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Board Member’s Memo: Know Your Customer

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PUBLISHED JULY 2016

by Mark Wesley, Founder, me+mi publishing & IBPA Board Member —


Mark Wesley

Knowing your customer should be the foundation of all that you do with your marketing and, for that matter, your company. Unfortunately, people skip this part and proceed to do a lot of activities that may be detrimental to their bottom line. The existence of any business depends on knowing the customer.

When we develop books for other publishers, we recognize that we have many customers along the way in between the publisher and the actual end user. When we started publishing books for the trade market, we had the same types of needs and concerns. The stakeholders along the value chain included distributors, wholesalers, reviewers, bookstores, school boards, warehouse clubs, non-book retailers, schools, teachers, parents, and, last but not least, the actual users of the product. Every one of these stakeholders has slightly different needs, wants, and, ultimately, goals. To create great products and get a larger market share, we had to understand each stakeholder—how they think, what they want, how they buy, when they buy. In essence, we had to empathize with them in every aspect.

They all share common desires for great stories, editing, cover and interior design, and sublime customer experience. That is the baseline we all must strive to achieve. If your books are not at this point, stop and make this a priority for your publishing company. At the end of the day, it will save you a lot of time, money, and disappointment. Without it, the already-difficult climb of publishing will be at least 10 times harder.


Create Products that Stand Out

When we participated in our first Book Expo America, we had one product—three books packaged in a slipcase. Through market research, we knew the market needed what we were offering and we understood how to satisfy it. We had produced products for other publishers for the previous 15 years and knew how to meet and exceed the market’s expectations of what I call “The Look Test.” “The Look Test” indicates that your product is at the same level of the top publishers in the industry and when they look at your product, it sends the message that you have met and/or exceeded the industry standards for the trade book market. If it fits, they will give your book more time. If it does not fit, they will quickly move to the next book. We had no idea about other aspects of the trade market. Thankfully, IBPA helped us fill in the gaps. What we did understand was how to create products that stood out in the marketplace. Our first tradeshow was a big success. We secured orders from [the former] Borders, Target, Costco, and a wide array of bookstores across the country. In less than three months we had sold over 20,000 units and went on to sell thousands more during that first year. For a lot of independent publishers, this story is rare—but it does not have to be.

The first lesson learned is that you have to create a product that fits a need in the market. What problem does your publishing company solve? What makes you different from all of the others? How does your product help each one of the stakeholders along the value chain? Why does your publishing company exist? The ultimate success of every business lies in satisfying the needs, preferences, and expectations of the stakeholders better than its competitors.


Pass “The Look Test”

The second lesson is to make sure your books and corresponding marketing materials can pass “The Look Test.” There are over half a million books produced every year. The first part of what book buyers and reviewers do is to visually eliminate what does not fit. You might have the best book, but no one will read it if the book cannot get past “The Look Test.” It is just physically impossible for the buyers to give each book the attention it needs—first impressions do count.

By meeting the customers’ visual and functional preferences, you help to overcome their doubt about you and your book. They have seen so many bad books that they have built up many barriers for anything that does not fit the industry standard. Your job is to overcome this lack of trust and provide them an experience that lowers the barriers they have put up. As Richard T. Williams, director of publisher development at the Independent Publishers Group, says, “Most books are not eligible because they do not conform to the expectations of the national market.” That does not mean you cannot be unique or different; it does mean there is a minimum standard you must meet. Once again, you need to have a great story, editing, cover and interior design. That is just the baseline.


Empathize with Customers

The third lesson is to go deep into who your customers are and learn how to empathize with them. We do this through design research and a series of ethnographic interviews. After we analyze and synthesize all of this information, we create what is called a persona. As I mentioned before, there are many customers on the journey to the end user. We create personas for every customer on this journey, but we start with only one at a time. The end user, the one who buys the book to read, is the first customer segment we do. We pick one persona that will represent our customer; we give them a name; we look at the demographics, psychographics, where they visit online and offline, what they purchase and when they buy, events they attend, newspapers and magazines they read, pains and frustrations, goals and dreams. We use all of this information so we can create “The One” person we are going to communicate with, focus on, and build a relationship with.

We look at the persona when we are deciding where we market, what we present, and how and why we do what we do. It helps us to discriminate. If the activity or manuscript does not fit the persona, we do not proceed. By knowing who they are, we can get them to select us.

A persona helps you to know your customers and find better solutions to their problems. You can deliver real value to your customers by understanding what makes them tick. Often, companies make the mistake of viewing the product or service they are selling through their own eyes instead of the customers. However, by understanding the customer, the more you can engage them successfully.

Your customers care about their own lives. The only interest they have in your book is whether or not it will make their lives better.

Everything I am talking about is in your reach. You already have what you need. I truly believe you can have a successful life in publishing—just take some time to get to know your customer.


Mark Wesley owns me+mi publishing and has spent the last 25 years developing products for major U.S. publishers. As an EMyth-certified business coach and Duct Tape marketing consultant, Wesley helps clients improve their leadership, branding, finance, management, marketing, sales, and customer engagement skills. He is a current member of the IBPA board of directors.

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