Old publisher of the year • 14 April 2007 • The SnowBlog

Old publisher of the year


Despite being shortlisted for Young Publisher of the year, all of a sudden my skin has gone old. Maybe it's the changing seasons; maybe it's because I don't drink enough water or eat enough brightly-coloured vegetables, but it's looking sufficiently scraggy that yesterday found me in Boots looking at skincare. Being an impoverished small publisher, I was surveying the mass market lines rather than the Patented 3-step Expensive Clinique range or similar, and came across the Olay range.

Now, this took me back because in 1997 I was seconded to Procter and Gamble for a while. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but boy, they are a fascinating company, and, as I finally get round to making this post relevant to the publishing industry, taught me some lessons which big publishers would do well to consider. In publishing, it all comes down to power. The different players in the industry - authors, retailers, publishers, agents, packagers, wholesalers - all have their own interests and agendas, and all want to make sure that they are seen to be important in the overall process. Nothing wrong with that - to defend your position is human nature (she says - I'm currently half way through an essay on the natural and the social for my open uni course. Summary: no such thing as the natural human state. Still, it's true to say that people are self-interested). The ways people defend their position vary, but essentially people try to exert power over other constituents to show that they themselves are the most important. You see it all the time - in interactions between agents and publishers, agents and authors, publishers and retailers, retailers and wholesalers, retailers and authors - everyone, through their actions, aiming to reinforce the idea that they are the most important, because with that importance comes influence and power, and profit and security. 

Now, consider how P&G manage the power struggle between themselves and their customers. In the old days it used to be bully-boy tactics. The retailer would say 'I won't list your new product unless you drop the price by 30%'. The supplier would say 'OK then - I'm going to withhold supply of this other product which makes you a ton of money a year'. And so it would go on. However, when category management was born in the early 90s, suppliers like P&G began to adopt a more subtle approach. 

First, they spend between 5 and 10 years developing a product. They start with broad-based research, asking tens of thousands of people about their experiences with a particular product area. Frinstance, if they're thinking of developing a new shower gel, they ask incredibly detailed questions about what people look for in such a product. I even heard of one piece of research where hundreds of people were invited to take showers and as they were showering questions were fired at them from behind the curtain (I hope) so that real time responses were gathered. From such research came new squeezy-cap developments, as the researchers found that the old flip-top caps on shower gel bottles hurt people's fingers, and ergonomically designed bottles for ease of holding when wet. They take the time to do a thorough job of figuring out what it is that people want - before they know it themselves. 

You can really see how sound this approach is when you shop the Olay range. I was in store looking for something to make my skin look better, and was feeling a bit guilty for not having eaten sufficient vitamins. I was also vaguely worried about getting old. What does the packaging of Olay's moisturiser say? "Everything your skin needs most to look its best". The small print backed this claim up convincingly. Blimes - sounds perfect. It addresses exactly my reason for shopping. Wait, what's this? Something about ageing, too? Here's the blurb from their website:

"You love the skin you're in but you're not afraid to admit that sometimes you need a helping hand to keep it looking fabulous as the years go by. You've even wondered about cosmetic surgery. That is why Regenerist's breakthrough technology is just what you need. With its powerful amino complex, the Regenerist skin care range - serum, lotion and creams - is one of the most effective ways to achieve beautiful skin without resorting to chemical peels or laser surgery."

That, my friends, is the result of five years of focus groups, targetted surveys, basket analysis, test marketing, not to mention the work of some of the world's finest and best-paid scientists. They have understood perfectly their target shopper and have quite simply given her what she most wants. No wonder they are the market leader in every market they sell in. 

Compare that, if you have the heart, to publishing. (I'm talking about the largest publishers here - another post will follow containing my thoughts on branding for indie publishers.) The lightest dusting of research; no appreciation of market assessment techniques; a hit and miss approach. In fiction, publishers might buy manuscripts that broadly fit their editorial direction but it's a passive process. They're not developing product to answer the market's need; they're passively filtering what's created outside of their companies and performing some perfunctory, basic marketing - packaging and sales. They're not taking the time to ask and understand what people enjoy and not enjoy in the reading process. If they did they might realise that people don't like crappy 30 year old typesetting files to be used on modern reprints, like Rob has found with his long search for a decent copy of Persuasion.  They might have found that people really like cloth covered books - which only a fraction of books are covered in nowadays. Who knows what else we would discover if we only took the time to find out? Maybe even that people don't really care that much about the form a good book takes, and feel that pulpy newsprint, smudgy typesetting, garish covers and glue doesn't make for a particularly hallowed product, and actually if it was easy to buy a book without a load of DRM attached for a pretty new gadget they'd be more than happy to shell out. So strongly, in fact, do I feel about this that I might get a banner made and hire a plane to fly round London trailing it behind - the banner would read "PUBLISHERS! PEOPLE LOVE NEW GADGETS!" 

Anyway, back to the point. If a supplier creates a product tailored so cleverly that people are very likely to buy it, and has 5 years' worth of market research paperwork to prove it, that supplier is in a very good position to suggest to retailers that they would be chumps if they didn't list it. The retailer, essentially, would be shooting himself in the foot and denying himself certain margin. That is a very different starting point for a negotiation compared to 'oh, this is the best product in the world!" which is what EVERY publisher's sales manager gives as their pitch for EVERY book. And don't give me all that 'oh, books are special' line. Yes, they are special, but, if we're talking about mass market titles, they're not different. (And actually, as we've often said on this blog, what's so special about newsprint, glue and unimaginative cover design? It's the words that are special, not the form.) They are a thing that people can choose to spend their money on or not. And if we really care about them, if we really think they're a form worth preserving, we should be trying a lot harder to at least catch up with the robust, proven marketing approaches that the likes of P&G were already thinking of as passe by the late 90s.    

So I bought £90 worth of Olay products yesterday. Each tube and pot I came across claimed to do one more thing for my skin that I was convinced I needed. I slathered all of them over my face last night. Guess what? Radiant, gorgeous, soft skin this morning. I am reborn! Decent research; clever marketing; fabulous R&D and a product that delivers what it claims? Imagine if the big publishers worked like that - there'd be a lot less scope for nimble little indies to work their magic. 


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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