What About the Readers?

To get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions.

Book publishing has many conundrums to solve in the coming decade, and not a week goes by without a long, thoughtful article in some major magazine about the impending collapse of the industry and its myriad causes: ebooks, Youtube, greed, television, gaming, big advances, returns, amazon, pirates, the Decline and Fall of Civilization.

The articles all revolve around this central and troubling question: "How can publishing maintain its financial viability when fewer people are reading books? Especially when everyone wants everything for free?"

This is going to be a tough question for publishers to answer, but it misses a more fundamental question, which is: "What do readers want, and how can we best provide it?"

I don't mean: "What books do they want to read," but rather, "What can we do to help people read more books?"

Tools of Change ... for Readers?

I recently attended O'Reilly's Tools for Change in Publishing conference, a yearly gathering of publishers, technology providers, developers, thinkers, visionaries. The TOC conference is built around technology, with an objective to help "decipher the tools of change in this industry and help cut through the hype for a more profitable future in publishing." In 2009 the focus was decidedly philosophical, not technological: what is the future of the book, and how might publishers build successful business models around the coming changes?

No firm answers came from the conference, but there were many glimmers of possible futures, with highlights from Peter Brantley, who examined books in the network, Jeff Jarvis who postulated about the Googly book, Cory Doctorow who skewered DRM as bad for readers, bad for business, and Sara Lloyd, who brings a reasoned and forward-looking publisher's perspective on digital.

Still, one thing that worried and puzzled me was how rarely the reader was mentioned at TOC. There was talk of the future of the book, the network, Google, and self-publishing models. And of course DRM. But the reader was largely absent.

Tools of Change ... for Readers?

One of the problems for publishers is that they have never had much to do with their readers. Their clients, traditionally, have been book stores, who in turn managed the relationships with readers. In a time of limited media choices and abundant readers that probably works. But now that book reading is competing against so many other information-based leisure activities (the web and the Wii, to name two), the makers of books need to have a more intimate understanding of what readers want. Outsourcing your relationships with the people who are your reason for existence is probably a bad idea when your business is in turmoil.

What kind of business runs without constantly questioning how it can best serve it's clientele? The answer, especially when consumer choice has never been so great, is probably: a business that's going to have trouble surviving.

How Can We Give You More?

Tim O'Reilly gave a great talk about the need to innovate and how publishers must be nimble to embrace technology and to experiment. But the most important thing about the talk was not so much what he said, but what his talk illustrated about his company. O'Reilly's interest is in delivering valuable content to people, in whatever way they can. Paperbacks, blogs, conferences, ebooks, podcasts. O'Reilly is a publisher, not just a book publisher: they find good content they think people will like, and package it in different shapes and sizes to meet the different needs and wants of their customers. Turns out people are happy to pay O'Reilly for content they value. They buy books from O'Reilly's site, and from Amazon and other stores, they download ebooks, download iPhone apps, and subscribe to book services online; they get a fair bit for free too -- blogs and podcasts, and the odd free ebook. And people pay thousands of dollars to watch O'Reilly writers speak, to rub shoulders with other luminaries who speak at O'Reilly events.

Books are just one part of the picture. They are at the base of O'Reilly's success, the foundation upon which O'Reilly is built. But O'Reilly is successful because they understand the value of books not as "things O'Reilly can sell" but rather as things that are of value to O'Reilly customers: the readers. O'Reilly provides readers with something of value, and many routes through which customers can give them money in exchange.

Who Is Your Vice President of Reader Relations?

So: If you are in the publishing business, who is your VP of Reader Relations? Does your executive committee meet regularly to discuss: How can we sell more books and cut costs?

Or are your meetings titled: How can we deliver more value to the people who want the content we have to give them? How can we give people more opportunities to give us money for the valuable service we provide?

Dan from the Casual Optimist just dropped his subscription to the Globe and Mail newspaper, because they can't deliver the paper before he goes to work. By the time he gets home, there's not much "news" left to read. Times are tough in publishing, but Dan thinks, and I agree, that publishers are worry too much about the wrong problems. Says Dan:

But, newspapers, and publishers for that matter, are missing the point. The internet, e-books, social media -- they really are not your problem. Taking your readers for granted -- THAT is your problem.

Newspapers and publishers have been able to get away with being so utterly complacent about their consumers because, for years, readers had no alternative. But now they do. And too often the newspapers that are printed and the books that are published -- and way they are delivered -- are not good enough for people to want to pay for them because there is more interesting and convenient stuff elsewhere. [more...]

The Right Question (Maybe)

The question every publisher should be asking themselves every day is: how can we provide more value to our readers? I suspect the ones that start each day with that question will find the right answers. At least, I think they'll be asking the right questions.