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Does Seth Godin’s personality work for publishers?

September 21, 2010
Jacket for Sawday's Slow Norfolk and Suffolk book

Alastair Sawday - a brand with personality in the publshing industry


OK – I confess, a singular headline for today’s blog post but once again I am drawn to comment on Seth Godin’s book Tribes. As many in publishing already know, Mr Godin is starting to rock the boat because he  because he raises some interesting questions about how books are made, distributed and sold to their readers. He has also started to question the future of publishers themselves. 

The dynamics of the industry are now changing dramatically. In Tribes, Godin implies that to survive businesses need to engender reasons for people to like them, to follow them, to talk about them. That’s why in yesterday’s A Brand Day Out, I was really angry about Southern Railway’s contempt for their own “tribe”. But how does this idea, a concept of business “personality”, work for businesses? In particular, given Mr Godin’s current focus, how does it work for publishers? 

When I used to work full time in a publishing business, I used to call it The Nail Factory: we were busy churning out books to achieve volumes that would create sales. It almost didn’t matter what we produced provided volumes, margins and sales were delivered. In my view, we could have been making bags of nails. There was no fun in this. 

The real fun from publishing comes from knowing your readers and creating things for them. These “things”, these books, e-books or whatever, are what readers develop emotional links towards. The knack is in creating a business personality that engenders a following. So what is your personality? 

Publishers such as Alastair Sawday combine a focus on special holiday breaks (“special places”) combined with a real zeal for saving the planet. Anyone who has visited Alastair’s place, as I did two years back, are immediately struck by the surroundings: a beautiful barn, green technology – even a reed filter bed. Here is a place with a passion – a special place; appropriate for a company which has developed a “special places” brand. And the team there is so relaxed – the staff enjoys its work. Result: a loyal following. Sawday has built himself a “brand” rather than a logo. 

So what personality can a publisher create for itself if it operates in areas such as law, physics, electrical engineering? How does one fiction “house” make itself different from another? There’s certainly more to this than slapping a slogan next to a logo. interaction with customers and their needs has never been more crucial. 

Yet ask many (non-circulation) publishers and they will have next to no idea who their customers are, what they read nor, crucially, have an understanding of repeat revenue value from those customers. Result: constant stress in pursuit of the “one off sale” and the consequences of the repeat product life cycle over a single year period. Publishers delude themselves with talk of a “long tail” of web sales – the truth is that these long tails are merely a consequence of not knowing the reader: the web creates a hope that excess stock will be sold. The long tail is not a dynamic brand strategy, rather a financial one. 

Publishing brands in the next decade are going to find themselves under huge pressure as product moves digital yet their cost base remains high. Sales of paper books will decline so their costs will increase. As costs increase, prices need to go up or greater cost-cutting measures need to be undertaken to maintain profits. Meanwhile digital product will begin to assert itself and, if publishers are not careful, the pricing of those products will be removed from their hands and into the hands of retailers. 

So the future for publishing needs to address issues of personality, of thought leadership, of customer relevance, and of speed. Publishers need to ask themselves – how am I different? Why am I credible? Who are my readers? What do they want me to do? How can I maintain contact with them? What’s my value? What price my value? 

These ideas, despite the new spin from Seth Godin, are not new in themselves. But they are more relevant now than ever before. 

Just ask anyone in the music industry.

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