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Mediocre publishing not good enough to win online sales

October 15, 2010

The slim margins of publishing for all except the big players make you wonder sometimes why people are in the business at all. This is hardly surprising when you consider that, excluding STM and social sciences, the average invoiced price of books sold is less than £4 per copy (source: Publishers Association).

In such an environment as this, many publishers revert to the common strategy of reducing costs to maintain profit levels. Such an approach, while a valid element of business housekeeping, is not the route to organic growth. Value lies at core – value which the customer can experience and enjoy – usable content that can be easily read.

Cost-cutting alone causes businesses to focus on things which appear peripheral and yet are fundamental. Cover design, page layout, printing costs, staff levels, salaries etc. We have discussed cover design in an earlier post of A Brand Day Out of course but equally important is “look and feel”.

It’s astonishing how many smaller publishers have absolutely no idea about page layout – and I would urge them turn to experts like Etica Press in Malvern, run by the highly experienced Julian Roskams, a former colleague of mine many years ago and still a good friend. Such people have an acute understanding of how a book “should” look inside – because good layout means the book gets read.

This isn’t about didacticism, it’s about user experience (or UX to use the web term) – and when it comes to book layout, experience counts for all. A book that never gets read (because it isn’t easy to read) just doesn’t get talked about. And these days, word of mouth is everything.

And then there’s printing. The temptation is to move abroad rather than print in the home country. Publishers can convince themselves that this is the route to salvation – until they notice the poor leading on the pages, lack of symmetrical layout, shoddy attention to detail.

Some would argue “who cares?” I would argue that if publishers are to preserve their status they need to focus on quality because printed books are going to cost more in future if e-books take the lion’s share – and value will be crucial to prie perception. It’s a sad fact that many key businesses who have sent production abroad have lived to rue the day – and many are repatriating those skills.

Staff and salaries are a key issue of course. Sometimes these are high maintenance and high cost items. But the cost of not having staff or replacing them with cheaper, less efficient individuals puts additional strain on outputs. The key here is effective training, vision and direction – and focused management. As Seth Godin argues “if your organisation requires success before commitment it will never have either“.

But why does all this matter? It matters because today’s publishing high ground is fought on the battlefield of consumer value. Publishers are guardians of an aesthetic which is already under serious online threat from e-books and low-priced e-commerce stores. The onus now, in a market where 14% of sales are online (2009) and growing, is to assert value so that price and profit can be maintained. As we have said before, publishing’s over-reliance on nebulous price points have been a stranglehold on its ability to grow (excluding professional and STM publishers who learned this a long time ago).

Mediocrity through the wrong business focus creates weaker businesses. And bigger businesses than publishers have fallen on the wayside because of such an approach. Think Rover cars. Think BSA motorcycles. Think British Shipbuilders. Some vacuous cynics would call these “old-fashioned metal-bashing” industries. But it’s funny how other countries still maintain profitable industrial bases.

The truth is that such a fate will befall any industry which lacks conviction, focuses on low price, cost cutting and puts customer experience last. Publishing companies adopting such strategies need to be very careful indeed to avoid slipping slowly beneath the waves.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2010 2:32 pm

    I know this is something that you feel very strongly about – not just with regard to publishing but other areas too of British manufacturing – and you are absolutely right to do so. You make many very valid points.
    Book publishing has never been an easy business from which to make money, and today it is more difficult than ever. Consumers – both corporate and individual – are thinking more carefully than before about where to spend their money, and are increasingly deciding not to spend it at all! And, books are, superficially at least, competing in a marketplace that is more crowded than at any time (in the last decade we have seen the arrival of ebooks, audiobooks, podcasts, blogs etc). There was a time when no-one would question that they would have to pay for the information within a book’s covers, that it had an intrinsic value to which a cost could be attached; today that is an assumption that cannot be made – or at least it is an assumption that requires us to work harder to justify.
    And the other side of the coin is this. Just as it has never been more difficult to make money from book publishing, so it has never been easier to become a book publisher. Or at least notionally. With a little know-how, and not a lot of money, most people can produce something that looks – at least from a safe distance – like a book. Desktop publishing has been a part of our lives for some years; the recent arrival of on-demand printing has further skewed the economics of book publishing. Traditional book publishers are facing a serious challenge.
    So, book publishers need to ‘box clever’. Today, every business needs to reduce its costs, to ensure it is operating as efficiently as possible. But there can be no compromise on the final end-product – the printed book itself. Its look and feel are critical – once you have abandoned your commitment to your readers to make the reading experience a rewarding one (the design should help the reader, not act as a barrier over which they must hurdle), then you are resigned to being ‘one of the pack’. There is nothing to distinguish your offering from those whose content carries far less validity – how should the reader make the choice? It then becomes a matter of serendipity whether you succeed; and serendipity is no basis on which to run a successful business.
    Books exist to communicate a message. A well-designed book is one that allows the reader to absorb that message without hindrance. Most of us can pick up a book and we will know straight away whether or not it is well designed. We may not know how it is well designed – we will just know whether or not it ‘works’. If you are serious about the business of publishing books, it is well worth familiarising yourself with the rules of good design, or employing those who live and breathe the rules. I give some guidance on what contributes to a well-designed layout on the Etica website @ .

    • October 15, 2010 2:51 pm

      Many thanks – yes, readers, this link gives some really helpful information.

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