Perseus CMO Rick Joyce on Battling the Homogenization of Books
The transformation of the media business over the past few decades is nothing short of remarkable. Today, music can be downloaded or streamed instantaneously, movies and television shows are available via mobile devices, and magazine brands extend across print, digital, video, and social channels. And though digital technology revolutionized the way we consume content, it greatly undermined media organizations' traditional revenue models.
In his previous life as a consultant for Accenture, Perseus Books Group CMO Rick Joyce helped clients in the media industry grapple with this digital upheaval. One lesson Joyce learned from working with a range of media and entertainment companies is that creating digital access alone will not stabilize the bottom line. Providing digital content with unique value and conveying that value to consumers is just as important. Otherwise, as Joyce witnessed in the music industry with iTunes' 99-cent song pricing, digital books will be homogenized and valued accordingly.
Today Joyce works tirelessly to articulate the notion that books have situational value. "A coffee table book does not have the same worth as a reference book, which doesn't have the same value as a paperback," explains Joyce. The value of any given book is determined by its specific use by a specific audience. For example, dedicated fans of a popular young adult series will value the newest sequel and may be willing to purchase a special, enhanced edition. Someone eager to learn a new language quickly will appreciate a book that promises fluency upon completing its pages.
Joyce says that more than ever, a publisher's role is to identify the value of a book and communicate it to the right audiences at the right time and through the right channels. This requires powerful analytics tools that can collect consumer data, as well as robust social platforms that connect publishers with consumers who fit a particular niche. And finally, Joyce says, he and his fellow publishers need to find ways to help individual consumers serendipitously discover the books that they need before they even know they need them. "For books to succeed, you have to be thinking about all the needs a book can fulfill and all the things its competing with for your attention and for your time and money."
It's a tall order, Joyce admits, but he and the Perseus team have developed a number of strategies to begin tackling these issues. Joyce shares those insights with Book Business in the following interview.
How has your experience working with digital media in other sectors informed your work in the book industry?
One thing that I've seen in all of these industries is that they have all had a pretty significant switch to digital, almost all of them before books. Those transitions aren't done by any means, but the first shot across the bow in music industry with the creation of MP3 files was over 20 years ago now. Reference publishing and B2B publishing went to digital very early when you think about the rise of LexisNexis or Bloomberg Terminals.
I have worked for a lot of clients in the media industry that were in the early, middle, and late stages of the transition to digital, and that has been useful for me in book publishing-although every one of those businesses made the transitions differently. Obviously a song is not a book, and a book is not a movie. The experience of having been involved in this transition in multiple media is insightful but it's not a crystal ball.
Another thing I learned from all of these digital media transitions was to think about value. There will be forces, as I've seen in the music and movie industry, that want to see all books as interchangeable content, but in fact their use cases and value are completely different. It's important that publishers deliver on that value and make sure that everything doesn't become homogenized.
Not everything is a low-stakes read to pass time. If you're selling a travel guide, you're helping people make very expensive decisions about where to stay, what to do, and how to spend that vacation time that they can't get back. The book is an important piece of that and the trust that is baked into that is pretty high. We publish Rick Steves' guidebooks and his success has a lot to do with the trust that people have in him. He spends roughly 14 weeks every year visiting the places he writes about and makes sure everything he's written is correct. That adds a lot of value.
How important is data collection and management for Perseus?
One of the ways in which you're starting to see publishers collect data is through direct sales. It's a way to learn who's buying what, build their history, ask them questions, etc. You're starting to see a fair amount of that. For example, our travel guides have a print and digital direct solution. Travel is one of those things where you can really build a profile of what people like and make specific offers to them. But not all offers are so clear. We're a broad nonfiction publisher as well, and our authors cover a range of topics. An author may write about World War I, then Vietnam, then perhaps Bill Clinton. If someone reads one of his books, it's not always clear what to recommend next. So this type of recommendation selling may be more complex for certain titles.
But there are other ways to gather useful information beyond collecting data from a direct sale. You're beginning to see a lot of publishers build direct-to-consumer platforms for communicating with consumers. Publishers are using Pinterest sites or blogging sites to focus on a narrow interest, whether its vegan food, business, or sci-fi, so that they can have things that people can follow and subscribe to. All of that creates consumer information that can be used generally or specifically to make offers to folks. We've done a fair amount of that and I think it is something that every publisher can and should do.
The third thing we do is we analyze a social conversation and track that conversation using certain tools. We use a tool called ForSight from Crimson Hexagon to analyze consumer conversations and influencers, to hone metadata, to assess the effectiveness of campaigns, etc. And that is less about having a database of your own consumers and more about being sophisticated about analyzing the whole marketplace. That is a big data play because it's helping you target new customers rather than getting current customers to buy more.
You've recommended forming focused sites for niche audiences. Are publishers' overall brands not important?
I just don't think the consumer cares about publisher brands except in some very specific circumstances where the publisher is so dominant in a given genre, like a Harlequin or a Tor. I think that the vast majority of publishers are fooling themselves if they think the consumer is picking them based on brands. I would say the same thing about movies, excepting Disney and Marvel. When was the last time you said, "I want to go see a Paramount movie or a 21st Century Fox movie"? It's nothing you would ever say or do.
What publishers should really be trying to do is find a way to build direct access to or a conversation with a set of consumers around something specific. It can be really specific, like vegan food. The people who care about that really care about it. They don't want to go to just any food site and hunt down the stuff that is vegan friendly. You're serving a population that cares about a certain issue, if you create stuff that is that narrow.
How should publishers choose the platforms for these brands?
I'm a believer that you have to pick the platform that makes the most sense. If you're doing design or aesthetic stuff, there is Pinterest. If you're doing breaking news or social commentary, Twitter can really be effective. For fandom maybe you want to be on Reddit. There are different tools for different kinds of communities.
A problem can arise if publishers try to be on too many platforms at once because they don't have tons of money and they really want to focus on things that can have an impact. Let's say you want to promote your cookbooks and you are trying to juggle feeds on Instagram, Vine, a blog, Twitter, etc. Your efforts can really dissipate. I believe in honing it down to where your people are and focusing the conversation on the best vehicles. You also need to think about the voice of that vehicle, the type of content, how often this content needs to be released, and who are its supporters-authors, other media, superfans, etc.
No one will be unhappy if a publisher is getting deep into the verticals that they publish into, providing cool information, building a following, and collecting information about the consumers. That is all valuable information for the agent, for the publisher, for the retailer, and it's building demand for books.
What are the big challenges that Perseus hopes to tackle in the next few years?
I would say building direct relationships with consumers around focused content. We will also be focused on analytics-being able to analyze consumer behavior to figure out what to recommend, what to promote, how to price, and who to promote it to.
Discovery in general is also important because a lot of the online retailing recommendation engines are still very clunky. They are not insightful enough, elegant enough, or fun enough and in no way compare with the kind of purposeful serendipity that you get when you walk through a bookstore. They are not built for browsing in the same type of fun way.
Another thing I'm thinking about a lot is building up this sort of invisible book layer where any person in the world can immediately access a book that is relevant to where they are or their specific experiences. One of the real challenges is to make that book layer have a kind of intuitiveness so that really "in context" books are made visible to you, not only when you want to buy a book but also when you don't. There are a lot of ways to do that. As content becomes more connected, there will be fewer missed opportunities.
In publishing, we can't just sell books to people who have already decided they want to buy a book. The market is not as big as it could or should be. You also want books to come up when someone is thinking, "Mother's Day is coming up, what should I get my mom?" A book is competing with anything else you might do-a gift certificate to a spa, flowers, clothes. For books to succeed you have to be thinking about all the needs a book can fulfill and all the things its competing with for your attention, your time, and your money. I'm excited by all the ways that that book layer can get wired and is getting wired so that books can cross your path more purposefully.
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