Imagine the pressure of trying to walk on a tightrope. It’s scary enough just attempting to keep your balance. But, what if maintaining your balance isn’t your biggest worry? What if you’re afraid that the tightrope itself might break?
This anxiety represents how many of my publisher clients can feel in today’s economy. Not only are they trying to balance selling books on razor thin margins and still turn a profit. The tightrope that they walk, which is the retail arena where books are sold, sometimes looks like it could snap. For example, Borders disappeared in 2011 (686 stores), there are half as many indie bookstores today as there were in the 1990’s (2,000 vs. 4,000 stores), and Family Christian Stores is fighting to stave off bankruptcy (266 stores). Let’s also not forget Amazon’s disruptive influence as they continue to pile up a major share of the book market for themselves.
What’s a publisher to do when the tightrope seems so shaky?
Reduce the dependence on retailers and create a new path to reach readers. Invest in direct-to-consumer marketing. Build in-house channels owned by the publisher that reach and influence thousands, even millions, of readers.
Notice that I said “direct-to-consumer marketing,” rather than “direct-to-consumer sales.” Selling direct to readers brings a whole different set of challenges. Not only does it jeopardize relationships with key retailers, it also adds increased costs to setup an e-commerce store, staff to maintain it, warehouse and shipping costs, additional marketing expenses, etc. Selling direct-to-consumers is a tricky proposition, and only a few publishers have found substantial success, such as F+W Media and O’Reilly.
Yet, any publisher can benefit from investing in marketing direct-to-readers. It’s cheaper and easier than ever. I’ve worked with clients to help combine the power of email, websites, blogs, and social media to build large audiences of enthusiastic readers. It’s one of the strategies we used to help rejuvenate attention for the 23-year-old book, “Boundaries,” which has made the New York Times bestseller list for the past 6 months.
Publishers may not have good reasons to delve into direct-to-consumer sales, but they have every reason to develop direct-to-consumer marketing. I’d argue that direct-to-consumer marketing is much more important than direct-to-consumer sales. That’s because it’s hard to sell books direct if you don’t have an audience to buy them. Here’s three key benefits that direct-to-consumer marketing offer publishers:
1. Publishers own massive amounts of great content
Readers don’t really buy books. Instead, they buy the content that they enjoy reading, whether it’s novels, non-fiction, or children’s stories. The content is king, and publishers own a ton of it. But, too much of this great content sits dormant in a publisher’s warehouse and computer servers.
What better way to attract a lot of readers than to give some of it away for free to build an email list? Then, use the email list to market books. The same approach can apply to building a large group of blog subscribers, social media followers, and even an old-school snail mail catalog list. (Yes, direct mail still works.)
2. Publishers are closest to the author
Readers don’t care about publishers. They love authors. However, the publisher has one of the closest relationships with the author. Why not use that relationship to market books direct to consumers?
Some publishers may gripe that there’s no use partnering with authors who jump ship to another house. But, if you’ve published an author’s book, you can always say that he or she is part of your roster and use that connection to attract readers.
For instance, publishers can create and promote exclusive interviews, lost chapters, video chats, and behind-the-scenes material from authors. In addition, publishers could aggregate relevant blog posts and articles from author websites and use that content to draw people.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why publishers don’t position their websites like a news site, such as the New York Times, where you get everything you want to know in one place. Too many publisher sites are just boring online catalogs for their books. After the first visit, there’s no reason to return. Use great content and author relationships to become an attractive destination for readers. You don’t have to be all things to all men. Pick a few topical categories that play to your strengths and shine in those areas.
3. Publishers can direct the book sale wherever they prefer
He who owns the relationship with the reader owns the book sale. For the most part, retailers have maximized the reader relationship. And, savvy authors are learning how to build their own following. But, that doesn’t mean publishers can’t do the same. What’s the payoff? When you own the relationship, you can direct the book sale wherever you prefer.
Imagine owning a list of 500,000 email subscribers and using that list to help launch new books, revitalize backlist titles, direct sales to specific retail partners, and drive the overall purchasing process. This is the power that direct-to-consumer marketing offers.
Even better, the benefits extend past the initial direct effect. One of my clients reports that for every book they sell directly via email, an additional 10 – 16 units are sold indirectly through other retailers due to the promotional impact from their large email list.
Publishers will always have to balance on a tightrope of reaching more sales and staying profitable. But, when publishers invest in direct-to-consumer marketing, they can take comfort knowing that the tightrope won’t break.
Rope image courtesy of Ideago at FreeDigitalPhotos.net