The Importance of Listening to Consumers

Thirty years ago, when I first got into the book publishing business, it was an elitist occupation. Publishers met in smoke-filled board rooms and made decisions about what the reading public should read. It never occurred to them to ask the readers themselves.

a woman shouting at a man through a bull horn

However, as the new marketing director for a fairly successful imprint, I didn’t know any better. I naively decided to conduct a consumer research project. I wanted to know more about what influenced readers to buy our books. Was it an advertisement for the book, an interview with the author, merchandising in the store, or perhaps the simple recommendation of a friend? It seemed like an obvious question.

In those days (before the Internet) we had to conduct research the old-fashioned way. It was a hassle and took a lot of time. I printed 25,000 4″ x 6″ cards and had our warehouse randomly insert them into the books we were then shipping. Each card asked a few questions and then invited the reader to mail it back to us at our expense. Within about six weeks, we had received more than 1,000 completed surveys.

Then, with the help of my assistant, I tabulated the results. My boss, who had been supportive of the project, invited me to present my findings to the monthly “pub board” meeting. This was the first time I had ever attended such a meeting. I was really nervous.

Nevertheless, I assumed that the executives in attendance would find the results of the survey as fascinating as I had. After all, we would no longer need to guess about the efficacy of our marketing efforts. Instead, we could focus on those methods the consumers themselves said were the most effective.

Little did I know that this wasn’t how things were done in the book publishing world of the 1980s. The executive vice president in charge of the division—the publisher—got more and more angry as I presented the results of my survey. He didn’t say anything until I finished. Then he erupted.

He attacked my motives and my methodology. He really didn’t care what the readers thought. We (the publishing house) would decide what books were published and how readers found out about them. “That’s our job!” he insisted. Then he suggested that if I didn’t know the answer to the question already, “without wasting the company’s money doing research,” perhaps they had the wrong man for the job. I left the meeting stunned, certain that my career was over.

But my, how times have changed! It has never been more important to do consumer research. And, thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier. The only question is whether or not publishers themselves have changed and are willing to listen to what consumers have to say.

About a month ago, we decided at Thomas Nelson that we need to be more intentional about how we used the spines of our books as a component in the marketing mix. After all, with more than 500,000 new titles being published in the U.S. last year, 95% of them will appear “spine out” in bookstores—if they get stocked at all. (This is opposed to “face out,” where the consumer can actually see the front of the book without taking it off the shelf.)

As a publishing group, we felt like we needed to add our name to our logo on the spine, but we had a difference of opinion within the publishing house about how that should be treated. So, rather than sit in a cloistered room and pontificate, we decided to mock up three possible treatments and ask consumers directly.

I invited the readers of my blog to participate in the survey, and we also posted a link on the home page of the Thomas Nelson site. Amazingly, we got over 1,000 responses in less than 48 hours. It cost us almost nothing and the results were tabulated automatically in real time. The results?

More than 63% of the respondents preferred that the Thomas Nelson logo appear on the spine against a solid black background, as depicted in this image:

book spines with new logo treatment

Prior to this research, our internal position was that the publisher’s name and logo didn’t matter to the consumer. According to this view, consumers were primarily focused on the author’s name and the book’s title or subject matter.

However, more than 500 people actually left a comment on the survey. Many of them reported that “Thomas Nelson” did mean something positive to them, and they wanted to see it more prominently displayed on the spine.

So, based on this research, we will be introducing a new design for our book spines, effective immediately, We will change our “backlist books” (books that have already been published) as they are reprinted.

So thanks to everyone who participated in the survey. We readily admit that we don’t have all the answers. We count on your input and are listening carefully to what you have to say.

Question: What else do you wish publishers did differently?
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  • Dan Wright

    I'm not sure if it would be funny or nauseating to watch video of those 80's and early 90's pub boards. Would we look like witch doctors? :-)

  • Burl

    Here is an off the wall suggestion. I understand why publishers the size of Thomas Nelson can only publish about 400 or so books a year and so must be picky about which books and authors they print. I assume that much of the cost in those books is the marketing of them along with design, editing etc..that goes beyond the cost of printing. What if Thomas Nelson set up a second tier publishing route that was more like self publishing. It would get the TN name/logo or perhaps a different one, but an author who was gung ho about marketing, editing and designing his or her own book could end up being an accidental best seller for you. (I am thinking of "The Shack" that was I believe sort of self published.) I am thinking something not quite so open as, but not so cost restricted as traditional publishing.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Stay tuned …

  • Clay Knick


    Let us see inside the book before it is published. Since many of us are buying from Amazon I like the chance to look in a book before I buy it. If it is endorsed let us see the back or the first pages inside where the endorsements are often located.

    BTW, I really enjoy your blog.

    • Aaron Klein

      Amazon has this already for most books. It will say "look inside this book" by the picture of the cover.

  • Clay Knick


    I just read my comment and laughed. Let us see inside the book when it is placed on Amazon or before the launch date. Before it is released. I suppose it is possible this day and time to let us see inside the book before it is printed too. I'm sure you get what I mean with so many words.

    • Aaron Klein

      Ha. That makes more sense. :) It's a good idea that could help pre-orders.

    • Michael Hyatt

      We're actually considering this. O'Reilly Books has a similar program called Rough Cuts that is intriguing. They solicit reader feedback at the development stage.

  • Jason

    I'm guessing that the executive vice president who attacked you and your motives had other insecurities that had little if anything to do with your survey, its results, or its cost. Something else threatened him.

    • Michael Hyatt

      You might be right, although from my experience, no one at the time cared or wanted to know what readers thought. As publishers, we would tell them what to think. ;-)

  • Eric S. Mueller

    I wish more industries would start listening to the consumer and delivering what the consumer wants rather than dictate to the consumer what will be available. Health care and telecommunications companies come to mind…

    I also like your multi-format approach. I'd like to see more publishers offer something like Nelson Free, and I'd like to see Nelson Free spread to more of your titles. It's not always convenient to carry a physical book, so the Kindle version is nice to read on the go, but for those books that I plan to keep, it's nice to have the physical book to make notes in and display on my bookshelf.

  • Ehren

    Michael, one suggestion on the survey: it might have been a good idea to have a second picture for each option showing books from other publishers mixed in with the TN ones, as they would appear in a bookstore. As shown, the winning option creates a black band which runs across the books. But this band will not appear when books from other publishers are being displayed on the same shelf.


    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, if I were to do it over again, I would have done that. It is a great suggestion.

  • GWagner

    Michael, I absolutely agree with you. Destintive branding from design to mission is how we built Integrity's Hosanna Label back in the day.
    Branding is more important today. Both design,mission and history play important roles in buying decisions.. In the worldwide web where many companies are calling there offerings "faith-based products", I am finding more consumers are becoming more discerning to product they buy. Thomas Nelson has a trusted Christ-centered brand. I am not surprised customers see great value in the name.

  • patriciazell

    A big part of leadership is being ahead of the game. And, a big responsiblity of leadership is giving followers time to process new concepts. If there's anything I've learned from teaching, it is how resistant people are to new things and to change. Patience and endurance wins the day.

  • MonikaM

    I just looked through my bookshelf to see how many Thomas Nelson books I've read. At a quick glance, I am estimating about 20-25% of my books sport the "Nelson Housey" logo, as I refer to it. I found the variety of authors interesting. Paula White, John Maxwell, Henry Blackaby, Erwin McMannus, Benny Hinn, etc…I would say, keep up the quality and the variety. When I pick up a new book that no one in my sphere has read and I'm undecided on whether I should purchase it or not, I look at the publisher. If I trust the quality they have produced in the past , I am more likely to invest.

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  • davidbmclaughlin

    I wish more publishers (especially christian ones) would release on kindle.

    i also think ehren makes a brilliant point above.

    finally-thank you for picking my spine vote!


    • Michael Hyatt

      We currently have about 1,500 of our bestselling titles available on the Kindle. We make all of our new books available on the Kindle.

  • Linda Adams

    Make books cheaper, or at least pass some true incentives to the customer. I keep hearing that people are reading less, and one the reasons may be cost. I go into the bookstore, and the only thing I ever see on sale are the best selling hardbacks at 25% off or the books no one wants. I don't buy hardbacks because they're too expensive. But I can't even buy three paperbooks for $20. I look at the eBooks on Amazon, and they're $10–there's no paper costs, no ink costs, and it costs more than a paperback!

    But I can go into my grocery every week and find 10 cans food on sale for $10. Or ten boxes of pasta for $10. Or buy 5 boxes of cereal for $1.50 each. I'd like see books have real sale prices–not just a percentage off for a new release. Have a 4 for $20 deal. It could be used to promote a new author–buy a book by this author and get three more books, all for $20. Or, even extend to the bookseller to pick one they like from the listings and use it instead.

    I love to read, but the costs are driving me away from the bookstores and to the libraries.

  • Daniel Decker

    Great example of 2-way communication that is going to lead to a much stronger brand reinforcement for Nelson in the marketplace. The Nelson name does mean something. Value, Honor, Integrity, Faith (and more). I think that is a key value distinctive not only for readers but for authors as well.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Daniel. We heard this consistently in the comments.

  • Daniel Decker

    Separate note… I've always been amazed at how some would rather "guess" than "know." Some think that because of their position or experience they can make an educated guess on what the consumer is thinking or what they want, and that is true in many instances but… there is a danger that lurks. When unchecked, eventually our experience and perceived knowledge become assumptions. Assumptions disconnect with consumer reality in such a fast changing marketplace. I’ve always believed that in order to offer a solution you must first know the problem. To know the problem you must observe and ask. Feedback is critical.

  • Tracy Atcheson

    Thank you for even asking for input. That's rare in the market place to begin with. Publishers might consider being more accessible to first time authors. Your blog and posts are the most transparent information on the Christian publishing industry that I know of. Thank you for de-mystifying the process for me.

  • totai


    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the need for listening to your consumer! As I thought about it relative to this particular survey, I was wondering if you felt like those reading your blog make up an objective consumer panel? I am guessing a fair number of your readers are involved in publishing at some level or another (authors, editors, publishers, etc.). I know they are consumers too, but my guess would be they're not unbiased ones.

    Then again, I don't have the profiles of your readers and could be way off base (wouldn't be the first time) :-)

    BTW – sad to see that my vote didn't win :-(

    • Michael Hyatt

      You might be right. However, about half of the those voting came from the Thomas Nelson web site (i.e., readers). With regard to my blog, there are definitely industry people who read, but they are a small percentage of the total. Regardless, my perspective is that some research done now is better than comprehensive, totally scientific research later. In fact, this quest for total accuracy is what keeps a lot of companies from ever getting started.

      Thanks for your input.

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  • Jim

    cheaper is the obvious answer…
    but i'd say the spine is key to someone like me who browses a lot of bookstores and libraries…my eyes do a quick survey…i'd rather go look than use the fancy-smancy computerized search…in fact…i can even use the dewey-decimal system that is still on the end-caps…

  • Nathan

    I wonder about the bias of the survey – representing people online cf. people offline? (online demographic is demonstrably different demographically)

    • Michael Hyatt

      Maybe, but we are not trying to be that scientific. Some research is better than no research.

    • totai

      Actually Nathan, with 8 out of 10 households in the U.S. connected to the internet (comScore), demographically speaking there is very little difference. :)

  • richardhanrahan

    I agree with some of the comments on bias and would from a professional perspective question the statistical significance of the survey. That said – I like the design and think it looks good and stands out when all the TN books are next to one another. Not sure how it would look on a crowded bookshelf. However all that said top marks for asking the question in the first place and for engaging with the consumer at all…just be wary of skewing results on important issues in the future by only engaging with a particular demographic or customer segment.

    • richardhanrahan

      oops – just read Ehren's comment as well – obviously I concur!!