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Commentary Beyond the book

Published by FirstyNews

Beyond the book

Publishers selling direct to consumers has been one of the industry’s biggest trends of the last few years. More and more of them have been building their own ecommerce websites, cutting out the middlemen and persuading people to buy direct from them instead. For specialist publishers in particular, who know their readers exceptionally well, the opportunities for direct sales have been very exciting.

But where do we go from here? With D2C now approaching maturity, it is time for publishers to think about what more they can offer their customers. To keep readers coming back and buying, they need to go beyond just selling them books—they need to build communities around them, and give them content and experiences that they cannot get anywhere else.

It means that publishers need to evolve into something new: curators. Many publishers’ websites are already good places to browse, but they can be even better: not just stores but destinations in their own right. Niche publishers especially should be aiming to make themselves the go-to sources in their subjects—places to return to time and again for high quality, well curated content, and not just books.

The shift is easier than might be thought. Publishers already have a wealth of content at their fingertips, and in authors they have the perfect people to give them more. To bulk up a website, a good place to start is authors’ own material: blogs that can be repurposed, for example, archived interviews, or photos that have not appeared elsewhere.

This kind of content helps to build clusters of fans around authors or subjects, and the logical next step is to turn these people into communities. Newsletters and online discussion forums can start to draw readers closer into your fold, and are relatively easy to organise. Building events around them—not just digital ones like live online Q&As, but real-world ones like author readings or book clubs—can follow.

Web content doesn’t have to be just written, and there are all sorts of multimedia opportunities available to publishers now. Smartphones have brought the creation of good quality video content within the reach of anyone, so author interviews can be filmed and posted in hours. Audio is another option, whether through regular podcasts or more occasional interviews. The extra advantage of this sort of visual and aural content is that it is eminently sharable, and if they are distinctive and entertaining enough, short clips can spread across Facebook or Twitter like wildfire.

Once communities have been established, there are all sorts of ways to keep them engaged. Offering website users digital freebies, or exclusive content that is unavailable elsewhere, can be a good place to start. Competitions with prizes of books will grab people’s interest. Loyalty programmes—offering a free book for every nine bought from the online store, for example—are good for pulling people back. ‘There are some excellent Members schemes leading the way – Faber and Faber, and (our very own) Osprey Publishing, provide nice examples – showing how it is possible to turn a publishing brand into something that means so much more to consumers.

There is no doubt that this a major evolution. Companies that were once simply publishers have now made themselves retailers too—and the next challenge is to become gateways as well. It is not easy, and it will require some significant investment in time and resources. And perhaps the biggest question in all of this is how publishers get a return on these investments. One way is to start charging for the extra content they start to provide: whether through a subscription model or for one-offs, like access to podcasts or tickets for events.

But the biggest gain of all should hopefully be in straightforward book sales. By offering one-stop-shops for the content that their customers crave, publishers’ websites can quickly become compelling alternatives to third party retailers. Content-rich websites also open up the potential to sell bundles of content, like an enhanced ebook along with a printed one.

The internet has given publishers the chance to think big and imagine themselves as much more than guardians and booksellers of their own titles. It will be fascinating to see how they capitalize on all the opportunities that are available to them in the years ahead.

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