Chris delivers a strong message and perhaps unsurprisingly there has been some debate on twitter around his view. I agree with his opinion and I think that our business at F+W has responded to some of the challenges that he outlines. By no means do we get everything right, but we have changed our business and approach to marketing significantly, a 5 year change I talked about here.
Something I do find curious, which I have seen before and heard again in this context, is the suggestion that the F+W business as a case study may not be relevant as we are not a ‘traditional publisher’. I’m not sure what that really means but for the avoidance of any doubt, until 5 years ago F+W Publications (as we were globally) and David & Charles (as we were in the UK) were print based magazine and book publishers in what I assume to be a very traditional sense. Sure, we were always in non-fiction categories but it was books, books and more books.
So, how has that changed? Well you can read some of our story in posts on this blog, but here are the key pillars of that evolution:
Consumer & Community Focus
Without a doubt the single greatest change in our business was to shift to being consumer focused. While we do sell to consumers (more of that below) this shift is a much greater cultural change than just a successful ecommerce businesses. We determined that having our own consumer reach, audience, email lists and websites was the only way to forward protect our future. I discussed this topic in this post on understanding consumers and touched on it here on the Digital Book World blog.
We could not and cannot rely on external (and volatile) trade partners. Even in the context of that volatile trade, we felt we had to have a consumer relationship. It has transformed F+W, and that transformation starts with our approach to new product.
Fewer books, more digital business
We have made difficult decisions in relation to our publishing. Our frontlist now is smaller than it was 5 years ago, we no longer publish books on railways (for years a cornerstone category for David & Charles), equestrian, gardening, history and nostalgia and many other categories. Instead we focus on craft and the creative arts, and actively seek ways to publish fewer, better books. A mantra in our business. The UK craft industry has a market size of over £1.5bn, so we feel there is plenty of room for growth in this ‘niche’.
We made an early commitment to publish ebooks, but beyond that the big steps have been in wider emedia. Digital projects and patterns, online courses, video subscription and more form part of the F+W group emedia business. We’ve gone way beyond the print book in our product mix.
Use consumer data to inform product
It took us some time to get here, but consumer data is now integral to content we commission. It starts with search trends, keywords and trending behaviour, but we build on that with our own data. Data on the content performing on our websites, audience figures by category, consumer sales of similar products. We crowdsource opinions, content and review jacket designs with our community. We actively focus on creating the product for the audience we have and are building. If we’re not sure we test, we might make a blog post live or a trial project and see how it is received. I talked about some of the data sets we use here.
Sell direct to consumer: Make higher margins
In the first quarter of this year, compared with UK trade customers, our own ecommerce business ranked third highest in terms of revenue generated from book sales. Our emedia and ecommerce revenues have grown significantly from being less than 5% of total in 2010 to close to 20% this year in the UK (a much higher percentage elsewhere in the group), and we’re seeing great year on year growth in 2014. Our ecommerce brands are not based on our publishing imprint but are category brands in their own right (Stitch Craft Create, I Love Cross Stitch, BurdaStyle). We sell fabric, threads, sewing machines, sewing patterns, cross stitch kits alongside books but more importantly ebooks and digital products and exclusive product bundles.
When we commission new content, we commission for this business. I blogged here about a great recent example in knitting.
Which brings us to marketing. Our marketing is almost entirely consumer focused. We know we can reach a large audience in our niche and when we promote to them, they buy from us directly and they buy our products elsewhere. When the product itself was conceived with insights from this audience, we know what we have to sell them is relevant to them and they will be keen to buy. We can offer them exclusives in our brands (ebook bundling for example) but equally know some are happier shopping elsewhere.
Behind this is a focus on SEO, spreadsheets (as Chris highlights) and a company wide understanding of this. Everyone in our business has had SEO training at some level. Titles & descriptions are determined through this process and content assets created in the product process to support marketing. We have no publicity department in the UK, but we do have people in online marketing and audience development. Our goal is to rank highly for relevant searches and promote strong and relevant product to an engaged audience.
We test, learn and test again, collect data and are only scratching the surface of what we can do with this. We try new things to see how they work, such as google hangouts with authors, or more dynamic timing planning
Fail forward and change
Our business has changed significantly and we are no longer a ‘traditional’ publisher, but we were and we have made that change happen. We might be viewed as progressive in those terms, but I believe we are barely at the start line of what we can achieve and our opportunities. We learn every day, have so much to test and so much opportunity to build on the business we have that our most difficult decisions are always where to start and what to prioritise.
It’s a surprise to me that more publishers haven’t taken a more consumer focused path. Perhaps with the likes of Chris speaking to the industry, they will start to do so.