Making publishing more personal…

membership economy

This is a guest post from Alison Jones. Alison is a business and executive coach, content consultant and publisher. After a 23-year career in trade and scholarly publishing working with major publishers such as Oxford University Press and Macmillan, during which she pioneered digital publishing, she set up Alison Jones Business Services and the Practical Inspiration Publishing imprint in 2014.

Last night I got chatting to a man at a bar (stay with me). I had half an hour to kill before the London Book Fair summer bash, and he invited me to join him and his colleague since they were in a similar situation. They asked me what I did, I told them I was a publisher, they fell off their chairs. They’d just been planning a presentation to a publishing company for their personalization platform.

And so we drank cerveza in the sun and discussed what personalization in marketing means to publishers.

Most publishers didn’t have much in the way of customer data, historically. Their buyers were bookshops and library suppliers, and if they wanted to know about their preferences they asked them over dinner at Frankfurt. Academic publishers often had a closer relationship with their readers, partly because readers of scholarly works tend also to be authors of scholarly works, and partly because of the long-drawn-out process of securing textbook adoptions, which requires publishers to engage directly with lecturers. (Students, not so much.)

Given Amazon’s dominance of the market, you’d think it would be harder than ever for publishers to engage directly and meaningfully with their readers. But in fact more and more publishers of all sizes and across all sectors are investing in direct-to-consumer (D2C) activity, prettying up their online stores, collecting data from their customers, and implementing tools to analyse it all.

Direct sales are more profitable than those through other channels, of course, but the real prize, especially for publishers used to buying in lists of variable quality for their direct marketing campaigns, is the customer data. Here’s a customer who by definition not only likes what you’ve got to offer but is willing to buy it directly from you: now what? Now you have a marketing question, not a sales question. Now it gets really interesting.

One company that’s really taken customer data and segmentation to heart is Penguin Random House (see the Bookmachine interview with Louise Vintner earlier this year). Rebecca Smart gave a nice example of how this kind of analysis works in practice when she revealed at the Oxford Publishing Group conference last month that each new Dr Who title is tailored for one of four different target audiences. But on the PRH website, the newsletter opt-in remains a single, undifferentiated box for a single, undifferentiated newsletter. Why not take the opportunity to ask what I’m interested in, and increase the chances of me buying stuff I love rather than unsubscribing because you’re telling me about stuff I don’t?

Amazon does this personalization stuff notoriously well. Its recommendation engine is right at least as often as its wrong, and even when it’s wrong it’s usually interesting. But publishers have a winning card up their sleeve, and that’s the relationship with authors. So many publishers start and end the author’s marketing engagement with the bookshop tour and/or launch interviews and a request to promote the book on their social media platforms. Why stop there? Why not include content from your authors in niche-specific newsletters, reengage a specific market segment with a trailer for an exclusive video interview on your site, offer lunches with niche authors in emails targeted to that niche? How about insights from your editors on what’s being commissioned in particular lists and updates on how those books are progressing? This is more than any author can do on his/her own, and it’s more than any sales channel, even Amazon, can offer. In a disintermediated age, it makes sense for intermediaries to play to their strengths, and to make it personal.

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