Monday, July 9, 2012

And another thing: serve your customers

Not unrelated to the previous post is a little rant that I've scattered throughout some other posts, but here it is in a different form.

Basically, all of us in the publishing industry need to remember who our ultimate customers are: readers. Where the industry is hamstrung at the moment is the point where we're holding on to the old supply chain and how that has affected our ability to meet readers' demands. Between the author and the reader there has existed a number of organisations who have all been each other's customers: agents to publishers, publishers to printers and then to booksellers, and a few other people in the middle there somewhere. None of those folks, apart from the booksellers, deal with the readers. And even then the booksellers can only give the readers what the publishers give them. The result has been difficulty in giving many readers what they really want to read.

What's been going on thus far can be analogously described this way: Say I run a pub - an ordinary, suburban pub with a bar, a bistro, pokies, a beer garden. Say I decide that I no longer want to serve white wine at the pub because I just don't like it and think that people who drink it don't really appreciate proper wine. They can drink red wine or nothing. And don't even get me started on beer - I may just take that away too. I'm then mystified - nay, shocked - that the white wine drinkers either stop coming to the pub altogether or go to the little bar around the corner that serves white wine. In withdrawing the white wine from sale I attempted to manipulate demand by restricting supply - but it didn't work. The white wine drinkers still wanted white wine, and they just found somewhere else to get it.

In this analogy white wine could stand in for genre fiction; for ebooks; for a first-novel imprint for Australian writers. It stands in for anything that a reader wants and can't get, not because it doesn't exist, but because no one wants to supply it. It would be very difficult for an industry in a capitalist economy to survive by ignoring what the market demands, or attempting to manipulate that demand by manipulating supply. And, love it or hate it, a capitalist economy is what we have.

The publishing industries here, and elsewhere, have largely tried to do that with fiction, in particular. It probably hasn't even been conscious, but it's happened, and now readers are getting their white wine from other suppliers. Some of it's not even good white wine, but they want the white wine and they're prepared to put up with lower-standard white wine if necessary. What I don't understand is why we aren't all just honest about it and say, 'You know what? We made a mistake withdrawing the white wine from sale. We are going to reinstate it immediately and we would like your feedback on our selection.' The only thing anyone has to lose by doing that is pride. Maybe some money as they readjust - but I bet the white wine drinkers will be happy to have a new selection to choose from.

And lest I sound like I'm beating up on the industry I'm very happy to be working in: in my youth I was one of the worst anti-white-wine snobs. I sneered at anything that wasn't literary fiction, until I realised that was just ego - I wanted to be thought of as smart, when in truth I read a wide range of books and some of them were 'trashy'. Once I was in a position to place books with publishers, I also started to pay more attention to what people want to read and I realised that there are sectors of the market we're just not catering to very well. All it takes is a shift in attitude and then some follow-through. If I were running that pub and seeing my margins getting thinner simply by not serving white wine, I'd be doing whatever I could to get it back on the wine list - and then I'd tell everyone about it.


Ebony McKenna. said...

I came here via a twitter link from BookThingo.
Great post!

I completely agree, giving customers what they want -giving them a choice - is smart business. I'm also a huge romance fan and write it too, and I think you're spot on. When you stop selling the thing people love, they don't buy something else, they go somewhere else where they can buy what they love.

Rosie said...

Love the analogy with white wine and made me think long and hard about the snarl session I just had with my sister about 50 Shade of Grey. It's not my cuppa tea, but not everyone wants Twining's Irish Breakfast.

Whole-heartedly agree with your post. Thanks.

Emma perez said...

The analogy was great. Thanks!