How to Succeed in a Changing Market

Brian Jud

The demise of Borders can provide lessons for book publishers. Beyond the fact that ebooks are changing the competitive terrain for us, there is an opportunity for substantial revenue growth of printed books in non-bookstore markets. Publishers who ignore these changes and rely on the traditional business model of selling primarily through bookstores will run out of room to grow.

Publishers with a creative flexibility will be more likely to strategically adjust and thrive in this changing market. It is not difficult, and may be easier to understand by looking at a similar situation in a different field. Netflix changed the way DVD rental firms competed by starting delivery through the mail. It quickly sought to reinvent itself by obsolescing its own way of doing business and developed technology to replace mailing physical DVDs with digital streaming over the Internet. In contrast, Blockbuster blindly continued its successful superstore model, by making minor adjustments in their current way of doing business (no more late fees). It failed to respond to fundamental market changes and is closing stores nationwide.

Returning to our industry, Barnes & Noble has demonstrated a history of strategic flexibility. It was one of the first to discount bestsellers, publish its own titles, create super-stores, and put coffee shops in its stores. Rather than swim against the e-book tide, B&N reinvented itself with the Nook, apps and the sale of toys and games. Other brick-and-mortar booksellers have offered e-books online, but B&N is the only legacy retailer to create its own device (Borders licensed a reader of its own from an outside company called Kobo). In an industry that started with Gutenberg, B&N creatively reinvents its business model to respond to market needs. Borders failed to respond to fundamental market changes and is closing stores nationwide.

The lesson? Publishers that reinvent themselves can succeed in this new, competitive rapidly changing environment. One way to do that is to expand outside your core business into non-bookstore markets. Publishers that simply tweak their current business model (sell to Barnes & Noble and independent stores instead of Borders) are doomed to falling sales and the return of unsold books.

When publishers focus on the opportunities in non-bookstore segments, they may actually get a better picture of their future. Non-traditional marketing is basically the process of writing quality content in response to an identified need, publishing it in the form desired by the reader and then selling it to people in defined groups of prospective customers. Doing this successfully may simply require a little flexibility, a change in concentration from traditional book selling to a... 

1)   Focus on the content of your book, not the book itself. What your book does is more important to buyers than what it is. Content is king in special-sales marketing, and the old adage, “find a need and fill it,” was never more relevant.

2)   Focus on target customers. Segment your total market into several “mini-markets,” each with identifiable needs and selling idiosyncrasies. The Kindle tries to be everything to everybody. Barnes & Noble’s Color Nook is focused on readers and is reported to do a better job with children's books. In its design and marketing, the Nook aims directly at women – the largest group of book buyers. It is targeting customers who love reading, yet have not been coddled by its larger rival.

3)   Focus on marketing as much production.  The concepts of frontlist and backlist are irrelevant in special markets. Publishing more titles to keep your frontlist current is not nearly as profitable as concentrating on selling the titles you already have. 

4) Focus on getting people to buy rather than selling to them. Discover what your business prospects need -- which will probably be some combination of products and services -- then describe how you can help them improve revenues, margins or brand image. Add value to their way of doing business. For example, you may be trying to sell a barbeque cookbook to buyers at Lowe’s or Home Depot. They do not want to sell cookbooks as much as they want to sell high-priced, more profitable barbeque grills. Sell your cookbook to them by demonstrating how it could be used as en enticement to get people to buy the grills. They could use your book – rather than sell it – by giving one away with each grill purchased. This is the concept of cross merchandising.

5) Focus on the differences of your content, not on its sameness. Authors sometimes describe their book by saying, “It’s the next Harry Potter,” or “It’s like The Tipping Point, but better.” Buyers do not want more of what they already have. They want to hear how your information is different from the better-known titles and why it is better.

6)   Focus on push and pull. Push marketing is directed at the channel members, helping them sell more books to the next higher level in the distribution network. On the other hand, pull marketing is directed at the ultimate consumer, making people aware of your title and getting them to buy it. While both strategies are important, push marketing is the preferred strategy in non-retail marketing and pull is the strategy of choice in retail marketing.

7)   Focus on what you can control. There are four primary activities you can control in book marketing: 1) its content and form, 2) the price at which you sell it, 3) the ways in which you distribute it and 4) how you promote it. 

The publishing industry is making the transition from physical books to ebooks. Some publishing companies will not be able to make that leap, but those who will succeed are those that will look to the future with a little creative flexibility.

Brian Jud is the author of How to Make Real Money Selling Books and now offers commission-based
sales in special markets. Contact Brian at P. O. Box 715, Avon, CT  06001-0715; (860) 675-1344;

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