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Why Book Publishers Need to Think Like Amazon

17 March 2014

From Publishing Perspectives:

George Packer’s recent article in The New Yorkerabout the ever-increasing presence of Amazon is simply the latest in a long line of wake-up calls — or calls-to-arms — to the traditional book publishing industry. Amazon’s ability to sell directly to consumers, as well as use consumer insights to predict future purchases, continues to challenge the ways in which publishers think of their business models. In fact, publishers will likely have to change from a business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model in order to evolve as brands and compete effectively in the marketplace.

Publishers face many challenges when it comes to establishing themselves as viable brands with customers. Traditionally, they have little to no brand recognition with book buyers because it’s been the author’s “brand,” not the publisher’s, that’s typically been marketed to consumers. Furthermore, bookstores have acted as the main point of contact between publishers and readers, and regardless of whether they are bricks-and-mortar or online, very rarely have they focused on the personality of a publisher instead of the books themselves. Until recently, it’s been largely unnecessary, given the traditional sales model. Most readers, then, have only a passing knowledge of what makes a literary imprint like Random House’s Knopf, for example, different from another literary imprint like Simon & Schuster’s Scribner, or even from a more commercial imprint like St. Martin’s Press.

. . . .

Establishing relationships directly with book buyers is one significant opportunity that lies within these current challenges. The book clubs of yore did this to some extent, but the advent of social media — and of the Internet, in general — has opened up robust channels of communication between publisher and book buyer, as it has between author and fan. Some publishers have used social media exceptionally to engage with consumers. Penguin’s Twitter Book Club is a prime example. Penguin invites its Twitter followers to join a discussion of a Penguin title each month via the hashtag #readpenguin. Readers then talk with one another, with Penguin, and often with the author him- or herself. Because Penguin is facilitating the conversation and participating in it, consumers understand that Penguin is enhancing their reading experience by embracing social media, as an informed brand would.

. . . .

What lies at the heart of this approach is not so much something radically new as it is something long-established — the simple joy of talking about a book, or the thrill of seeing one’s work in print, especially in hardcover or paperback. To that end, in decrying print books as relics, many tech gurus miss an essential point: a print book and its attendant prestige still mean something to consumers, and likely will for a while.

Yes, the long-term future of print books — like print magazines and newspapers — doesn’t look so rosy. But electronic books, as has been widely reported, have plateaued at around 30% of sales. This may be a temporary flattening out, but it points to the fact that print books can — and currently do — live alongside ebooks (as opposed to being devoured by them).

. . . .

This is a conversation that publishers need to own. They should talk directly to consumers about the whole host of experiences they offer instead of relying solely on booksellers to do so.

. . . .

How difficult might this be? Not very, actually. Publishers can begin by leveraging their greatest asset — their authors — to shape their brand identities in consumers’ eyes. This gives customers an idea of an imprint’s character while highlighting publishers’ rich editorial heritage and professional expertise in acquiring, editing, and promoting books — something that can hardly be learned overnight. After all, discerning the good from the vast sea of bad is both a skill and a profession, not an algorithm.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Of course, authors don’t have anything better to do than help publishers shape brand identities in consumers’ eyes. For no additional compensation.

The biggest problem PG sees with this vital transformation of publishers is that big publishers are remarkably insular. Everyone in New York likes to think of themselves as a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, but most aren’t. They’re citizens of New York, which is a vastly different place than the rest of America.

Undertaking the process of really engaging with people in Bismark or Tucson or Mobile is not a task for which a committed Manhattanite is well suited, particularly if said Manhattanite is convinced he/she is vastly smarter and cooler and more connected than anyone West of the Hudson is. If anybody needs transforming, it’s those people in Kansas.

And the Internet pretty much destroys geographical meaning. Nobody knows if you’re tweeting from a Starbucks on West 79th or a Denny’s in Scottsbluff. Or cares. Not that building your career on lunch with the Barnes & Noble buyer really prepares you to do this #twitterthing in the first place.

PG thinks if Big Publishing was going to pull off any sort of transformation in time to save itself, it would have begun before now. He further observes not the slightest indication that publishers have either the ability or the intention to think like Amazon. They would rather die first. And will.

On the other hand, a remarkable and increasing number of authors are transforming themselves into indies and doing quite a nice job of engaging with consumers, building their brands and controlling the conversation about books in general and their books in particular.

In fact, these authors are discovering the joy of being their own greatest asset instead of someone else’s.

Big Publishing, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

84 Comments to “Why Book Publishers Need to Think Like Amazon”

  1. I think authors should take it one step further and sell directly on their own website. I’d say after reviewing hundreds of author websites, they aren’t concerned with where they send their customers to purchase their books. Most refer you to other third party sites like Amazon or B & N to check out losing customer data in the process. Secondly if they do sell direct, paypal is the most common option which refers me to paypal to purchase. The checkout process has to be smooth and not lose customers by using a shopping cart which creates a tremendous amount of abandonment. The good news is that my company paystr.com has perfected the checkout process by allowing authors to focus writing not selling. By handling the hosting, delivery, credit card processing and customer service authors can sell direct and make more money selling direct than referring to Amazon or other third party retailers. I’d encourage you to check out how smooth the checkout process is on http://www.joshuasring.com. Your website, your fans, your data, sell direct.

    • Noooooooo, please no. I follow 111 authors and mostly buy as soon as one of them comes out with a new book–unless the price is too high, then I will wait for a price drop or check it out from the library. I absolutely don’t want a pay pal account and I do not want to be giving out my credit card to 111 people on the Internet.

      If a big company like Target with all sorts of IT people can get hacked–I’m not willing to put my faith in the security of each individual authors website.

      I’m just someone who likes to read and buys a lot of books. As far I can see, Amazon is not really the problem. They sell a lot of books. Their customers love and trust them, Amazon doesn’t seem to have a problem with paying higher royalty rates. The problem is that BPH treat their authors poorly through low royalty rates and questionable accounting practices. Because the author is the brand, I think that they’ll manage to survive the collapse of the BPH–if that actually happens.

      • Technically, you’d be giving your info to one site, PayPal, and it would handle all of the transactions.

        • IMO, Stripe.com is much easier to set up, and doesn’t have PayPal’s track record of freezing accounts for sometimes mystifying reasons (at least not yet).

          You have to balance that against people who are familiar with PayPal but not Stripe, of course.

          (no connection with either company other than as a user)

    • I don’t think this is an unreasonable idea but these days I’d have to want something pretty badly to consider giving my personal information to another party.

      When agency pricing went into effect I basically stuck to three retailers and when one of the three was hacked, I said no more. I can get their books at Amazon so that’s what I do.

      PS: Were you invited to advertise your product and/or services here? If not, I think your post is pretty tacky. If you were, I apologize for not giving you the benefit of the doubt.

      • I am glad that Mr Golob posted what he did. Some may find it tacky. I found it useful.

        For now, my work is offered at Amazon only. I read the Apple license and choose not to sell via Apple. I find the Smashwords Meatgrinder too tedious and picky for words. I see no future for B&N. After the erotica take-down goatrope at Kobo, I struck them off my list.

        Some time ago I decided that I would only sell through Amazon and my own site. I have yet to set up my own site. I am considering my options, and I am grateful to find others like Mr Golob who share their experience setting up to sell direct. I am especially grateful for the links.

        I appreciate the security considerations that Anne raised. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I will look into it more.

  2. In fact, these authors are discovering the joy of being their own greatest asset instead of someone else’s.

    Considering that the BPHs and a great deal of agents believe writers are something to be culled, I don’t see them ever viewing writers as assets.

  3. If there’s one thing authors need more of, it’s being leveraged by their publishers.

  4. OK, I have to ask. Where did you pull the Scottsbluff reference from? You kinda made me do a spit-take.

  5. Not that long ago, only indie authors thought that a publishers’ greatest asset is their authors. There’s an irony in there somewhere.

    Someone help me out here: What is the upshot of this sentence in the article?

    Use authors to burnish a publisher’s brand:

    This gives customers an idea of an imprint’s character while highlighting publishers’ rich editorial heritage and professional expertise in acquiring, editing, and promoting books.

    Should authors start doing ads and giving speeches for Big Pub?

    • And for free. Wait… No, the authors pay Big Pub for the honor and privilege of being shills for BP.

  6. “Oh, I’ll definitely buy that new book by what’s-his-name because its published by my favorite house.”


    “Hey, new King/Robb/GRRM/Grisham book is out. What’s a publisher?”

    Which is more likely, no matter who says what about a BPH? Geez…

    • “Wow, what a great Random House! I need to look for more of these.” and “Have you read the latest HarperCollins?” said nobody, ever.

      • “Psshaw! Random Penguin and HaperCollins fans?”

        Turning away sharply, my nose angling upward.

        “I only associate with loyal MacMillianites.”

    • Once upon a time that was the case. I found some of my favorite authors from Fawcett Crest and DelRay. I’m still likely to look at Berkeley Crime.

      • Sharon, while I have also done the same with other imprints (a long time ago, in a bookstore far, far away), we are outliers 🙂

  7. “Most readers, then, have only a passing knowledge of what makes a literary imprint like Random House’s Knopf, for example, different from another literary imprint like Simon & Schuster’s Scribner”

    Most readers don’t recognize “literary imprints” at all. Yeah, maybe they’ve heard of Random House, but about 9.95 out of 10 readers coudn’t tell you the name of the publisher of their favorite author, much less distinguish between imprints. The exception there would be genre publishers such as Baen and Harlequin.

    “But electronic books, as has been widely reported, have plateaued at around 30% of sales.”

    No. Second derivative and first derivative are two different things.

    Other than that, great point.

    PG: ” Everyone in New York likes to think of themselves as a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, but most aren’t. They’re citizens of New York, which is a vastly different place than the rest of America.”

    Yep… they’re not even representative of New York much less the rest of the country. An Ivy grad editor at HarperCollins isn’t going to have many points of commonality with a cab driver from the Bronx.

  8. Well, almost no one in New York City is actually from New York City. Most are from the Midwest.

    I’ll just say, as someone who has worked with a lot of content managers who actually post for brands on social media, that most of them do a very good job. It is easier that they’re in New York, since almost all brands have offices here, but it’s not necessary.

    My little lecture aside, it’s true that publishing is very insular and it’s not going to change anytime soon. They just don’t get it, and I say that first-hand, because I know some people in the industry. They also won’t let the people who actually know about these kind of things in their clubhouse. Their loss.

    • Well, almost no one in New York City is actually from New York City. Most are from the Midwest.

      According to the most recent statistics I’ve seen (2000 census), just under half the residents of New York City were born in New York state; about 35 percent were born outside the U.S. That leaves 15 percent born in all the other 49 states combined. It’s hard to justify saying ‘most’ when referring to some fraction of those 15 percent.

      Stipulated, those figures are over a decade old. But I should be very surprised to find that there had been an influx of several million people to N.Y.C. from the Midwest since 2000.

  9. I totally agree with this. Corporate publishers need to give authors direct access to a great distribution mechanism, cut out the middlemen, and give authors 70% royalties.

    That would be fantastic.

  10. I think that if the big publishers wanted to do more branding, they could do it in a way that was good for their authors too. It’s called advertising. Take out big, beautiful, full page ads in popular publications, with a spread of photos highlighting their books and authors, with some kind of tagline or bit of information linking those authors together in some way. Or even TV ads, with their authors making appearances. Of course, that would mean doing things differently, so…

  11. “…or the thrill of seeing one’s work in print, especially in hardcover or paperback.”

    Still of utmost importance to those in Legacy World.

    Of decreasing importance to writer’s and readers.

    • Besides which, ‘the thrill of seeing one’s book in print’ costs about $10 from Createspace.

      (And, I must admit, I do still like seeing a new paperback when they turn up in the main)

      • The fact is that I never felt the slightest thrill at holding my own books (when published by SMP, Penguin, and Severn House), but I absolutely loved the ones from Createspace that I formatted and designed covers for. They were truly my own work and nobody else’s.

        • I.J.

          If you were “gifted” with an awful cover, or had extensive rewrites “suggested” (do them or else) that turned your story inside out or upside down then I imagine getting your own first copies would have been the opposite of exciting.

          But that’s just a wild guess on my part.

    • But as indie publishers, we couldn’t possibly get our books out as paperback (Createspace) or hardcover (Lightning Source).

      Oh wait…

    • But – with my last two releases, I used CreateSpace for POD, and have paperback copies on my bookshelf. So I get the best of both worlds – ebooks released almost instantly [waiting for the cover designer’s schedule for Mark Two so it will be released two months after completion], and I have a ‘real’ book to hold and to giveaway occasionally.

  12. Needing to do something and bring able to do it are two different things. Not only do most publishers lack the capability to do these things, the time to do it was 2010-11.

    Brand building is about building familiarity and goodwill among consumers and, as pointed out, few consumers are particularly aware of the publishers as distinct entities and most of those are also aware of the conspiracy to raise consumer prices. No much goodwill to be found there for a few more years…

  13. They have partly resisted direct selling due to complaints by their retail outlets. Mike Shatzkin had some comments a year or two back I think. I read a few posts here from him about how publishers should do direct sales and start making direct relationships with consumers.

    Just the other day British bookstores pushed back on the same topic:

    They should have been doing it years ago to undercut Barnes and Noble essentially dictating which books get big print runs, etc. Well before Amazon became a force. Maybe they would still have many of their midlist authors if they had.

  14. I love it when you talk, PG. Gives me the shivers.

  15. Many of the people who work in NYC-based publishing houses were born and raised elsewhere. The elitist attitude is fostered by the industry itself, and they use their Manhattan address as a tool to act superior. (Fashion industry folks in NYC do the same thing.) I’m a NYC native and I worked for Brentano’s bookstore a lifetime ago. I had frequent interaction with people in Manhattan publishing houses. Many of them were from all over the country and the globe. Their self-importance was infuriating, especially to us NY natives, lol.

    I don’t see publishing houses ever having much success selling direct to consumers. Who needs another bunch of websites selling books? How does the average busy reader make time to sort out which house is pubbing their favorite author?

  16. All in all a good article that offers some reasonable, attainable goals for BigPub. A drastic and fundamental change in underlying corporate culture and a reversion of groupthink from being insular to valuing writer’s and readers.

    Sure. Have a working lunch meeting tomorrow to discuss. Done.

    Maybe pass this article along to JC Penny, Sears/Kmart and Best Buy execs…start thinking like a disruptive e-commerce, tech based company.

    Bam! Done! Bankruptcy averted.

  17. I know this should get old, but I still find this hilarious every time I read it:

    an idea of an imprint’s character while highlighting publishers’ rich editorial heritage and professional expertise in acquiring, editing, and promoting books — something that can hardly be learned overnight. After all, discerning the good from the vast sea of bad is both a skill and a profession, not an algorithm.

    Some day, someone in the publishing industry is going to realize that the total number of people in the world who care about “rich editorial heritage” is less than the total number of employees of publishing companies. Some day, they might realize that the sum total value of the legacy publishing industry’s “professional expertise in acquiring, editing, and promoting books” is less than nothing. Some day they might realize that “discerning the good from the vast sea of bad” is something that no one wants. Every reader would welcome help discerning which book that they would like best and the only scalable way to do that is with an algorithm.

    • I think the authors of the article copied that from the Powerpoint they use for pitches to publishers.

    • But William, it makes the authors sound so smart…

    • “…and professional expertise in acquiring, editing, and promoting books — something that can hardly be learned overnight…a skill and a profession, not an algorithm”

      God, this is funny. SO many writer’s have had their days under these “rare” pub skills and seem to be doing so much better with algorithms these days. I know which one I’d prefer.

  18. I’m just a reader and book buyer. I now buy exclusively ebooks, and the publisher matters not at all, but thirty-forty years ago the publisher would indeed make a difference to me. I could count on Scribners and Knopf and occasionally Random House for excellence in non-fiction, for example. In the past couple of decades, however, the shift in emphasis to best-sellers and sales volume not to mention the proliferation of imprints within a publisher, many of which have little no track record, means that the publishers and imprints are meaningless.

    As far as where I buy, it’s only Amazon. They have the best eco-system (I’ve tried them all) and knowing I can go to just one place to find anything is immensely helpful. Why would I ever go directly to a publisher or author’s website?

    • Why would I ever go directly to a publisher or author’s website?

      You don’t know what you’re missing. They have this really cool and “rich editorial heritage.”

  19. Phyllis Humphrey

    Like so many commenters today, I rarely know the name of the publisher of the books I buy. The Big-5 have so many imprints these days, who can keep up? And behind them all, are the conglomerates, mostly foreign, who own them. German, French, British, Canadian and Australian. Le sigh.

  20. Sounds like a good idea. The folks in Kansas can’t wait to follow the makers of culture.

  21. The only imprint I am aware of is Penguin Classics. All others are one to me.

    Baen sells direct to readers, but I see no evidence that they collect, collate, and use buyer information like Amazon. Furthermore, when I compared Baen’s prices with Amazon’s for the same title (from Baen) I found Amazon’s cheaper than Baen’s.

    I find it curious that the same BPH that want to save me from a deluge of crap inflict upon me ‘The DaVinci Code’. TDVC had a great idea and executed it badly. Where were NY’s vaunted editors on that one?

    • Baen raised prices a year or so ago in order to get their ebooks onto the Kindle store. The word is, authors get a bigger slice of the sale price at the Baen store.
      Baen and their authors have a fair amount of Goodwill stored up from their engagement with readers and ebook policies so at least some buyers prefer to pay a higher price at their store for their *multiformat* ebook licenses. (They still support legacy ebook formats like Lit and Lrf, rather than just mobi or epub.)
      They are one of the few publishers with a recognizable positive brand equity in their genre. But to get there they started 15 years ago; the likelihood of other publishers achieving similar results starting today is nil.

  22. This would have been annoying and misguided two years ago. Now it’s just outdated. So go the Big X.

  23. Fine points. Let’s not hate on all NYCers, though, there are **** everywhere…

  24. Well said PG.

  25. I have a love/hate relationship with Amazon. While I think that they are convenient and are a boon to independent publishers and authors, their ever growing size and potential monopoly of the market concerns me.

    There needs to be a competitor, like Apple or BN.com. If the big publishers could come together and make a book mecca of some sort then we might all be better off.

    • Once again I say Amazon DOES have a major competitor.
      Amazon’s major competitor is Amazon.

      Bezos and company are constantly improving Amazon, never waiting for the pressure from an outside force.


    • Uh, isn’t that like looking at a cute toddler and saying: “Sweet little girl but I worry that she might grow up to be a sociopath.” 😉

      Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? Or at least sleazy?

      Amazon has nothing resembling a monopoly nor, even if they did, is there any evidence that their market share is,in economist parlance, incontestable. Worrying about potential future crimes is a waste of perfectly fine angst.

      Yes, it would be nice if Amazon faced a better breed of competitor in the US than the current crop of foot-shooters and lawbreaking price fixers, but that is hardly their fault.
      More, Amazon is a global player and in most other markets they do face strong competition that would grow a lot stronger if they could point at actual Amazon anti-consumer misbehavior instead of the usual made-up possible scenarios.

      The time to worry about Amazon crimes and misdemeanors is *after* they start misbehaving. Large market share is not illegal; but misusing that market power as the price fix conspirators did is.

      There’s other, more worthy, causes to angst about. 🙂

      • …Amazon is a global player and in most other markets they do face strong competition…


        I, too, would like to see some effective competitors to Amazon in the US. I note that the corporation does have some history of strong arming its suppliers.

        However, I agree that Bezos keeps Amazon on its toes, and Amazon does face strong competition globally. Plus, its focus is global.

      • “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

        Or if you prefer, when Miss Marple was asked why she expected the worst of people, she replied that it was because she was so often proved right.

        • As much as I love Amazon, and as much as I do indeed trust that Bezos is committed to constant improvement, I also feel that more competition never hurts.

        • “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

          The problem is that absolute power is an illusion, although it still corrupts. Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam, Gaddafi, et al, discovered this too late.

          And Big Pub, nowadays, is anything but a wielder of “absolute power.”

        • Or Frank Herbert: “Power attracts the corruptible.”

          Amazon had no power when Bezos started it. I don’t see him being corrupted. The question is what happens to Amazon down the road when he’s gone.

          Big Pub on the other hand has been in power so long that everyone currently working in it came into the business while Big Pub was still the top game in town. I don’t trust any of those people as far as I could throw their fancy New York office buildings.

  26. Why do people feel so desperately that we need to save publishers, anyway? Books aren’t going anywhere, no matter what happens to publishers. Story is an essential characteristic of humanity. It was with us long before publishers were, and it’ll be with us long after they die.

    I wish all the magazines and blogs and newspapers would stop squawking about how we can save publishing or how publishing can save itself.

    Traditional publishing is outmoded. It is deadwood. It is in the way. Cut it off. Good-bye. The end.

    • That is a good point Libby. There isn’t really any such thing as a publishing industry in a real sense. There are people who have banded together, do similar things and once upon a time had a mechanism that produced a profit. They were called buggy whip makers…I mean publishers. But the tech disruption is making the term rather meaningless, which is why all the brouhaha around terms like self publishing, indie publishing and so on. We feel a strange compulsion to call the collective process something. Yet, as we are learning, what it is changes rapidly and traditional suppliers of almost anything tend not to be adaptable and dynamic. They understand their existing business model. That is how IBM blew their opportunity to capitalize on the advent of personal computing.

    • Magazines and newspapers are part of the pulp ecosystem, just as publishing houses. In fact, there is symbiotic relationsship: ad revenue from the publishing houses, articles on books and authors from the media.

      When publishing houses disappear, a whole sub set of the ecosystem starves. Campaigns to save legacy publishing makes perfect sense from that point of view.

      • Such campaigns are doomed to failure. Time–and progress–march on. Attempts to halt that and maintain the status quo or status quo ante are rooted in a fantasy worldview and will go nowhere.

  27. Why Book Publishers Need To Think Like Amazon

    = Why Brontosaurs Needs To Think Like T-Rex

    Good luck with that.

  28. In regards to my first post. I am supporting the authors in this. If you look at what Harper Collins did with CSLewis.com and Narnia.com. Why would I need a publisher to sell my product direct to fan when the author could do this. The key is to seamlessly have a transactional media company manage the process. Harper Collins did a deal with Accenture which used Digital River I’d encourage you to try and buy a book from them, four clicks before you have to enter your information. How is that seamless?
    As far as processing the payment and hacking issues, if someone wants to hack you they will, it’s that simple. Secure government sites get hacked all the time. If you are worried about that, don’t buy anything retail or online. Pay cash. The Nigerians will love you. BTW Target got hacked in case you didn’t hear.
    I’m not here to debate about online security. I promoted my company to show authors that there are other options out there to increase revenue and exposure.
    I welcome the discussion and love to chat more about it. Reach me at Adam@paystr.com.

    • It’s a pretty slick setup. I like the integration with the digital download. Most shopping cart apps hamstring this functionality.

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