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    « Thoughts from a take home student | Main | Yuf detainees get rights »

    Publish and perish

    The big law book publishers get a blast from author and editor Hugh Selby ... Overpriced products poorly marketed ... Impenetrable websites ... Connecting perfunctorily with authors and customers   

    Selby: conducted a pricing experiment with his book publisher AS an author and editor of legal books using four publishers for over three decades I have been a bit player in the evolution of law book publishing and marketing.

    I have met authors for whom a hand shake with the publisher's agent was the contract, whose manuscript was typed by a secretary, and whose books came out in hard cover with an annual supplement of stapled pages that fitted into a special pouch inside the front cover. Readers marked up the book pages with fountain pens. Those authors and readers alike, once connected, are mostly dead and gone.

    Today's authors are academics or practitioners with a penchant for sharing knowledge, naïve and altruistic, who sign away copyright for evermore, agree to a measly royalty rate, and accept that the publisher will have untrammelled rights as to pricing and marketing.

    It is the marketing promise that lures authors to the big publishers. I was one of those authors and it rankles even as my hair changes from grey to white.

    Big publishers mean big promises, big prices, and no effort beyond the perfunctory.

    Boutique legal publishers, thank goodness, love books. By that I mean that they are excited by the content, by the sharing of knowledge that comes from the publisher connecting the author's words with customers. Their marketing is targeted, and their prices fixed by talking to customers, by being involved in and with the product.

    Not so the large publishers. They would sell books as they would sell armaments and people - if either or both could be put between covers - solely to maximise profit in the short term. Book publishing is just one part of being a "multi platform, globally aware, free market, knowledge disseminator". 

    Search online for these publishers and you will find that their websites speak to themselves, not to the potential customer. They assume, only they know why, that busy lawyers will drop by monthly, or more often, looking for a new title on the home page to add to the shopping cart and the credit card. 

    It is a mentality that works for good bookshops in airports as harried travellers realise that there is time before "this is the final boarding call" to find, touch and carry something diverting to wile away the tedium of air travel.

    It doesn't work for time poor professionals. What is needed online is interactive web page management that creates and sustains a buying moment. That would start by creating and sustaining a connection with authors and customers.

    The cluttered, uninviting publisher's web page is supplemented by various electronic newsletters that lob into the inbox and then out into the trash box unread. That's their idea of marketing.

    Which leaves that vestige of the old ways of personal connection, the publisher's sales reps who drop by professional offices to sign up individuals to a variety of law areas presented in hardcover, paperback, online, and E-reader.  

    The sales reps are a disappointment, a condition for which they are not to blame. They do not know their stock - what's in between the covers is a mystery. They don't really know us, their customers either. Over those decades of writing and editing I have repeatedly offered to come to sales meetings and tell them about the product: what's in it, why it's there, who will need it, who can be enticed to want it.

    That offer has never been taken up. Instead the empty mantra of "profit, profit above all else, only profit" guides them from target to target. 

    That reality struck home a few months ago. A little research that I should have done years ago [in my defence I repeat that the publisher had claimed all rights with respect to marketing and pricing, but I will admit to wilful blindness] revealed that for my favourite legal book the take-up rate by the target group was, after 20 plus years, under two percent. The reason: a Rolls Royce price was being charged for a Lexus product.

    I carried out a simple experiment. I contacted my publisher and represented to the sales person that I was an advocate and wanted to buy that favourite. I gave a false name and also falsely asserted that I was new to the business of being an advocate. The sales rep was delighted to help and gave me a price that was more than one week in an overseas ski resort with mind blowing snow cover, return airfare included. 

    "Sorry, out of my price range," I said. "Don't worry we have a 30 percent sale this week," was the next offer. "Sorry, still out of my price range."  Finally, came the offer that the bygone corner store proprietor would have started with, "We have a special barrister package we can offer you".

    That experiment started a series of actions that have culminated in a new price that is but a fraction of the old. It is an evidence based price. It is a price that reflects what the Lexus buyer market (new and used) is prepared to pay.

    Apart from price it has also led to my repeated, mostly ignored requests to revamp the web page so that potential customers are made to feel valued and taken to that part of the web site that they need. 

    There they must find a preview sufficient to inform and motivate. Wouldn't you want to try before you buy? Oddly, and despite the fact that successful online publishers give a preview of any book, mine seems to be the only product for this big legal publisher that has a preview. 

    Interaction with large legal publishers has taught me that just as taxes and death are certain, so too is big publisher price gouging and failure to market. Would-be authors beware: they do not deliver what they promise. 

    Hugh Selby is a barrister, law books writer and editor 

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