Why Don’t Publishers Do More Research?

Book publishers are notorious for not doing consumer research. I am not sure exactly why, but it seems they want to decide what is best for the market. Early in my publishing career, I got my first taste of this.

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In my second job out of college, I became a Marketing Director for a medium-size publishing house. I had been in the job less than 90 days when I suddenly realized that no one seemed to know which marketing vehicles really affected consumer buying behavior. For example, at the time, I couldn’t tell you what was more effective—a magazine advertisement, a “shelf-talker,” or an author appearance on television.

Everyone had an opinion, of course, based on all kinds of anecdotal evidence. But no one could make an empirical case, based on any kind of data. It just didn’t exist. Worse, no one seemed particularly bothered that it didn’t exist or that they were spending over a million dollars a year on marketing with no clear idea of what really worked and what didn’t.

So, I naively created a simple little consumer survey. I had the warehouse insert a postage-paid card in several of our biggest, new titles. On the card, I asked the consumer to check all the items that influenced his or her decision to purchase the book. I had things like “a magazine ad,” “sales clerk’s recommendation,” “my pastor’s recommendation,” “book review,” etc. Even though I didn’t offer an incentive, I received thousands of these cards back. It was a very large sample, by any standard.

I dutifully compiled the data and prepared a simple report of my findings. I’m sure my methodology wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. And, it cost less than a thousand dollars. I thought this was a pretty good investment, considering the fact that I might be wasting tens of thousands of dollars in ineffective marketing.

My immediate boss was impressed and asked me to make a presentation at the monthly executive team meeting. This was my first opportunity to attend this meeting, and I was nervous. But I was thoroughly prepared and assumed everyone would be as excited about my survey results as I was. Not so much.

As I began my presentation, the publisher (my boss’s boss and the head of the division) got very quiet. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. His face began to get red. I kept talking, but knew intuitively that this wasn’t going so well.

When I finished, the publisher spoke. Let’s just say he wasn’t a happy camper. Evidently, my findings contradicted his personal opinions. For example, based on my research, I concluded that print advertising appeared to be ineffective in motivating consumers to buy books. The only exception was when the author was exceedingly well-known.

He didn’t like this conclusion one bit. So, he did what everyone does when they don’t like the data—he began attacking the methodology. Then he attacked the messenger, launching into an ad hominem tirade against me. Since I didn’t have a degree in marketing or statistical analysis and since I was so new to the publishing industry, I couldn’t possibly be right in my conclusions, he argued.

Such was my first introduction to the corporate board room and the book publishing industry. Surprisingly, this publisher and I went on to become good friends, but our relationship certainly got off to a rocky start.

Things have not changed much in twenty-five years. Publishers still do very little research. Thankfully, we have organizations like the Book Industry Study Group and various trade associations to do some of the heavy lifting. But very little is done at the individual publisher level.

This is really a mindset issue. In the past, the primary argument against doing research was the cost. You just couldn’t afford to do research on individual titles. Instead, you went ahead and published books and tried to learn from the results—after the fact.

But the Internet has changed all that. Now, it is ridiculously cheap. There is really no good reason not to test whatever we want.

For example, in the spring of 2008, we are scheduled to publish the Orthodox Study Bible. This is a follow-up to the very successful Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms, which we first published in 1993. Now we are publishing the entire Bible, including the Old Testament, which, in the Orthodox tradition, was translated from the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures).

Last week, we were trying to decide on a cover. We had it narrowed down to three candidates. The outside editor for the project favored one cover. Bob Sanford, our inside editor, favored another. And, I liked still another. So, I suggested that we do a little consumer research. I asked Rick Proctor, our VP of Information Technology, to create a quick Web page, showing all three covers, with a mechanism that would allow visitors to vote on their favorite.

Rick’s team was able to get the page up in about a day. The only cost was their staff time. We then asked some outside affinity groups to make an announcement to their constituents, and solicit their help in choosing a cover. We asked Orthodox Christians (our primary market) to vote here. We asked Protestant Christians (our secondary market) to vote here. At this writing, we have had almost 1,200 people vote on the Orthodox poll. (We are just ramping up the Protestant poll, so it only has a handful of votes.)

If you have ever done any survey work, you know that 1,200 is a very large sampling. And we already have a pretty clear winner. Rather than making a decision based on the input of three people, we’ve been able to ask a huge number of people in our core market what they think. And now we know. The best part is that this whole project took less than three working days to complete.

So why doesn’t the book industry do more of this kind of thing? Heck, why don’t we do more of this kind of thing? I don’t know. Most certainly, the reason can’t be cost. Maybe, it’s just habit—or arrogance. Like my old boss, we want to reserve the right to act as the market’s proxy rather than asking them directly.

I hope that we will continue to do this kind of research. It can only help us in accomplishing our goal of selling more books.

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