« Editorial

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

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?

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10 Comments

  1. Posted April 27, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    A very perceptive article. Publishers should take note.

  2. Posted April 27, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I work in Publicity and go to one or two literary events a week. So many of my coworkers are shocked or say how “good” I am but I feel that if you don’t go out and support others, you can’t complain when they don’t support you. I love bloggers and try to connect whenever possible, either through social media or in person. I make the rounds at my local indie bookshops–and buy books when something catches my eye, which is more often than my bookshelves can handle.

    In short, yes! We in the industry need to do more to be in the public where the book buyers, and booklovers, are … even if we aren’t able to publish ever aspiring writer.

  3. Posted April 27, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Great article! And I think you are drawing attention to a very real problem. Though it is true that some people – I imagine even quite a few – do like Gabrielle above and take their job seriously and go out of their way to meet book buyers and book lovers…But it would seem the problem is deeper than that: almost structural, if you like.

    I’m not quite sure what it is, but it could be a combination of things: (a) publishers taking their “gatekeeper” role too “seriously” (though it is certainly fundamental to maintaining their “brand”); (b) too much bureaucracy, or hierarchy levels, in the way they build up their marketing presence so that, for example, not the most “poeple-oriented” staff gets picked to man publishers’ stands (I know a lot of prestigious institutions in other industries suffer from this kind of “freezing”)…These are just a couple of thoughts, but there might be other reasons and I’d love to hear from others what they think…

  4. Edward Nawotka
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    The fact is that book people tend to be somewhat insular and, all too often, socially awkward.

    My wife is usually a good barometer of such things — she’s an avid reader, has worked as a book critic, and while we lived in NYC was working as a criminal attorney — the type where agents and publishers who took the time to talk to her would routinely ask if she knew of any good stories that would make for a good book. Yet, she’s now totally allergic to book events (and both her sister and brother-in-law are novelists). This is largely because her experience socializing with people in publishing typically went something like this:

    “Hi…”
    “Hi…”
    “What do you do?”
    “I’m an attorney.”
    “Oh, you don’t work in publishing…?”
    “No…”
    …Eyes drift, shoulders turn person starts scanning the room for someone else to talk to…
    “Cool, bye…I’ve, errr, got to go to the bathroom.”

    It wasn’t 100% of the time, but it was enough to make her not want to risk the uncomfortable interaction.

  5. Judy
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Edward, I can’t leave that comment untouched. SOME people in publishing are socially awkward but not all, otherwise, how would they seek out authors, agents and the like to hear ideas, pitch ideas and so on. Also, as with Gabrielle, the business is full of people who interact and do so well, dilligently, and with interest. I am a 30 year veteran of the business and love talking to people – anyone – because everyone has a story and all you need to do is ask a couple of questions to get that story, or some inkling of it.

    I wonder if some of the people your wife interacted with were intimidated by her position and assumed, rightly or wrongly, a concommitant level of financial success that a publishing drone could never dream of. I am not making excuses – there are socially awkward people everywhere – just posing a different perspective on publishing. (pun intended!)

  6. Edward Nawotka
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    @Judy, I agree…but the social awkwardness is notable. That said, I admit wasn’t exactly an in demand conversation partner at my wife’s law-related functions. The concurrent conversation went something like this…

    “Oh, you work in publishing…”
    “Yes”
    “You must read a lot.”
    “Yes”
    “Cool…I’ve, errr, got to go to the bathroom.”

    Still, what I am describing is New York, where there’s often a social hierarchy. And at the same time, I must admit that as a journalist, people can sometimes be wary of speaking too freely to me. There may have been the assumption that any conversation someone had with my wife would somehow be reported back to me, no matter how casual it might have been.

  7. Posted April 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    This is a brilliant piece because of how accurately yet casually it describes deep problems in the industry culture. The amount of time I spend trying to explain why book fairs are important because they permit the type of conversation that could have occured in relation to that intern… Oh lordie. There’s a metric popular at a lot of companies now “lifetime revenue per user.” Yup, that guy was a thousand euro pissed away…

  8. Posted April 27, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    The Suhrkamp rep probably didn’t feel appreciated by his or her company. That is usually the reason for lack of fervor.

  9. Posted April 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m not so sure, Julia. I think it’s a representative example, and I bet the would-be intern would have gotten basically the same answer at most places. Though unhappy former Suhrkamp employees have gotten a lot of press in the past years, this person’s actions were completely up to the responsible, polite, accepted industry standards. And that’s the problem.

  10. Posted April 28, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    This is a wonderful piece, and it kind of split me in half because I’ve been on both sides of this experience. As an exhibitor (for a book company and again for a magazine), I found myself so plagued by writers who only wanted to pitch that I dealt with it by making sure I had printed writer’s guidelines that I could point to. Many of the writers had no idea what we did and were in a kind of selling fog.

    On the other hand, I’ve approached publishers as an enthusiastic reader and been shocked at the cold response when I wanted to praise one of their books and thank them for it.

    And now that I’m an out-of-work editor, I’m reluctant to go to fairs at all because nobody wants to talk to somebody looking for work. (Although at the last BEA, I did hand out resumes and even got one gig.)

    Thanks for a terrific piece.

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