Canoodling the Customer

In a rather interesting blog, Jürgen Snoeren, Manager Operations and Digital with Amsterdam-based publisher MeulenhoffBoekerij, exhorts small publishers to establish relationships with their customers rather than with retailers. Obvious as it may seem, it is a step not too many publishers think about. In this blog, Snoeren asks publishers to focus on developing a digital infrastructure so that they can publish quickly and in all formats and to exploit every sales channel available to them.

There are two aspects to this, though both may not be altogether mutually exclusive. One is to develop a digital infrastructure, the other to engage directly with the customer. Indian publishers would especially do well to heed the latter. Most retail chains follow volumes and ignore niche markets. The books they stock also follow bestseller lists, which is in itself a self-feeding phenomenon. It becomes important, therefore, for publishers, especially those who publish non-fiction and forms of fiction that haven’t quite found their feet in India, like horror, to engage directly with its audience. There seem to be several ways to do it:

a. Experiment with retail: Be in places that your readership frequents. New Horizon Media has tried this approach and seems to have enjoyed success. Book stores are currently, for the most part, cluttered with many other products vying for the customer’s attention or too crowded to facilitate leisured browsing and purchasing. fivex5 is one such experiment that we intend to pursue in 2012.

b. Develop a good website: In these days where the natural inclination is to “go and google” for every sound we hear, having a website has become a non-negotiable imperative for every publisher. Publishers should consider it as an investment rather as an expense and be involved in its development rather than allowing website developers a carte blanche in its design an execution. Publishers must decide what they intend to achieve with the website: whether they intend to make their audience aware of its list or if they intend to extend the purpose of the website and also offer sales. They should also be aware that customers are an impatient lot so it is important to get the information to them in as few clicks as possible. Understanding and developing metadata is also important as it allows information to be accessible when the customer uses a search engine to find a book.

c. Work with schools: Unfortunately, perhaps because of the logistics involved, schools and children haven’t figured much in publishers’ plans to market their books. PTAs provide a conduit to reach out to parents for books that are not suitable to market to children. Books pitched to children might result in larger sales when done in schools as children might buy what their friends are buying. Besides, such activities will help achieve the longer term goal of attracting children to the joys of reading.

These are the obvious steps a publisher could take. I am sure the marketing whiz kids at the publishing behemoths have better ideas. It’s the independents who, short of resources, need to be creative about their marketing. And, for the most part, they have managed to do a good job there.

The call to develop a digital strategy must, however, be carefully examined. With all the buzz about e-books and the prophesies that publishers who don’t invest in them might soon sink, many such publishers feel compelled to develop a strategy for e-books. A hasty approach might be equally disastrous and publishers should therefore examine their markets before investing. E-books, by virtue of being easily accessible, do allow access to widespread markets but the readers in those markets have to be an advanced stage that allows them to properly “consume” these books. If they primarily prefer the print version, an investment in digital content development might be unnecessary. So also if e-books form a minuscule portion of the market and can be developed by outsourcing rather than developing in-house. Publishers should behave like business houses with a well-defined business plan that includes a comprehensive marketing strategy while deciding whether or not to develop digital content. In many parts of India, literacy itself is an issue that can best be tackled by the tactile experience of an e-book and publishers might do well to understand and address that need. While e-book channels do offer direct access to the reader, through fewer intermediaries than those for printed books do, the very nature of the end product does not, in our opinion, serve the larger purpose of inculcating and sustaining the reading habit among those for whom the book is a scarce resource.

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