[Continuing the series of posts on UX and digital product development for Publishers]

Last week, I posted thoughts on publishers addressing the realities of digital products and closed systems, and I got feedback about another topic that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: branding, UX, and building a true direct-to-consumer model for publishers.

For a long time now, it has been clear that the real shift in the publishing industry is not the physical-digital shift, but moving from a primarily b2b into a primarily d2c mode of business. Digital products bring along with them the ability and, perhaps, responsibility of the creator to interact with their customers. This is foreign for many publishers, as the history of publishing is the history of mostly ignoring customers and making what we want. (A general statement, I am aware, but one that is intended to make a point.)

Direct-to-consumer requires listening to customers, inviting them into the product development cycle, and making what they want us to make. The role, then, of the publishers shifts from being the “tastemaker” to being the purveyor of a curated user experience. This is brand development on a high-level; it is the notion of reorganizing our branding structure, mostly done through myriad imprints of which most have lost specific intent or focus, and developing a holistic sense of how we as a company interact with our customers. Every touch point is important. Every communication should be guided. Every message should serve the same UX point-of-view.

Here, the role of UX is not to pass judgment on what your specific point-of-view is, as there is a market for nearly everything. In fact, having a point-of-view is infinitely more important, in a certain sense, that the specifics of the point-of-view itself.

The first area to tackle is our big UX disaster: currently it is very unclear, in the case of most publishers, to consumers what it is that they are even offering. Our b2b, walled-garden, tastemaker, above-it-all past has created a situation whereby the majority of our brands experience no or low brand recognition and the general public has nary a clue about what it is that we actually do. The average consumer sees absolutely zero difference between self-publishing and the Big Six. 50 Shades, Twilight, meh. All the same. (I’m not suggesting that readers think these are the same books; but they make absolutely no distinction between how they were published and by whom.) In a market of enhanced competition, publishers need to be absolutely clear about what they bring to the table in order to compete at all. It’s not just brand awareness, it’s about connecting, engaging, and educating consumers about what it is that they’re buying.

Right now our value prop is, “Shut up and trust us.” From a UX standpoint this is a disaster.

Here, small and mid-sized publishers are in a position of advantage. Every business book will tell you that being small(er) means being nimble. And there has never, since Gutenberg, been a moment that the pivot turn has been more essential.

It’s time to reorganize and reprioritize how publishing does business. A revamp of how we approach marketing, messaging, brand structure, product development, and, most importantly, customer interaction. When we look around at highly successful companies (in and out of publishing), they all have a solid, easily articulated point-of-view about the user experience they offer and how they interact with their customers.

Publishers that remain current, show momentum and move forward successfully are those which have put measures into place to display outwardly these things that customers feel are important today. In very different ways, we see this with the latest initiatives coming out of Sourcebooks, O’Reilly, Unbridled Books, Tor/Forge, and Momentum, just to name a few. (I’m sure there are many other examples, please feel free to shoutout others in the comments.)

To round up this discussion, which I am sure will not be concluded for some time now, and I certainly encourage vocal public discussion on this topic, I will say this: the questioning the value of publishers, as is happening in the public sphere right now, is a real issue. It is something that we have done very little (read: nothing) to counteract. Our main focus right now, at this stage in the transition before all is lost, is to determine what we are offering and let people know quickly. For an industry based on selling stories, it’s time we starting selling our own autobiography.


3 Responses to On UX and Branding: Fixing the disaster

  1. Peter Turner says:

    I’d throw into the mix here, Brett, that the one thing that will likely help publishers survive during this transition is to honestly ask themselves who their customers are (and will be) and what value they deliver to them.

    One other thought is that while being smaller is better, having fewer products to market creates it’s own challenge in rationalizing direct marketing expense.

    But, solutions are coming to hand . . .

    • Brett says:

      “…the one thing that will likely help publishers survive during this transition is to honestly ask themselves who their customers are (and will be) and what value they deliver to them.”

      Peter, I could not agree more. This is such an essential point to this whole thing. The idea of striving to be honest about who we are doing business with. Cannot be overstated!

      And, I agree with you one the additional point re: smaller publishers. My point was above addressed only the notion of being able to shift more quickly than the larger machines. It’s true that the big guys have other assets which will assist them, as well.

  2. SAO says:

    As a reader, I would really appreciate help finding the next book to read. Amazon does this well (and why I have a Kindle). The iBookstore is a joke and B&N’s recommendation engine not worth using. The small independent bookstore in my town did it well, too, before it closed.

    What publishers need to do is to figure out how to correctly identify a book I want to read. They should have the expertise. If they do it, they will be rewarded with my loyalty. If they recommend the latest Robo-written Patterson because I liked some other thriller or push whatever book they want to sell me, then forget it.

    At present, I, like most people, view the author as the brand. The average author can’t write more than a book a year and I’d prefer to read a lot more than that. If I am guaranteed a good book every time I buy one, I’d probably buy one a week.

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