Why Publishers’ Lack of Engagement With the Public Hurts Their Bottom Line

In Editorial by Amanda DeMarco

Publishers are too used to saying “no, no, no” and barring the gates of the industry from the public. That has got to change if publishers ever hope to develop another life-long customer.

By Amanda DeMarco

BERLIN: Some book fairs are exclusive to publishers and professionals, while others are open to the public. In Germany, the Leipzig Book Fair is known for being especially reader-friendly; it’s a wonderful environment for authors to connect with the public. But walking around the 2011 fair last month, I couldn’t help thinking that for publishers it was a massive missed opportunity to educate their audience, both at the seminars and in the stands. And that that missed opportunity represents a failure endemic in the industry, in Germany as well as in the United States.

crowds at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2010

Right now, we do a lot to inform ourselves about changes in the field, and we try really hard to market books to the public. What we do not do is make non-marketing efforts to inform the public about how publishing works and how it is changing. The inadequacy of basically all publisher websites is the most global manifestation of the problem, but the eager (captive) audience of 163,000 visitors who left the Leipzig Book Fair without learning about the serious debates shaking the industry are perhaps a more glaring one.

You Have a Responsibility to Educate the Public

As an American, I probably hear the wolf at the door more keenly than most of the professionals who worked in one capacity or another at Leipzig. Digitization, collapsing readership and review culture, migration of sales online, self-publishing — in Germany these issues are all less urgent, but that makes education efforts all the more likely to be effective. That is not to say it’s too late in the US. It’s a simple question, valid later as well as earlier; do you want readers, for example, to get all of their information on e-books from Amazon and Apple?

Börsenblatt recently published an e-book study indicating that German consumers really aren’t any more interested in e-books now than they were last year, and in fact they may be becoming less interested. Publishers, however, see e-books as an important part of the future of the industry; obviously there is a disconnect here. Why aren’t there more seminars in Leipzig aimed at the public to inform them about e-books? Why they’re exciting for the industry, why they cost what they do, what possible future models look like, what they can’t do, problem issues.

It’s not only “hot button” topics like digital publishing that could benefit from seeing the light of day at the fair. As publishing moves online and becomes more accessible, publishers need to reaffirm the value of the traditional service they provide. Let a high-profile editor or agent give a sneak-peak into a hectic day, follow one book’s complete publishing life-cycle, have an author talk about working with a publisher — do anything to make the publishing process visible, vivid, and worthwhile-seeming.

And talk about money. In my opinion, you could give seminars morning, noon, and night on why a book costs what it does. Börsenblatt recently reported that the price of books in Germany hasn’t increased for 13 years. The industry deserves great respect for that, and they would get it if anyone knew. Tell people where the money comes from and where it goes, that pretty much no one gets rich, that translators earn next to nothing, that the price of printing a book is actually a small portion of its total cost. Tell people now, and they will not balk at the price of a new book in a store next week.

Individual interactions in the stands could be just as important to Leipzig’s publishing education mission as seminars. Unfortunately, publishers seem reluctant to take on that role, or unsure of how.

Then, Act Like You Give a Damn

Publishers are used to saying “no”: no, you can’t work here; no, we can’t publish your manuscript. It’s absolutely necessary for sanity and quality; I’m not trying to write a “Break down the gates!” essay, but if you want the public to accept your gates, you have to give them a glimpse inside to see what it is you’re protecting.

In stand after stand I witnessed publishing professionals standing, arms crossed, talking to their colleagues, or sitting filling out paperwork while readers browsed. I stopped at many stands to ask questions and I received many, many one-word answers, even in stands that were not particularly crowded, even when I made an effort to demonstrate interest, even when it would have been quite natural for the representative to say, “In fact, it’s very interesting…” or something. And how much less would I (or could I) have gotten if I hadn’t had a press pass?

A young acquaintance of mine stopped by the Suhrkamp stand to express his interest in an internship. The response: he could find everything on the internet. Now, I know Suhrkamp gets lots of internship-queries, and statistically it may be unlikely that this young man will end up there, but it is highly likely that he is and may continue to be a dedicated Suhrkamp reader.

If you had a flesh-and-blood person with a sixty-year purchasing life-span ahead of him standing in front of you expressing enthusiastic interest in your brand would you tell him, “It’s all on the internet”? I guarantee that if the Suhrkamp guy had taken two minutes to tell my acquaintance something interesting and personal, he would remember that, and he might even tell his friends about it.

I know publishers are already overburdened, but at a book fair where you have to plan seminars and staff stands anyway, it’s a no-brainer to make the most of the situation. And Leipzig is really only a very pointed example of an effort that needs to be made every day on publishers’ websites, in stores, and at events. The days may not be gone when publishers can let their books speak for them, but they will be soon, even for Suhrkamp. And the sooner the public learns where their books come from and how, the smoother that transition will be.

A regular contributor to Publishing Perspectives, Amanda DeMarco also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.

DISCUSS: Should Publishing Do More to Interact with Readers Face-to-face?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.