The odd uncouple

Can trade publishers develop consumer brands, and effectively market and sell their content direct? More importantly, can they do this without undermining what is for many not only their core channel—the bookshop—but also the place where many of their readers gather?

Publishers and booksellers may feel that they have been wrestling with this dynamic for decades, but in truth an answer has never been more necessary—and more complex. As Pottermore has shown, if you have a monopoly over the content the consumer wants, then the leverage over where that content gets sold is absolute. Yet even those publishers that do have recognisable brands have struggled to gain an advantage—of Penguin, Faber and Mills & Boon, only the last has a serious D2C business. Instead it is Amazon that dominates the routes to the reader, a situation that places not just every trade publisher at peril when negotiating terms, but also other booksellers.

Trade publishing’s failure to form relationships with book buyers over the many decades when they have been meeting the needs of readers, may yet prove fatal—if the writing was not already on the wall, Amazon’s willingness to send customers elsewhere in order to find titles published by Hachette USA ought to focus minds. Amazon was built on distributing third-party content, but it has never been less reliant on that model than it is now.  

Publishers need to go on a parallel journey of self-determination. It may not be easy. As bookseller Jo de Guia writes, publishers need to take care of the indie bookshops, who like “coracles” are buffeted by such choppy waters, but even the major houses cannot do so while ignoring the size of Amazon’s super-liner.

This week’s Lead Story shows how with the launch of HarperCollins’ D2C website, PRH’s audience research, Macmillan’s The Gruffalo website, and the Faber restructure, we are seeing the beginnings of how a modern publishing business might meet consumers. The creation of Faber Press is emblematic: it marks a moment when a certain type of trade publishing starts to work out how to become less reliant on what Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page calls the “traditional mechanics”. The detail is to be worked out, but the direction is clear. As Page told us: “We want as many channels as possible, and one of those is ourselves.” A view echoed by HarperCollins.

This may be uncomfortable reading for booksellers. But not all publishers will go about this in the same way—PRH, Hachette, and Macmillan, all say that direct selling is not their focus. We are not at that moment when publishers can do without booksellers. Nevertheless, some will see this as the start of a conscious uncoupling.