By Matt Devereux, Client Account Agent and Marketer, NBN International
Sometimes working in distribution can make you feel like a book industry country cousin. Often you find yourself vainly trying to describe what it is you actually do, only to have your conversant walk away thinking you do no more than administer getting a book from A to B. If they’re already in the trade, you sometimes get the feeling that they think your role is purely pragmatic and perfunctory, and some of them even intimate that perhaps you ought to feel that way about it, too.
None of this is any of their fault. The reason people generally don’t have a very firm grasp of what companies like the one in which I work do is the fact that we haven’t been very good at telling them. It’s time to change all of that.
There are a few reasons why marketing a distribution center is not an easy proposition. For a start, there’s no single product or service offering. By its very nature, distribution is an incredibly complex and multifaceted undertaking: each one of our publishers wants, needs and gets something a little bit different. Additionally what we actually do in supply chain management, warehousing and pick, pack and despatch just isn’t very sexy. No amount of glam and glitz can romanticize the ingestion of an ONIX file, the gluing down of a ready-made box, or the automated wrapping of a pallet.
When we started to use social media and blogging platforms for marketing, I initially had visions of publishers beating a path to our door, pens in hand, desperately wanting to sign on the dotted line. Although that would have been fantastic, it didn’t take very long to realize why it was never going to happen. Signing up with a distributor, like so many aspects of this industry, requires lengthy, detailed and considered negotiation — much of it confidential and all of it above my pay grade. None of which is to mention the fact that the costs of moving from distributor to distributor can be so high as to make even conceiving of it undesirable (unless there are crystal clear advantages somewhere down the line).
So what we like to do with social media is to take a slightly quirkier approach. Instead of going directly for sales or leads, we go for pure engagement, with the goal being illumination rather than domination. We try to make our social media ads as visually attractive and semantically pithy as possible, backing them up with subtle, explanatory copy through referent links. We keep our hand in by tweeting relevant publishing stories, really for no other reason than to demonstrate the fact that we understand what’s of importance to our clients and the industry at large at any given time. We make sure our social presence is felt through conferences and book fairs, inviting playful feedback and encouraging interaction. Wherever possible we look to promote our existing client publishers: our success, after all, is largely reliant on their own sales and marketing successes.
“Well,” you may say, “so what? Everybody in the industry is doing that, aren’t they?” Yes. Everybody except distributors. And given how integral distribution and supply chain management is that’s a curiosity without much explanation. Presumably the traditional distribution marketing model — one in which existing networks of contacts refer clients to us, or else where people pointedly approach us at specified fairs and events — is one that hasn’t required much, if any, external marketing at all.
But this is a real shame, not least because it has conspired to keep the internal workings of organizations like ours in the shadows. Our people are no less energetic, impassioned or dedicated than their publishing cohorts; their contribution to the industry (and to the eventual success of product) is no less meaningful. Generally speaking, we’re more perspicacious than most: we deal with such a breadth of publisher types and lists that we’re able see the industry from many useful vantage points. While our existing clients definitely know this, the rest of the world probably doesn’t. Marketing through social media is giving our company a profile-building voice, one that allows us to clearly announce who we are, what we do and what we stand for. High time.
We’re stepping out into the light at an opportune moment: the point at which our business is offering value-creating services like full ebook distribution and various print on demand initiatives. All of these can be sold and marketed in the normal way eventually. By the time that comes around we’ll hopefully have shaken off the shackles of our rather sheltered past. If you’re in the book trade think of us as being less like country cousins, and more like trusted friends.
Matt Devereux looks after the interests of publishers at NBN International (UK), also marketing the distributor over social media. He’s written professionally about the video games industry, a subject he can’t seem to shake off. He studied briefly in the US and can trace his bibliophilism back to an adolescent obsession with comic books, beat poetry and literary fiction (in that order).