Join the Revolution or Watch and Wait?

I have to admit I was perplexed by John Blake’s comments on the Bookseller blog on 3 May.  Having noted the rapid success of Crissy Rock’s autobiography from morning personal appearance on a TV programme to afternoon number two position in the Amazon Kindle Top Ten, he then asserts that serious readers are more likely to want a hardback over a wait for months for an ebook.  He believes publishers would do well to publish the hardback up front and follow later with the paperback and ebook.  But isn’t the Crissy Rock experience indicative of the market today, in a world where information can be obtained almost instantly?

Nearly thirty years ago at university, I studied a paper that is a seminal text in the marketing world, but after reading John Blake’s comments I was drawn to it again.  Originally published in 1960, Theodore Levitt’s Marketing Myopia (Harvard Business Review) challenged companies to ask themselves what business they were really in and encouraged a focus on the customer over the product, in order to survive and continue to grow.  He cited a raft of examples of failures and obsolescence, including the American railroad industry’s inability to realise that they were really in the transportation business.  They lost business to cars, trucks, airlines and telephone companies.  But his examples from the oil industry have a particular resonance today for publishing.  Levitt noted that major improvements in gasoline quality did not originate within the oil industry itself.  The development of ‘superior alternative fuels’ also came from outside the industry.  Levitt argued that this was because of a focus on the product and not the customer within the industry itself.

Today we have the ereader, be it Kindle or other device.  Like the technology in other areas of our lives it has the capacity to grow and not to diminish.  Dependency will be created.  And, it creates another format, or delivery package, for a book.  Where the status quo of ‘hardback followed by paperback’ remains – although suffering – this is a product of history, surely?  Is relegating the ebook to paperback status also clinging to the past and not meeting current customer needs?

As someone who uses a blog to highlight books, I have tweeted a latest book post only to have almost immediate replies of ‘I have ordered it’ or, ‘I have downloaded it to my Kindle’.  Recently, I received a reply that asked when the novel would be on Kindle.  I said I’d check with the publisher, indicating that I thought it would coincide with the paperback and I included the publisher in the tweet.  They confirmed that was the case. 

Will that reader remember that book in a few months to obtain it?  Will I note the date to remind them?  Will I remember the reader’s twitter ID and the novel in question to do so?  We are in the territory of so many variables here.  But what is certain is that a sale was lost in a split second for that author.  Crissy Rock had an ebook available for download when she was on TV and the results prove the point. 

We have been familiar with the term ‘silver surfer’ for about a decade now.  Uptake of technology is not defined to the young.  Indeed, dedicated ‘Kindlers’ of a certain age love the fact they can change the font of the text for their needs.  No more reading in bed with specs on for them. Offering different formats at different times seems discriminating to the customer.  It’s akin to a summer family outing to the park where, on a stop for ice cream, the three year old is told he has to wait until Christmas simply because he chose the Tutti Frutti over vanilla or chocolate.

Those who recognise customer needs do well and in Goldsboro Books we have an example. Where many independent booksellers have fallen by the wayside, Goldsboro has expanded, moving into bigger premises at a prime London site earlier this year.  Why?  They are servicing that niche of the market that collects hardbacks and are doing it well.  The limited edition print runs available via Goldsboro sell.  It’s not down to location, but also, and perhaps more importantly, their web presence.  But if you are a customer, and wherever you are in the world, you can find your needs met here.

We hear so much about ‘learning from the music industry’ and the ‘experiment’ that exists in publishing right now.  It was good to read Timo Boezeman in FutureBook turn piracy on its head and focus on the customer when he said ‘… Because the most important fact is: they want your product! It’s up to you (as a content creator/provider) to ensure that consumers can buy your products in the simplest way, as quickly as possible, for a good (reasonable) price and without any fuss (no DRM, no unnecessary copyright notices and usable on a device of their own choice).’

At times like these, surely it is the time to focus on the customer? Why not offer up all formats at the same time to meet all customer needs? Those who join the dots for their customers in the fragmented digital world are surely the first to succeed? 




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