My 2004 BEA/PMA Publishing University experience was educational, a bit overwhelming, troubling, and invigorating. PMA-U sessions provided exactly the mental jumpstart I sought. Few peer publishers operate in my locale, so the sessions, handouts, and networking opportunities were an intellectual goldmine.
The common thread was, of course, book marketing. Interestingly, a huge spread existed in terms of where individuals were in business evolution and knowledge. But this really wasn’t a problem, because people were patient and flexible. If you discovered that the session you’d registered for wasn’t appropriate, nobody seemed to mind if you moved to another.
Coffee breaks provided ample opportunities for networking and discoveries. For example, I listened to a hallway conversation on the heels of a how-to session about publicity. Three publishers were lamenting their lack of time, energy, and money for a detailed publicity program as prescribed by the presenters. After a few minutes, I figured out that all three publishers were really authors trying to sell their own self-published books. It was quite apparent that their passion for writing books far exceeded their interest in promoting them, and probably their promotional abilities too. I was feeling smug until they started talking about their budgets for book promotion, which dwarfed what we were spending.
Sessions for Web-site book sales were packed. Presenters demonstrated sophisticated sites and support strategies. They preached the importance of integrated promotional programs to drive traffic. They dished out great ideas on publicity, search engine optimization, e-newsletters, and affiliate relationships. I decided to learn more about such technologies and how they could help us build traffic to our site. But I also realized that they are only tools in the promotional toolbox and not a panacea.
After one Web-related session, I asked a man waiting in line for a cup of coffee for his thoughts about the seminar. “Well, I wish I had heard that before spending 10 grand on a new Web site,” he admitted, explaining that a Web-site development firm had convinced him that a proprietary e-commerce site would help him sell thousands of books. Six months later and $10,000 poorer, he sees things more clearly. He said he would have been far better off starting with a $2,000 Web site, a PayPal shopping cart, and an $8,000 publicity campaign.
The sessions that related to niche publishing were invigorating. One publisher reported that he kept his bottom line healthy by selling booklets to pharmacies. Another publisher’s formula for success was selling math books to carpenters and pipe fitters. Still another made waves selling scuba-diving books. And an interesting Canadian couple paved their road into publishing by writing a travel book for people driving a specific interstate highway.
After listening to these entrepreneurs, I concluded that our niche approach was on target. We publish financial education books, specifically for parents of middle-school children. That feeling of affirmation–that we were on the right track–was worth the price of admission. But I also came away with a long list of marketing ideas. One clever concept that brought laughter was termed “reverse shoplifting.” The idea is to slip copies of a book onto the shelves of bookstores that don’t carry it. I wondered whether a frustrated sales clerk would indeed order more copies.
Insights into Our Industry
The BookExpo America convention at McCormick Place was a jaw-dropping panoply of capitalism at its finest. Acres of displays competed for the attention of book buyers. It was also a microcosm of the entire industry in a farm-sized building.
After two days of visiting with people throughout the book-publishing industry, I had another insight: this business is similar to other commodity industries. It is a mature, volume-based industry where the greatest margins and profits are captured by the business processes closest to the consumer.
In commodity industries, a few key players typically dominate the distribution system. Predictably, the commodity marketing system gives preference to high-volume, big-name, predictable market products. Sound familiar?
There is nothing inherently wrong with commoditization. In fact, most industries eventually become commoditized. The reason this realization was useful was that it clarified our marketplace position. I realized that DynaMinds needed either to get better at book production and distribution, which would lower our costs, or to define and capture a higher-value niche market.
Like any mature industry, book publishing contains clever entrepreneurs who find success on the fringe. This category includes people who build new markets or seize markets that are too small, too specialized, or too risky for the big guys. (Think of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series or Rich Dad, Poor Dad). I went looking for the small publishers who had the most booth traffic. During traffic lulls, I introduced myself as a rookie and asked if they had time to chat. Not one told me to get lost!
New paradigms were apparent at both PMA-U and BEA. For example, it was clear that virtually anyone can now reach a world market via the Internet, and that publishers can benefit from the resources of global digital book distribution systems like Amazon.com, B&N.com, and Indybook.com. Also, it was clear that new technologies are changing the way books are physically produced and delivered, and that print-on-demand services and e-book distribution systems have the potential to change the way entire books and other informational products are stored, sold, and delivered. All these are exciting for independent publishers.
As you can likely tell, I learned a lot at both BEA and PMA-U. But perhaps the most important thing I learned is how much more I need to learn. I’ll hope to see you there this spring.
Charles R. Kuster is publisher at DynaMinds Publishing and a partner in Kuster Ltd, a communication consulting company. Before becoming a full-time entrepreneur in 2002, he held numerous communication and marketing positions in industry.
PMA-U: Notes to Myself
- Act like a publisher, not an author.
- Figure out how to repackage and resell content.
- Double the time spent on marketing.
- Since I can’t outspend the big guys, how can I out-think them?
- Prepare authors for media/publicity tours–make promo tapes.
- Eighty-five percent of books are sold via word of mouth. How can I get people talking?