« Editorial

Why Book Publishers Need to Think Like Amazon

Publishers have been poor at branding. But where there’s a quandary, there’s often an opportunity — and direct-to-consumer may be the best strategy.

Editorial by William Kingsland and Rakesh Satyal of Siegel+Gale

William Kingsland

William Kingsland

George Packer’s recent article in The New Yorker about 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.

Rakesh Satyal

Rakesh Satyal

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.

When it comes to content development, the expanding capabilities of a retailer like Amazon present book publishers with an obstacle not unlike the one that television networks face from an online enterprise like Netflix. Just as Netflix makes its own series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black easily accessible and affordable to its users outside of the traditional TV model, Amazon can engage directly with readers via its Kindle Singles program, which offers Kindle owners original content from well-known writers for low prices. Add to this challenge the fact that publishers typically have conservative and cautious ways of thinking and behaving — in terms of both content creation and sales strategy — and you have a full-tilt quandary for the publishing industry.

But where there’s a quandary, there’s often an opportunity. 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.

Publishers are also going directly to would-be writers. For example, Macmillan’s Minotaur imprint, in conjunction with Mystery Writers of America, hosts the annual First Crime Novel Competition. Random House’s Delacorte imprint has held contests for the publication of a debut young adult novel, and Penguin’s Grosset & Dunlap imprint is capitalizing on the explosive popularity of genre fiction by holding a contest for a novelized sequel to Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1982 film “The Dark Crystal.” (The winner will receive a $10,000 contract to write what will be the first book in a new young adult series based on the film.)

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). And print books can live symbiotically with apps and other electronic media related to them. In other words, publishers should continue to embrace electronic versions of their authors’ works — whether enhanced for a tablet, pared-down for a smartphone, or spun off into an app — that can exist harmoniously with hardcover, paperback, and verbatim ebook editions.

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. This is especially true as technologies advance and it becomes more viable (and affordable) for publishers to create, or to partner with multimedia developers to create, new and enhanced versions of authors’ works. But it’s also true for classic reading experiences, like digging into a new hardcover on a quiet weekend afternoon, now that publishers are faced with distributors like Amazon that produce their own content in both print and electronic form. Should publishers begin to offer books directly to consumers, thereby going around Amazon and others, (as has been suggested by some, including the influential literary agent Andrew Wylie), then articulating a brand to consumers becomes not only important but essential.

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.

Despite its current and very real challenges, book publishing remains a multibillion-dollar industry. But what distinguishes publishing houses from other content providers — that is, what sets them apart as brands — is the genuine love of literature that lives at the heart of the enterprise. It’s a love shared with book readers of all stripes, whether commercial or literary, adult or children’s, and whether they read on a tablet, a phone, or in print. This is where publishers’ conversation with book buyers needs to start – and where the best content, regardless of format, will both flourish and endure.

William (Billy) Kingsland is a senior content strategist of brand development, based out of Siegel+Gale’s New York office. Before venturing into the world of branding, Billy spent more than a decade in the book publishing industry in New York, working primarily on the literary agency side of the business. He helped writers—including a number of award-winners and bestsellers—conceive and write their book. 

Rakesh Satyal is a naming strategist based out of Siegel+Gale’s New York office. Prior to beginning a career in branding, he spent ten years as a book editor, first at Random House and then at HarperCollins. He has taught as an adjunct professor in the publishing program at New York University and been on the advisory committee for the annual PEN World Voices Festival. He is also a novelist, and his Lambda Award-winning debut novel, Blue Boy, is now taught at high schools and colleges worldwide.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Amazon on my mind, too… http://sandlander.blogspot.de/2014/03/reading-matters.html.

    Best regards from Munich

  2. Sandy Thatcher
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Of course, as is common with articles in Publishing Perspectives that talk generically about “pub;ishing,” this applies really only to trade publishing, not all sectors. It is manifestly NOT true that “publishers have been poor at branding” when you are talking about university presses! Just ask any scholar about his or her awareness of the relative prestige of university press brands when they are considering where to submit their manuscripts. Or ask any promotion and tenure committee how they take publisher rankings into account in making their decisions about promoting faculty members or giving them tenure. I wish people would remember that trade publishing is not the only type of publishing that exists!

    • Stephen
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      I think Sandy’s comment misses an important point, though – is your branding aimed at authors and tenure committees, or your customers?

      Authors of trade books probably know a fair bit about trade publishing brands as well (who wouldn’t want to be published by Penguin as opposed to a company no one has heard of?), but readers know substantially less and probably couldn’t tell you who publishes their favourite books or favourite authors. I work in publishing and couldn’t tell you who publishes the novel I’m currently reading. I’d wager much the same applies with regards to university presses as well. Appealing to authors is important as you need to attract their work, but meaning something to customers is another kettle of fish entirely.

  3. Posted March 17, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Finally, someone who begins to make sense in this mishmosh of book marketing. I have been selling direct from my own site for years, yet to hear anyone else tell it, Amazon is the only game in town. Sorry, but it is not. When serious readers begin looking for books published economically with free shipping without paying a membership fee is when I will see any kind of sales. Meanwhile, Amazon is doing exactly what I predicted it would – raise fees and shipping, get sued for lying about who gets the perks, discount heavily to undercut the competition on the backs of suppliers, and disrupt the book marketplace in other ways. Giving advantage to Amazon is the killer of the neighborhood bookstore. Forgive me if I do not weep over the results of its own idiocy and more and more people realize that it is simply a paper tiger.

  4. Posted March 17, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I agree not only with Billy and Rakesh, but also with both people commenting. After a career in traditional print books with editors like Nan Talese and Joni Evans, (with a lengthy detour among magazines and special interest websites), I decided to bring out my most recent work, a children’s picture book called “Waddley Sees The World,” as an e-book. I partnered with a publisher/packager as frustrated as I was with what’s happening in (and to) the publishing business and we’re working with a phenomenal social media publicist, doing it our way. One phrase, harmlessly used in the editorial, “Publishers can begin by leveraging their greatest asset — their authors —,” is often the only way publishers look at writers, a commodity to be leveraged. Funny thing, though, that view isn’t new–it’s been around ever since I can remember. Hopefully by taking control of new media, we can take control of our selves.

  5. Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    What it comes down to is that many of the ‘values’ publishers bring to the table are diminished in the digital age. If they’re going to ‘brand’ authors, that’s something most authors are doing themselves out of necessity. More and more publishers were pushing so much promotion on all but their bestsellers, it got to the point authors realized they didn’t need publishers.

    Authors create content. Readers consume content. It’s such a simple dynamic where too many others in between those have overvalued their role for way too long. Value authors and readers and perhaps you stand a chance as a publisher. Or anyone else in between.

  6. Eric Welch
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m just a reader and book buyer ($2500 worth last year including Audible.com audiobooks). 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 subsidiary 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) with stored highlights for my reviews, managing devices, and a vigorous review system, not to mention knowing I can go to just one place to find anything is immensely helpful. Why would I ever go directly to dozens of publisher or author’s websites?

    • Posted March 18, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Because you don’t care about where your book comes from, you only care that it is there. One day Amazon will go away or be broken up by law enforcement, and when you look for a replacement, there won’t be one because they will have all gone out of business thanks to your marketplace god. No, you can’t go to one place for everything, because Amazon does not sell everything. You are so complacent in a world where if the electricity goes down, so will Amazon. Think about it.

      • Eric Welch
        Posted March 18, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        And publishers won’t? When all other reasonable arguments fail, haul out the apocalypse.

  7. Posted March 19, 2014 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Really good points are mentioned in the post about digital publishing. In this digital era, publishing industry should update itself by going digital. It is observed that most of the mobile device holders prefer to read online content which includes ebooks, eMagazines, eNewspaper etc. So publishers should not ignore this changing reading habits if they want to survive in the future.

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