It’s the brand, stupid!

Why smaller, well-focused publishers have a direct channel advantage

None of the Big Six are all that interested in creating their own direct channel. They usually say “we already have retail partners…we don’t know how to sell direct and we don’t care to learn.” That’s all true but the real reason they won’t do it, and wouldn’t be successful if they did right now, is because none of them are household brand names.

Who goes into a store looking for the latest book from Penguin or Random House? Nobody. The author and sometimes the series is the brand, not the publisher. That model served traditional publishers well in the print days but it’s a formula for painful dependency in the digital world.

A recent issue of Publishing Talk magazine (a great resource, btw) features a terrific article by John Purkiss called “How to Build an Author Brand.” Purkiss is the author of a book called Brand You: Turn Your Unique Talents into a Winning Formula. Sounds like something the Big Six should have read many years ago.

Publishers who don’t have a household brand name will always be dependent upon someone else to represent them to readers. Today that’s mostly Amazon and it looks like that will be the case for the foreseeable future too.

Publishers (and authors) with a well-known brand name are much better suited to establish a direct relationship with customers, build community, etc. Plenty of developers look for “the O’Reilly book” on the latest technology. It’s hard to come up with many other examples of publisher-as-brand-name that consumers seek out.

But without tooting our own horn too much, that’s precisely why we’ve been able to build such a strong direct relationship with our customers. It’s not just about selling products. As my colleague Allen Noren always reminds me, it’s really about building community. You can’t just launch a website called and expect anyone to come. And you certainly won’t be successful unless you’ve taken all the steps required to build a brand name consumers know and care about.

This is why the smaller, more well-focused publishers have an advantage in the digital content world. Sure, the big publisher’s books will be right next to them on the virtual store shelf, but the small to mid-sized publisher who has a strong brand that means something to consumers is the one who’s much more likely to build a successful community and direct channel.

It’s no wonder Penguin and Random House want to merge. They have little hope of establishing a direct channel so they’re looking to create more leverage with all the channel partners they’re so dependent on.

TOC NY 2013 — The publishing industry will gather at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in New York City, February 12-14, to explore the forces and solutions that are transforming publishing.

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