices to protect print; releasing hardbacks and withholding paperbacks; needlessly high audiobook prices; and not working with libraries on e-book prices and lending practices. […]
Large bookstore chains treat publishers as customers by charging for merchandising rather than stocking and shelving what the reader wants. […]
Traditional authors treat publishers as their customers, because that’s who pays them for manuscripts, rather than focusing on the reader, who wants to pay for the book. […]"In fact, says Howey, the only people who really put some effort into catering to readers are independent bookstores, indie authors and Amazon. Furthermore, he says, “the indie shops are seeing growth because they largely concentrate on the reader.”
Now he does admit that some of Amazon’s business tactics hurt bookstores, but he also says that “kind of bookshops worth loving are doing okay.” Nowhere does he say that publishers should turn their backs on bookstores.
What about Orna Ross? What terrible things does she call for in her interview for The Bookseller (which is not online)? Well, interestingly, not the disenfranchisement of bookshops. Rather, she talks about the genesis of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and discusses the work that it’s doing to help indie authors understand publishing. She talks as well about her own experience as a traditionally published author, saying:
She goes on to say that key to the grown of ALLi is partnership, including partnerships with bookshops.“One of the problems in publishing that needs to be addressed is that a lot of the big publishers are selling to retailers rather than readers, and as independent bookshops have fewer options in the market, difficulties arise for writers like me.”
Indeed, ALLi believe so strongly in partnerships that they’re putting together a guide for booksellers, reviewers and literary event organisers to help them understand how self-published writers can benefit them. They are also reaching out to bookselling associations, amongst others, as part of a “dialogue [to] find out what they need from indie authors in order to be able to accommodate us.”“I’m a big believer in partnership. We will all progress far easier, smoother and quicker if we think of each other as partners in the process and understand each other’s constraints.”
Interestingly absent from Ross’ interview is any rhetoric about getting rid of or disintermediating booksellers. This makes Jones’ piece all the more perplexing. Neither Ross nor Howey say that booksellers are a barrier, and they both see good booksellers as allies. Bad bookshops may go the way of the dodo, but certainly not all bookshops. And in my opinion, if a major chain like Waterstones fails, innovative bookselling start-ups will rise to take its place because, as Jones points out, 150 million books were sold in the UK during 2012 and that’s a market worth serving.
Booksellers are distributors, rather than end customers, and while booksellers are an important link in the supply chain, it does seem a bit odd to focus your marketing and processes on serving a distributor to the exclusion of the people who buy your product. Jones may be correct that this supply chain is “not linear, not straight-forward”, but we part ways over his assertion that it’s not “broken”. Any industry where unsold inventory is destroyed by the seller and refunded by the producer, as happens with books where the covers are torn off and returned (if you’re lucky) for reimbursement, is solidly and fundamentally broken.
Jones’ piece describes an antagonism between booksellers and those who would treat readers as the end customer which simply doesn’t exist. For publishers, treating readers as the end customer does not require them to undermine bookstores. Rather, it means that they must consider how they are developing their relationship with their readers. Are their mailing lists serving their readers with the information they want, or are they exercises in scattershot marketing? Are they supporting their social media efforts by cross-promoting their authors’ Twitter and Facebook accounts on their book covers?
Do they understand how digital readers differ from print readers and are they ensuring that their product lines support their digital audience? Are they making sure that digital and social know-how is evenly distributed across their company, and not confined to pockets of enthusiastic staff working in isolation?
Creating and maintaining a direct relationship with your readers, and treating them as the end customer, does not mean that you have to turn your back on distributors, wholesalers or retailers. Opening up another marketing channel directly with readers does not mean abandoning existing marketing channels. It may mean creating different offerings, changing some of your marketing habits, or even rethinking your production processes, but there’s no ipso facto disintermediation of bookstores. Jones has got hold of the wrong end of the stick when he interprets Ross and Howey’s words as meaning that booksellers should be taken out of the equation.
You can find the original article at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/suwcharmananderson/2013/09/21/publishers-readers-and-the-end-of-booksellers/