What we can learn from the troubles of Martha Stewart
November 13, 2012 | 12:54 pm
By Joanna Cabot
I’ve seen reporting pretty much everywhere about the troubles facing Martha Stewart and her company these days. She’s laying off staff and folding magazines, she’s reporting a 17 percent decline in revenues and she’s taking for herself the lion’s share of her company’s earnings.
But is this just about money management and changing media directions, or is something else going on? An article in the Hamilton Spectator offers an intriguing secondary hypothesis. The trouble with brands based on a living person, they say, is that they come with a “high risk of calamity” as they rise or fall on the escapades of their founders. Some, like Chanel and Estee Lauder, survive their founders. Others do not. The article points out that even Oprah has seen her fortunes falter since she gave up the platform (and prominence) of her daily talk show.
So what was Stewart’s problem, other than erratic money management and a perhaps overly egocentric management style? As the article explains:
“Stewart, with her four homes, an alleged nine personal assistants (MSLO denies this), and coterie of celebrity pals, has disconnected from her audience. ‘There is an incredible divide between what Martha was interested in and what the reader wanted,’ a former editor at Martha Stewart Living told the author of a New York magazine profile, which reported on how a series of MSL editors have been thwarted by Stewart in trying to put more emphasis on backyard barbecues and less on ‘tassel-strewn, Venetian-themed dinners for twenty.'”
That, I think, is the true lesson the rest of us can learn here, and I worry it’s going to get lost in the financial finger-pointing and gossipy revelations about Stewart’s quirks as a boss. If you are in a business that sells product, and you want to make money, you need to figure out who your audience is and what they want to buy. Then you need to sell it to them. It doesn’t matter if the business is the ‘omnimedia’ Stewart pushes, or if it’s office supplies or cupcakes or car parts or books. If you don’t sell what your customers want to buy, you’re in trouble. The end.
I know that’s a message many writers don’t want to hear. They don’t want to write erotica or vampire stories or paranormal romance, they say. Shouldn’t they be allowed to write what they want? Of course they should. But there’s a difference between being an artist and being a salesman. The only writer I know of who truly wrote only what they wanted, and never thought about audience or potential market or working with an editor to refine their work and prepare it for sale was Emily Dickinson, and she stuck it all into a drawer where no eyes but hers laid upon all of it until she was dead.
Most other writers (and publishers and cupcake chefs and office supply vendors) have to strike that delicate balance at some point between putting out the product they want to put out, and putting out the product their customers will pay for.
I recall a popular exercise video instructor who, for many years, would poll her forum audience before she started filming her annual DVD series. Her reasoning, which I must admit, makes perfect sense to me, is that if she was going to film a new DVD anyway, she may as well tweak it to what her audience wanted. That way, she was all but guaranteed the sales.
Some years, people wanted a full series with one workout per day that they could plug in without having to think about it. Other years, they wanted solo workouts they could buy one at a time, to round out what they already had. Sometimes, there was a particular prop or tool they wanted to get more use out of. She had a clear brand and a very niche market—higher-end workouts for the advanced exerciser—but within that brand, there was room to tailor her annual release to what her customers wanted that year.
I’m not saying we should all be writing vampire erotica stories, by any means. But I am saying that if you’re in this for the money as much as the art, you can’t ignore what your customers are telling you. If they’re holding out their money and saying, You can have it, if … then you should be listening.
You should be reading TeleRead (as well as the various blogs and websites you see popping up regularly in our Morning Roundups) and the MobileRead forums and the Kindle Boards. You should be finding out what your customers are looking for. Are there little tweaks you can institute that might make your customers more inclined to part with their money? Maybe they want series books available as a one-stop bundle. Maybe you could offer a format that is specially sized for their preferred reader device. Maybe they’d like access to bonus content, like short story extras or behind-the-scenes info. Maybe there is a barrier they currently face—geo-restrictions; DRM hassles; availability at their preferred store—that you could remove for them.
There is no shortage of free market research that concerned readers like myself are all but handing you guys on a silver platter. Read it! Once you know what people want to buy, it’s so much easier to sell to them.
You don’t want to be the author who offers the book equivalent of the Venetian-themed tea party, when what your readers really want is a backyard barbecue.
* * *