Profiles in Publishing is a continuing investigation into the brave new world of publishing at JS Media Blog by Judy Sandra. PIP will be a series of articles and interviews about methods and movers, reporting on who is exploring, who is inhabiting and who is succeeding in the new publishing landscape.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez (pronounced “gui” as in “guillotine”) is the Director of Programming & Business Development at Digital Book World, a company that helps and educates publishers and publishing professionals about digital publishing through their events, the annual Digital Book World Conference, webscasts and other resources. With a background as a poet, blogger and marketing strategist, Guy is probably the most sanguine publishing pundit on the scene today, who believes in “the power of publishing as a community service”. Calling himself a “Chief Executive Optimist”, Guy insists that “The Future of Publishing Is Bright”.
I called the optimistic Loudpoet.com blogger and encountered a rather soft-spoken marketer:
JS: What do we need to know that’s different about marketing books today?
GG: A the end of the day, I don’t believe the fundamental rules of marketing have changed much. One still needs to know how to position a book and how to engage its audience. Today there are just more tools and outlets available to do that, but if you don’t bring those marketing basics to the table, the new tools won’t help. Some channels will be more effective than others and the Internet has made possible more cost-effective marketing, more opportunities to experiment. In the past, books used to have to be in bookstores, and that was what publishers did best.
JS: You claim that the Internet is a more effective marketing tool. How so?
GG: The Internet transformed the book business model from marketing to bookstores – wholesale – to marketing to consumers – retail. It created opportunities to reach more readers directly, and for them to reach each other directly, without solely depending on traditional intermediaries.
JS: What are some of the advantages of the Internet for books?
GG: The Internet allows you to connect with communities. Some advantages are the ability to target niche markets and engage directly with readers. Publishers and authors can sell directly to readers. The cost to market through digital channels, such as Google Adwords, blogs, and video, is significantly less costly than running a full-page ad in The New York Times, or a TV commercial, like those for James Patterson’s books.
For example, Digital Book World’s parent company, F+W Media, Inc., has various niche platforms that integrate their magazines, books and events under one brand and offer enthusiasts a place to engage with their products and services, but more importantly, with each other. In the past, magazines created de facto communities by cultivating a base of subscribers with common interests, but usually for the benefit of advertisers. With the Internet, many magazines have been able to evolve into serving the needs of the community first, in some cases lessening their dependence on advertising and, interestingly, making them even more valuable as advertising channels because they’re so targeted.
JS: You’ve said that you feel that publishing is “a community service”. What do you mean by that?
GG: My personal approach to publishing is that a publisher should stand for something, whether it’s political, literary, educational, or even purely commercial. Their brand should communicate something specific to readers, booksellers and authors, or else it’s just a supplier of commodities.
JS: When publishing houses were small private businesses, publishers were known for their brand, for example Alfred Knopf for fine literature. Then they got bought and merged into larger companies, until we are now left with a handful of major publishing conglomerates. What effect did that have on the industry?
GG: : I’m not a fan of conglomeration in general, and it’s had a negative effect on publishing across the board, putting the emphasis more on the bottom line and not as much on curating ideas. Publishers should be doing something more than looking for the next blockbuster. I agree with Pablo Defendini of Open Road, who has said that “publishers should be idea advocates”. Publishers should publish books for a specific audience, because the need for that book exists. In my opinion, when a book bombs it’s either because it simply wasn’t good or the publisher didn’t find its audience. If the former, it shouldn’t have been published; if the latter, shame on the publisher.
JS: Would you agree that it’s not just a marketing problem, that the profit motives of conglomerates have changed how books are produced and marketed?
GG: Yes, the result has been a commodification of books, feeding the supply chain whether the demand is there or not, and now the vast majority of books get published with little to no marketing support. A book will get thrown on a shelf for a month or so, if it’s lucky, but no one other than the author knows that it’s there. I think some business models will have to change, like huge advances, but it all comes down to marketing. The Internet is not a magic bullet, just another marketplace, one where readers have a lot more power and control. Marketing is the killer app, and understanding how that marketplace works will be critical to publishers’ long-term success.
JS: Do you think the decline in book sales is a question of marketing or numbers?
GG: It’s both. Look at the number of independent bookstores today. About 10 years ago in the U.S., there were over 4,000 independent booksellers, but as of last year, there are less than 1,500 left. The big chains are struggling, with Borders on the ropes and Barnes & Noble potentially up for sale. Amazon.com made the situation even worse, but the chains’ superstore model combined with the conglomerate publishing structure effectively turned books into widgets. While the bookstores have suffered, Amazon has been steadily innovating, focused on their long-term goals and putting customer service and maximum selection first, sometimes even ahead of short-term profits.
JS: Isn’t that a good thing? Customers rule and every book is available?
GG: Yes, to a degree. With the Amazon model, every book is potentially a front list book, but that means every new book that’s shoved into the supply chain is competing with the back list in ways they didn’t have to in the past. There’s no need to take any book off of a virtual shelf and replace it with something new. That’s great for readers, and for Amazon’s long tail model, but it’s a dramatic shift for publishers.
JS: What can publishers and authors do to get ahead of this dilemma?
GG: In the past, buying a book was the final step. But that’s evolved in the digital era. Ariana Huffington, of The Huffington Post, recently made a great point that publishers should “use books as a conversation starter and to use the power of online connections.” Nowadays, after a book is read, many people are going online to disscuss it, review it, share it with others via their social networks. There are a lot of new technologies like the websites Goodreads and Get Glue, built around connecting people via the books that they read and enjoy. Publishers should be looking to encourage and foster these conversations, engaging with their readers as opposed to just relying on bookstores to sell books for them. The Internet has leveled the playing field for distribution but made it even more difficult to be heard.
JS: That is a marketing paradox. Right?
GG: Yes, but the power structure really isn’t going to change that much. Big publishers still have the leverage and the reach to connect with the most readers, if they adjust their approach to marketing to take advantage of it.
JS: The big question is: where does this leave authors?
GG: For the most part, the majority of readers today are fans of authors–not publishers. Authors will have far more opportunities than they ever had to reach more readers, but with far more challenges in figuring out where to allocate their time. Many bemoan the increased expectations of them for marketing themselves, and publishers need to help them be as effective as possible, and then be able to amplify those efforts to a degree that clearly adds value. I believe we ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s the wild, wild west out there.
JS: How does Digital Book World fit into the current publishing spectrum?
GG: At DBW we focus on sorting through all of the distruption and attempt to identify the strategies publishers can use to navigate through the disruption. For example, the current controversy around e-books are a symptom of a much larger transition. E-commerce changed everything, and most publishers didn’t see the endgame until it was too late. Amazon.com is fascinating because they’ve been around for 15 years but didn’t record their first net profit until 2002. And they’re not only a retailer but a technology company that offers web services like cloud storage, which is a huge business for them.
DBW is built around professional development, events and networking. We hold a series of free and paid webcasts, as well as our annual conference in January. Our audience is primarily publishers, publishing professionals, marketing and editorial professionals, digital strategists, and authors who are independent-minded or want to self-publish effectively.
JS: How would you characterize the current publishing business?
GG: We are now in a period of constant change. The publishing business is undergoing a dramatic shift, from predominantly wholesale to a hybrid of wholesale and retail. In addition to the traditional book publishers, there are more options for publishing, from independents, who are trying experimental models, to various forms of self-publishing.
JS: What is the biggest marketing challenge for publishers at the moment?
GG: To change their marketing strategy that focuses on booksellers first to one that puts readers first. The tools are available, but the skill set isn’t necessarily there. Yet.
JS: Is there any marketing advice you would like to give to publishers for now and the future?
GG: The readers are out there, and the tools to reach them are out there; publishers and authors have to figure out how to make the connection to readers. It’s about the strategy, not the tools, though, and the current strategy isn’t reader-centric. Ultimately, publishers will have to be willing to experiment with different models until they find the one that suits their strategy, not the one that’s being promoted as the new shiny.
(The next Digital Book World Conference will be held in New York City on January 25-26, 2011. Click on link for details.)