Is Customization the Answer for Boosting D2C Publisher Sales?

In Digital by Edward Nawotka


By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Nearly every publisher is chasing the direct-to-consumer market. But the question for consumers has always been, “why should I buy a book direct from a publisher at full price when I can buy the same book from an online retailer, such as Amazon or Overstock, at a deep discount?” The answer is likely to be this: personalization and customization.

PutMeInTheStoryThis can take a variety of forms. To cite just one example, Illinois-based Sourcebooks offers the Put Me in the Story app, which allows parents to personalize a selection of Sourcebooks titles, as well as licensed material from Sesame Street and The Berenstein Bears, by making their child a character within the text.

More recently, the company has partnered with photographer Anne Geddes to offer similar titles that too can be altered to the reader’s preferences. And as of today, has acquired, an online web business that supplies “corporate inspirational motivational gifts” founded by “Successories” inventor Mac Anderson in 2005.

Currently ranked in the top 1,000 online retailers, Simple Truths generates some $10 million in annual revenue annually, and has published 100 short-form titles ( designed to be read in 30 minutes or less), including a trio of bestsellers, Dash: Making a Difference with Your Life, 212° The Extra Degree, and Simple Truths of Service, which have sold sold nearly 1.5 million copies combined (with promotional videos for the books racking up 30 million views.)

“That the Simple Truths titles have sold so well as they have is a testament to the fact that we are now living in a fundamentally faster paced world,” says Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks.

Dominique Raccah

Dominique Raccah

In some ways the move is a return to Raccah’s roots as a reference publisher. “We’re now a company that generates more than 50% of our income from fiction and children’s books, but that wasn’t the case seven years ago,” she says. “The main question then for me going forward is to answer ‘what does the future of adult nonfiction look like?’ And the answer, for us at least, is personalization.”

Known for her frequent appearances at international conferences and role as a data-spokesperson for the industry, Raccah often reminds audiences that “50% of book sales before digital were for gifts.”

Naturally, the gift market — in which Simple Truths is specialized — offers numerous opportunities for individual and corporate personalization, even if it is something as simple as printing “Presented to you by…” on the flyleaf of a book.

The question remains “what happens when publishers begin offering even more radical personalization and customization?” Imagine the potential of a Big Five trade house offering you the opportunity to choose your binding (leather, cloth or paperback), typeface, font size, trim size, even color of the book, adding whatever options you want, and having it POD drop-shipped to your house in a day or two (see: Nike ID). Maybe you want the entire run of Penguin Classics in pocket-sized editions made to look like Moleskine notebooks? The technology already exists, but the question is how to leverage it on a large enough scale that it becomes a disruptive force. (Want to steal back customers from Amazon, this may be the way to get it done.)

Simple TruthsBut customization and personalization shouldn’t be thought of exclusively in such limited terms, as it also incorporates the notion of catering to every need of a consumer, one who demands different things from a product under different circumstances. “You might,” says Raccah, “have a film that tells the emotional side of a story, the text that delivers substance, and the social media experience which delivers community.” It is, ultimately, what underlies the oft-discussed concept of “vertical” publishing.

Raccah says that Sourcebooks expects by the end of 2014 at least 20% of the firm’s sales will be the result of direct-to-consumer transactions. That said, she counterintuitively adds, rather than perceiving so many sales shifting to D2C as a problem for her retail partners, who might view those transactions as lost sales, it’s really an “advantage.”

“The stuff we’re selling online is not typically stuff that could be sold in a retail environment,” she says. “For example, we might sell complementary materials that are exclusively available via our retail partners, which would bring them new customers that the didn’t have before because they were only buying online.”

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.