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No product solves everything – so why do publishers act surprised when books don’t sell out?

December 1, 2010

When publishers analyse their sales, it is often unsurprising that some products have underperformed against targets. This is no surprise because the truth is that no product solves everything. If it did, we’d all be driving the same car, eating the same food and watching the same TV programmes. Yet publishers still go into spasms when the remainder store looms to tell the tale of another unsuccessful commissioning decision. How does this happen?

Commissioning meetings in publishing companies are often highly subjective affairs with opinion rather than fact guiding the final decision. Sales people are happy to talk about figures based on previous or similar editions. Marketers might talk about the database. The FD might talk about profit margins assuming the entire print run sells. The author might – nay probably will – talk about the fact that there is no book covering this topic “in this particular way”.

Clearly, a strategic plan based on consistent market tracking and competitive intelligence is required – but how can time be found when publishing companies spend most of their time running around on the hamster’s wheel? The answer is to make time or to take the consequences. What demographic is being approached? What is the likely success rate? What costs need to be spent to reach the demographic? How will the demographic be consistently reached? How relevant is the company’s brand in the target demographic? Which element of the demographic is being targeted for this specific book? What is the cost of getting the book to market?

These questions cannot be answered “on the back of a fag packet”. They require systematic thinking through and logical commitment to success. If the segment size is only 2000 and the likely sales 500 then can it be right to publish a book at £15.95? Not to mention the marketing costs associated with reaching that segment. Yet so often, companies make decisions out of “gut feel” or the time-honoured method of “I know my market”.

In sectors such as law, or grocery retail, or the medical profession, it is of course much easier to scope potential and achieve known reach and “share of voice” than it is in other areas such as “business”. But even here, target areas can be broken down and aimed for. Yet it is surprising that even when a demographic can be reasonably sized (e.g. 5,000 project managers) assumptions are reached not based on targeted marketing to achieve a set percentage but based instead on a loose premise: “well, we must be able to sell 2,000 there”.

Of course, there is a lot to be said for the experienced pro with many years spent in a given sector but as time moves on and new people join the company so this form of inherent knowledge is lost. And as time moves on, so do old fashioned models. Of course, planning can sometimes cause its own problems: rigorous adherence at the expense of commonsense (e.g. when a recession strikes or disaster hits a given segment). But it is always better to plan and to measure against a plan than to fall victim to vanity and end up working in a total vacuum, unable to report against metrics other than sales against no known target.

Without planning, it is impossible to take informed decisions. Without planning it is impossible to take strategic decisions. Without planning it is easy to “fall in” with the view around the table – and end up in a business where the only strategic decisions seem to be about the colour of a book’s jacket.

So in the commissioning process it is crucial to see the whole picture. A book – a product – is not a solution to everything but a solution to specific problem within a measurable group of people. If you are unsure of market size, of cost to serve, of relevance to user, the book will not be a success. If your business does not have effective, credible and current knowledge of its market (or indeed the market’s future trends) then its products will not be effective or credible or relevant.

Publishing, like all business, must understand its end user market if it is to remain relevant in the world. The old model of pile them high and sell them cheap is no longer a strategy. Indeed, it never was.

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