Mediocre publishing not good enough to win online sales
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.