Why publishers must love and understand their customer

skills for publishing

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Times, a group of five publishing companies he has founded. He has been shortlisted and longlisted for various awards, is an Enterprise Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, and regularly speaks on publishing and business.

The first question to any business, business idea or concept is who is the customer? No customer, no business appears is a true and you would think obvious statement. But ask a publisher who their customer is and in most cases you will not receive a clear and focused answer.

One of the issues is the make-up of the supply chain. Publishers spend a large amount of time selling to buyers at retail outlets, or wholesalers, who may or may not be well-aligned with the decision making process of the actual book buyer. You could argue the retailer is the customer, but for businesses the customer should be the end point and, in particular with the shadow of sale-or-return terms, if the book buyer doesn’t buy your products, you don’t have a book publishing business.

So, the person on the street (or in today’s market as likely to be at their computer) is the most important person for a publisher to understand. But all too often those in publishing aren’t even at the understanding stage because before that must be respect and appreciation.

I’ve heard many conversations and read many articles from publishers slamming customers today – want everything for free, just interesting in celebrities/trash, no taste etc. To a publisher the book buyer must be the single most important person to their business and if you aren’t able to respect and make the customer central to everything you do, then frankly you’re taking up a job that could go to someone better.

So having made them central to a publisher’s business, how well are they understood? Some publishers who have successfully found a niche area understand their customer very well and benefit greatly from this. But in the general trade, there is huge and important ground to cover.

Hopefully we are already moving away from ‘will appeal to everyone from 8 to 80’, ‘will appeal to both men and women’ (who else is there…) but most publishers are at the starting point of understanding their customers. Publishers aren’t now competing against other books but just for the customer’s brief attention and therefore against many different forms of entertainment, social media, dating sites and the list goes on and on.

So how to better understand your customer from a standing start? Too much to fit into one blog, but data is vital, with detailed categorisation, data capture, pre and post sales information, focus groups, tailored information being sent, events, partnerships and advanced and trackable discoverability.

All this would be a start, but the message I want to get across is that if a publisher doesn’t currently have a strategy to better understand their customer they are going to be left behind. Publishers cannot now just get books into bookshops and hope for the best; they need multi-layered selling routes knowing exactly whom they are aiming at.

Again, the battle today for any book publisher is to get the customer’s attention. And that can only work if they know exactly whose attention they are trying to capture.