community-joeMore and more book publishers seem to focus on building a better direct relationship with consumers. Some of these direct-to-consumer (D2C) efforts are well thought-out, but others are nothing more than publishers following the crowd.

How else do you explain so many publisher sites that are just catalog pages with the option to by print or e-books direct? What’s the compelling reason for someone to come to the site? Even if consumers find the site, why would they consider buying direct rather than from their favorite retailer?

It reminds me of the old days when everything was driven by seasonal (print) catalogs. The accounts insisted on having enough lead-time to promote titles, so the summer titles were presented the previous fall or winter. The print catalogs were then left behind with the buyer as evidence of the sales call presentation.

Most of today’s publisher websites are nothing more than the digital version of those seasonal catalogs. And since there’s no compelling reason for consumers to discover and explore them, many of these websites are ghost towns. Publishers create them and then wonder why nobody visits or buys.

Here’s something most D2C-focused publishers overlook: It’s virtually impossible to change a consumer’s buying habits. The larger my Kindle e-book library, the less likely I am to buy my next e-book from a retailer not named Amazon, and that includes an aversion to buying direct from the publisher. It’s that wonderful retailer walled garden phenomenon; and those walls are something publishers helped create by insisting on locking their books inside DRM.

So if that spiffy website is unlikely to generate direct sales, why does it exist? If your answer is “to increase discovery,” do yourself a favor and study the results of a Google search for your top titles, series and authors. If your pages aren’t among the top search result links, you’re kidding yourself with the “discovery” justification. The top results are getting all the clicks.

Rather than trying to change consumer buying habits and owning the sale, publishers should instead focus their D2C efforts on building community. Publishers own the relationship with authors, so as a publisher, what are you doing to build community around your authors? What are the top three reasons are you giving consumers to come to your website?

Authors, by the way, are just one component. Many publishers have popular series or dominate a specific genre. What are you doing to build community around that brand or genre?

It’s OK to still offer direct buy buttons on each title’s catalog page but your D2C buy buttons should be offered alongside buy buttons for all the popular retailer sites. That includes buy buttons for print as well. Let consumers decide where they want to buy and don’t force them to hunt for your product on a retailer’s site.

If publishers don’t spend the time building this community with consumers, who will? The retailers aren’t going to do it. Their focus is way too broad.

So although most publishers missed out on the opportunity to go direct in the digital era, there’s still plenty of time to establish a strong consumer relationship by using your site to build and foster community. Just be sure to keep your priorities straight and focus on community first and owning the sale second.

Publisher’s note: Joe’s words are something to keep in mind as more possibilities open up for even self-publishers to sell direct. Go ahead if you want. But also offer customers the standard options such as Amazon. It’s all about consumer choice. I personally feel that DRM is a major threat to choice. Let retail chains “lock in” customers through other means such as good service and customer reviews and forums. Yes, retailers themselves can offer community. Problem is, they don’t in the case of most books. So Joe’s wisdom still applies. – D.R.


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