Can Publishers Scale Verticals?

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Word and Film ScreenshotSeveral years ago in a very large conference room I heard Mike Shatzkin give his “The End of Trade Publishers” presentation. Despite working for a trade publisher, I thought it was terrific. In my opinion, Mike didn’t get everything right, but he sure was shaking the right trees. He placed great emphasis on consumers and “communities of interests” or “verticals” and that piqued my interest*.  I became enamored of presenting books in these consumer-centered verticals, believing strongly that in the battle for digital discovery, they could represent very sharp arrows. Some niche publishers, like O’Reilly, were already consumer verticals — they seemed well-positioned for the future. Large, general trade houses like the one employing me struck me as less so.

General trade publishers did launch a handful of these consumer-oriented web verticals in the following years — most to at least modest success in terms of visible reach. Examples I happen to be familiar with from my time at Random House include Word & Film and Suvudu. There were others — both there and at other houses. Most of the sites are lovely, well-trafficked, active, etc. Just today, Avon Romance launched a consumer-geared vertical imprint site. (SciFi, Fantasy, Romance, and Mystery are the poor imprints who always get the “make a vertical” finger pointed at them, being at once categories and imprints). The site sounds good (except it only features Avon authors and titles but that’s just me).

It struck me then, as it does now, that if publishers are trying to connect directly with consumers, these sites and their initial success would seem to be central and positive — something in which to invest. And, yet, there aren’t any big name verticals. No killer verticals. No “wow” verticals. They all somehow feel like hedged bets. And I think that’s what they are. And, again Mike tells us why, though this time he is discussing efforts publishers choose to scale versus those they do not.

So it is a point of pride that editorial decisions and the publicity and marketing efforts that follow directly from the content be housed in smaller editorial units — imprints — within the larger publishing house.

Imprints are deliberately not scaled. They are designed to offer a personal face back to the agent/author community and on a B2B, book-by-book basis to retail. They are autonomous for the most part and only “come up against scale” when it is time to deal with back-office functions, distribution, printing or sales. Marketing — which is where I place verticals — is still for the most part structured per imprint. And the budgets by title.

Therein lies the rub. Content verticals require cross-imprint, cross-title collaboration or outside help (like a magazine publisher). So, what we tend to get instead of consumer verticals are imprint sites. Sometimes good ones. But imprint sites nonetheless. Is this a bad thing? Unless your imprint is a consumer category, yes, it is a bad thing if your goal is to reach consumers.

And now is when we have the argument over whether imprints are consumer brands. Here’s my two cents:

  • I’ve never seen a significant budget line devoted to B2C imprint branding
  • If imprints were consumer brands, consumers would already be flocking to the sites and we wouldn’t be having this dialogue

There is more that can be said but, generally speaking I would guess that Suze Orman’s site is larger than all her imprints’ combined and I can see that in the past year, more people have searched for “mystery books” than “penguin books” (not to pick on Penguin; it’s just always cited as the obvious consumer brand).

I have nothing against imprint sites. In fact, they are important for B2B and B2C reasons. These are companies and need to feel alive and out there. But, when placed next to verticals, which have the potential to offer books in a context consumers understand, they pale. And I would think that investment of time and energy on publishers’ parts would reflect this.

I actually think it will in time. So, can publishers scale verticals? Not how they are currently structured. But here’s a prediction: as marketing moves inexorably to digital channels, and the line between sales and marketing blurs and becomes a line to the consumer, houses will find themselves with small armies of hybrid sales/marketers who create consumer demand. One of their chief tools will be content verticals — their own, or those created in partnership with others.

What do you think?

* Here is a different presentation where Mike focuses on publishers and verticals.

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    • says

      Thanks for the comment, Peter. I think the answer is “yes” publishers need to scale verticals. I think it can happen in three ways. 1) Dollars can shift from activities that hit entire lists but become legacy as print declines as overall percentage of revenue; 2) staff shifts in same manner — more staff become “all list” consumer marketers; 3) publishers partner with existing vertical sites and provide the “books” component as Random has done with Politico. All will require a shift in focus and priority to make communities of interest foremost in the minds of marketers, as well as at least something of a shift away from the emphasis on individual title marketing budgets.

      • says

        I’m not quite clear what you have in mind on your first point. How do dollars get freed up when print declines? Do you mean that direct marketing will be more efficient overall?

        Totally agree with your second point. I’d even go a step further. In a customer-facing marketing biz, you want the folks who know the customer and why they value the products right up front in the marketing relationship. That’s the acquiring editor. I expect marketing/publicity and editorial departments will be joined at the hip.

        While I agree with your third point, I think partnerships like the one Random has with are rather weak and not likely to produce encouraging results, even with 2M unique monthly visitors . The content on the site seems only very loosely associated with the option to browse/read/buy related books. The approach is very passive, with weak or no calls to action, and likely has to be in order to preserve the perceived integrity of the reporting. Putting this barrier aside for a minute, a more active approach would be for each piece of content on the site and that goes out via social media and eMail to be directly linked to the option to read more (for free) from closely related books (as well as audio clips), with the option then, after the sampling, to purchase more content. But this would require a very intimate and labor intensive relationship between Politico and Random House. I think a marketing solution that scales is badly wanted. I’d love to hear your thoughts as you’ve been in the trenches yourself.

        • says

          On the first point, I was thinking of “what’s the new co-op,” what do catalogs (even digital ones) become in a perpetual publishing world…pretty broad strokes but generally assuming that seasonal, account-oriented activities will decline as a portion of spend/effort and either become savings or reinvestments.

          Totally agree that editorial/marketing/publicity become tight. I see them as category- or genre-specific pods one day soon.

          On point three, I see what you mean and don’t disagree. I see the Politico relationship as the “alpha” of what these could look like. What I would envision is publishers providing a “thin technology layer” that is, in essence, a direct marketing vehicle and store (or pass-through to another store). This layer could be replicated onto any platform and employed on social media. In simpler terms, *the* API for including a book and all of the stuff that goes with the book.

          Then you just need the staff to create the partnerships. Business development and consumer demand creation becomes the “new sales.” But I think you’re right; unless it is a tight and thorough integration, partnerships may not offer the same upside as verticals devoted strictly to books of a category or type.

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