We (Ted Hill of THA Consulting and I) are working with BISG again this year on their Making Information Pay conference. Last year we did a project on “Experimentation and Innovation” where we used both an online survey and interviews to surface the issues we captured in a research paper and then formed the backbone of the program at the MIP conference itself.
This year’s theme, taking the same approach, is “Shifting Sales Channels: How the Sources of Revenue are Changing and What Publishers Are Doing About It.” We’re trying to find the outlying practices: the things a few people are learning or doing that could be of great benefit if more widely employed. The big question going into something this is “will people talk? Will people tell us anything that might benefit a competitor?” The answer, after the first few interviews (just completed) and the first 100 survey results is, clearly, yes.
We really want everybody in consumer publishing to participate in our survey. More than 100 people have done so already but if you’re not one of them, please do so after you finish reading this piece.
Here is a preliminary list of things we have learned already. We have a lot of survey results and further interviews coming to add to this. It looks pretty certain that we’ll have a Making Information Pay conference on May 7 that will be packed with useful information.
1. Opportunity arises when competitors cut back. One publisher told us a story about a direct competitor of theirs cutting back the staff covering a major account. Our interviewee responded to this by stepping up their efforts with the same account with the result that their sales are up at that account when sales elsewhere are declining.
2. Strong brands matter more to consumers and buyers in a downturn. Despite the fact they are pretty challenged at creating consumer brands themselves, publishers have always appreciated the marketing lift that comes from a brand that validates a book to an audience. It turns out that in the recession, the branded material seems to hold up better, particularly in challenged areas like cooking and gardening.
3. Publishers should constantly reshuffle sales resources to pursue opportunity. One publisher we spoke to said they re-evaluate their sales personnel deployment every 12 to 18 months. They have created dedicated efforts where they didn’t have them before and they have reduced the sales hours dedicated to declining areas. The idea that sales deployment should be under constant review is one that more companies should take on board.
4. Reps in the field need to cover more than bookstores. We first got this thought from a niche publisher that has a focused list and therefore a focused batch of non-book accounts to go after. But then we heard again from a larger publisher, which is now in certain territories experimenting with having reps cover accounts beyond bookstores, particularly specialty retailers and libraries. It just makes sense to us that the product and company knowledge a rep has, once “loaded” and deployed in the field, should be directed at any opportunity to produce sales, not just a particular kind of store. This observation has challenging implications for publishers still relying primarily on commission reps to cover bookstores.
5. There are lots of online sales accounts besides Amazon and BN.com and Borders.com that are worth a publisher’s sales effort to cover. This one came out of left field to us. One publisher said with total confidence that there are many online booksellers, some effectively operating as extensions of Amazon, that can be built into significant accounts with attention from a publisher’s sales organization.
6. The right subjects still matter more than the economic circumstances: books with timely appeal will sell. “Gardening” might be troubled, but “growing your own organic food” is a book subject that will work in these green and economically troubled times. Business might be a softening category, but books about job hunting or creating cash flow from a new business are perfect for the moment that we’re in. The converse is also true, so it could be that overall book sales, which actually aren’t doing so badly compared to other things, will further strengthen as titles and subjects which pretty suddenly became inappropriate over the past 12 months cycle out of the system in favor of books aimed at the new times we’re in. Maybe books are recession-proof.
7. Direct mail still works, but the sales come online. This was another one that was a big surprise to us. One publisher reported that sending out printed niche catalogs still worked well in professional markets, but the orders don’t come back with stamps. They say it is really fascinating to watch the direct online orders spike after they put a piece into the mail.
8. Catalogs and sales conferences are being aggressively rethought. We have found three publishers so far that only hold one full company sales conference a year, and they’re always reviewing whether that one — largely about company morale — is worth it. The first few publishers we spoke with all are looking for ways to cut back, if not eliminate, the full-line print catalog. The new wisdom is that PDFs should be the catalog format of choice, enabling targeted groups of books to be printed as leave-behinds customized to the account.
9. Custom publishing is a growth area. This one was good to hear me because it confirms the “end of trade” idea, which says that publishers have to (and can) create new channels to replace the time-honored ones that are fading away. One publisher reported to us that they had started a custom publishing operation three years ago with one person and that group now has six! Custom publishing can be about selling in bulk to a corporation, but it also can be about creating a special package for a book chain or mass merchant.