What does a publisher do? Market, sell, and distribute

What does a publisher do? is a series of posts designed to answer that question, interpreted not in the sense of “What functions does a publisher seek to fulfil?” but rather “What operations does a publisher (well, this publisher at any rate) perform?” This is the thirteenth post in the series.

The second post (‘What does a publisher do? Manage stakeholders’) in this series set out a framework for subsequent posts – a framework based on the types of  stakeholders a publisher needs to work with. Today’s post outlines our interactions with our clients and customers. So:

Owners, investors Workforce State

Some years ago I taught a module on publishing at the University of East Anglia (UEA). The students came from various arts disciplines and few had a background in marketing, sales, or distribution. I found that, for the purposes of the course, I needed to create a framework for explaining these activities. I wanted a model that was easy to understand, communicate, and remember, whilst faithfully reflecting my own experience in the industry.

Thus I designed a simple, three-stage, model. Having created it for pedagogic purposes, I’ve subsequently found that it is useful to apply in businesses contexts. The three stages are:

(I) Defining and identifying the market

(II) Achieving fit between the product and the market

(III) Reaching the market.

We can use, as a worked example, the design of the Creative Writing Studies list that I publish. When we began to design this list, we had to decide who it would be aimed at. We knew that, if we proceeded with the list, we would focus on readers in higher education. Yet to achieve a clear definition, we needed to answer some more refined questions. For example,

  1. Which group(s) within our chosen area would we target – students, teachers, and/or scholars?
  2. Would we also seek to reach readers beyond this area – for example, readers in high school or in the consumer education market (the so-called ‘weekend novelists’ or wannabes)?
Before we could answer these questions, we needed to do a good deal of market research. In part, this consisted of desk research – finding out, for example, how many courses there were, at what levels, and in what kinds of institutions. We also did plenty of research in the field, going out to talk to people. In the end, our answers were:
  1. all of the above;
  2. no – such readers would require a different kind of sales and marketing model.

The second stage – achieving fit between the product and the market – usually involves a good deal of refinement of one’s original ideas. This may require reconceiving both sides of the equation, i.e. (a) redesigning the product to suit the market and, to a lesser extent, (b) redefining the market in line with the kinds of products one can actually produce. It is essential that the latter consists merely of redefinition, not of persuading oneself there must a market for the product one has in mind – otherwise one will end up trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Redesigning the product requires imagination: redefining the market requires observation.

For example, though wishing to aim the list as a whole at students, teachers, and scholars of creative writing in higher education, we have been careful to distinguish between the needs of those three constituencies. There is some overlap between them – some students are also scholars (especially at doctoral level) and some teachers are also scholars. Generally, however, these constituencies have distinct needs, so it is unlikely that any one book will be suited to all three.

The design of our website reflects this division: there are pages called ‘For students’, ‘For teaching staff‘, and ‘For scholars‘. The publications we have commissioned include the following titles: Studying creative writing; Teaching creative writing; and Researching creative writing.

To show, in a little more detail, how this stage of the model applies in practice, let’s consider a title currently in the final stages of development editing, namely Creative writing: writers on writing, edited by Amal Chatterjee. The book is an anthology, consisting of two kinds of texts: (a) original literary works (fiction and poetry) and (b) commentaries by their authors on the process of writing them.

The decision to include the commentaries was motivated by the fact that many creative writing courses require students to write commentaries on the texts they produce. This requirement often creates difficulties: students may be unsure what is required of them and may not feel as motivated to write commentaries as to produce their own stories or poems; and teachers may feel less confident about teaching students to write commentaries than to write literary works.

Our hope is that Creative Writing will help students, by giving them a variety of commentaries to discuss as models, and will help teachers to, by providing models to analyse and evaluate.

Should the book fall into the hands of a wider audience – the wannabe market – we think it will appeal to them: the writing – both in the original works and in the commentaries – is very rich. However, as I mentioned above, our sales and marketing operations are not designed to reach those readers. Throughout the product development process we have, therefore, kept focusing the work on the  higher education market – specifically, students and, to a lesser extent, their teachers – and resisted the seduction of the consumer market. Our peer reviewers have, therefore, been drawn from the world of higher education.

The third stage consists of reaching the market. This involves both (a) informing the market and (b) distributing the product. To do this, we have needed to create marketing and distribution channels. For marketing, our main channels consist of (i) use of Web 2.0, (ii) professional associations and (iii) conventional marketing. For distribution, we have channels for e-books and for print books, mostly leading to institutional markets. I’ll leave the details of such channels to subsequent posts*.

*Postscript: To pick up the story of distribution channels, see ‘Telling the story‘ (9 Aug 2012).


3 Responses to “What does a publisher do? Market, sell, and distribute”

  1. […] series of posts on this blog. The opening post (10 Dec 2011) is here and the most recent (13th) here. The series continues. Share this:ShareTwitterStumbleUponPrintDiggFacebookLinkedInEmailLike […]

  2. […] series of posts on this blog. The opening post (10 Dec 2011) is here and the most recent (13th) here. The series continues. Share this:ShareTwitterStumbleUponPrintDiggFacebookLinkedInEmailLike […]

  3. […] series of posts entitled ‘What does a publisher do?’ – in particular the post on marketing, selling, and distribution (14 June […]

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