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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 publishername.com 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.

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Comments: 10

  1. Harlequinn is also a publisher as a brand that readers seek out. Everyone always misses them and they probably sell more books than a lot of folks. I was floored when I went to a conference and learned that the average romance reader reads 2.5 books a week!

  2. I tend to think the more fundamental reason major publishers don’t yet sell direct isn’t because they don’t have a brand, it’s because they don’t know if there’s enough upside in it to make it worth going to war with Amazon. 
    I’d also offer that lack of a brand isn’t so much an issue, one can build a brand. As a former niche publisher who sold a ton direct to consumer, I was always surprised how strong out sales were with leads that didn’t know our brand until they opened the email, visited the website, or flipped through the direct mail piece. The problem isn’t that major publishers don’t have a brand, it’s that in order to build a brand(s) they’d totally need to  re-orient their identities as companies. A tall order when Amazon is in the wings ready to kneecap any turncoats.

    • Publishers have HUGE brands, but they are B2B brands not B2C brands.  When a book is coming from one of the Big 6 it gets more attention from bookstore buyers.  

      • But we’re seeing less and less influence coming from those bookstore buyers, partially because that channel continues to shrink. That’s another reason publishers need to figure out their direct sales strategy.

  3. Few publishers tend to go that way.

    Taschen has shops in some capitals, here in Paris the place is quite crowded. But yeah, more often, publisher’s got a flagship close to their HQ and that’s all.

    Some publishers really have the capacity to be major brands. Penguin is selling lots of goodies and even if people are buying for the author or the book, fact is that you’re sipping your coffee in Penguin’s orange fashioned book cover mug. 

    But all cultural industries are in the same mood. Do you buy DVDs by the studio or CDs for the record company?

    It definitely works for niche publishers, on niche markets. But chances are that your niche is quite narrow to open shops around the country.

  4. There is
    tremendous opportunity now for small, nimble publishers to flourish by creating
    value messages and relationships that resonate with customers. There are a lot
    of opportunities to innovate with instructional technologies and the digital
    toolbox that is now available.

    The big
    publishers are saddled with debt, shareholder expectations, and old skill sets
    and systems. I think that in education publishing especially, the door is wide
    open for a new set of wily competitors.

    For my part,
    I’m building my relationships and my brand in college and university HHP
    programs. Starting there, I figure the big 3 education publishers won’t notice
    until it is too late.

  5. Thanks, Joe, for an interesting piece. As an executive at a Big Six house (though writing this in a completely personal capacity) much of what you say about larger publishers and branding rang true. However, the piece that’s missing for me in your analysis is looking at the composition of those large houses. On the whole, they are not monolithic entities but came together through mergers and acquisitions and still retain at least some of the individual character and brand of their constituent imprints. I agree that readers may not look for a Random House, or Macmillan, or Hachette title, but I’d argue that Knopf, Tor, – or from my own business Gollancz or Virago – would be more meaningful, to the point where there is a closer relationship with the reader and some individual editors may enjoy a reputational advantage in their community (I’m thinking of people like Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor, or Lennie Goodings at Virago). Of course, not every imprint within the larger houses I’ve cited would have that level of recognition/brand, though all would benefit from shared infrastructure and economies of scale within a larger business. It is a very different model to O’Reilly, and one could certainly debate the respective levels of community and brand engagement, and weigh the advantages of scale versus focus. But I hope you might accept that the position is perhaps a little more nuanced than your piece suggests?   

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, George. You raise an excellent point about smaller brands within the larger houses. Those brands are definitely worthwhile assets to rally around and support with a direct channel effort. As I’ve said before though, it’s not just about opening an ebookstore. You must first establish a community base and give those customers a reason to come to you. Amazon is already an enormous consumer magnet so it’s critical to think about what you’ll do differently on your direct site to bring those customers in. For us, one of the key differentiating factors is the other types of free content our customers know they’ll find on our website. Perhaps just as importantly though, they also know they’re buying access to all formats when they go direct, not just the mobi Amazon wants you to have or the EPUB B&N wants you to have. There are other direct buying benefits on oreilly.com as well but the community aspect is #1.

      • The pre-requisite to community is to have a publisher (or imprint) have focus in its acquisitions. http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/BookPublishing

    • You know Bowker has actual consumer data about why consumers buy books, they’ve even deep dived into publisher.  When I saw the data only one name had a statistically greater than average number of people buying due to the publisher, harlequin.   

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