About six weeks into business school, when we were given the Asahi beer case to analyze, it occurred to me that the book publishing business is essentially a manufacturing business. It’s an odd thing to say, for as Richard Nash notes in his new column, book publishers like to think of themselves as being in the culture business. And they are to some extent. On the fringes. Book publishers produce widgets that are buoyed by and bouy conversations happening in the culture. That is what makes the field interesting, but it’s not what we do on a daily basis. On a daily basis we do demand projections, review sales reports, order paper, typeset paragraphs, edit copy, write marketing plans, present to account managers, meet with account buyers, take authors to lunch, and email reporters. In these last two roles, there’s something of the cultural ambassador. But let’s be honest, this business is all about sales units.
Nash’s observations that books are by and large commoditized items and that Amazon is simply playing by the rules of the game INVENTED BY PUBLISHERS are also things that I have thought about in the past. People have told me that John Grisham and James Patterson are good writers. That certainly may be the case, and I hope it is. But at the end of the day, there’s something a “bestseller” does that bestsellers do. They entertain, thrill, scare, excite, provide an escape, make your heart beat a little faster, indulge a fantasy. A bestseller is a bestseller because it does that. It’s a highly packaged and highly commoditized product.
As for Amazon, it is easy to forget the years and years that its investors went without profits or dividends while the company built its sales know-how and its warehouses. One of the first big accounts I was given as a junior sales rep was a company called Marlboro books. It was a mail order bookseller that sold books from a pretty ugly-looking mail order catalog. The book descriptions were about an inch high, with dozens of titles crammed onto each page. Even so, Marlboro could move a TON of units.
At the time, the company was owned by Barnes & Noble and once it was clear that Amazon was not going away, the company was rolled into the fledgling barnesandnoble.com. Amazon, in the first instance, disrupted the MAIL ORDER bookselling channel.
Nash recommends that book publishers pivot towards services as a way out of the commoditization trap. He cites the Faber Academy in the UK which leads creative writing courses for aspiring authors. He also encourages publishers to “occupy the space held by, say, yoga instructors, dentists, psychotherapists, interior designers.” I’m not exactly sure what he means by this, but I think he might be recommending that we go into business with our authors, supporting not just their writing and publishing, but also helping them grow the businesses which gave them the authority to write a book in the first place.
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I have been saying for a while that authors (especially non-fiction authors) ought to think of their book as their “calling card,” as one tool in their business development toolshed. (I did not invent this notion, by the way.) I very much like Nash’s idea (if that is what he is saying) of taking that one step further–becoming business consultants, even an angel investors, to our authors. Publishers at the moment are looking for authors with “platforms,” with businesses already at scale. The next obvious step is for publishers to get into the business of helping experts achieve the scale necessary to break out and sell a lot of books.
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