Another week closer to the Books4Spain soft launch and the feedback from Friends & Family about the look and feel and usability of the site has been very encouraging. Nevertheless, quite a lot of back office programming still required before we can soft launch with Flamenco, Spanish Civil War and Flamenco as our Spanish Themes.
In the meantime, one of the most important debates raging across the book world today is the role, or more correctly, the positioning, of leading publishers as far as the end user, i.e. the reader, is concerned.
Reams have been written on and offline about the need for publishers to directly “engage” with readers by “leveraging” their “brand” and creating “communities” in order to mitigate the affects of the digital revolution.
Frankly, in my view, with very few exceptions, this is flawed thinking. Quite simply leading publishers are no different to major manufacturers of fast moving consumer goods or even pharmaceutical companies. Do the vast majority of consumers interact directly with Nestle, Unilever, Kraft, GlaxoSmithKline, Astra Zeneca etc.? No, they go to a retailer and where they select from a range of similar products based on a number of criteria but mainly price, performance and availability. Slightly different as far as medical products are concerned but do you ever go to your Dr or pharmacist and ask for a specific brand? You just want the product that does the job best – whoever makes it.
I don’t think publishing is any different – all I want to do is read my favourite author, read a book a trusted person has recommended or try a new book because the cover or genre or marketing of the book itself appeals to me not because Penguin, Random House or Simon & Schuster have published it – does it matter who the ultimate publisher is?
One of the common links between fmcg manufacturers/brands and publishers is the fact that over the years “own label” products have increasingly been encroaching on their “turf” (self published authors and niche publishers in the case of publishing). As a result, they have been forced to invest in raising awareness about themselves and their products BUT they are not, and never will be, the seller of last resort for the vast majority of their products – that privilege lies with retailers, small and large, who are in the best position to have a direct relationship with the public as aggregators of products.
There is no doubt that the digital revolution impacting on book publishing and retailing requires a response from publishers and book retailers alike but for leading publishers it is about raising awareness about the quality of their titles and authors not actually selling these titles directly to consumers. I’m not going to go to Procter & Gamble’s website to buy Head & Shoulders and Unilever’s website to buy Dove hand cream – I’ll pop down to Sainsbury’s or Tesco etc. to but 80-90% of my fmcg requirements. The brand may influence my decision but not as much as convenience, availability and price when I’m faced with a shelf full of the same product category from different manufacturers.
Admittedly, books are different but lets face it, best sellers are fast moving consumer goods and the major factors in buying such a book are who the author is and the price NOT who publishes (i.e. manufactures) it. Even for non best sellers it is usually the author or the subject matter that are the main factors influencing the purchasing decision not who publishes it.
As I say there are some exceptions amongst leading manufacturers for example Dorling Kindersley is a recognisable, trustworthy brand which may influence a purchasing decision. At the same time new, smaller, niche publishers who are highly focused and who are using the digital revolution to create and support their brand are also prospering but, overall, leading publishers should forget trying to sell directly to consumers but instead work on identifying and nurturing talent and working with retailers to bring their “products” to the attention of the buying public.