Yesterday afternoon at The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference we were sidetracked for a while by an unfortunate conflation of DRM and copyright. The two are often mixed in the same breath – usually in an argument against DRM-free electronic publications. It was one of the day’s less comfortable moments with the overwhelming sentiment on the Twitter timeline at odds with what was being said on the platform. Hachette’s staunchly pro-DRM standpoint did not seem to sit well with many, and there was a discernible tension (of a “you could cut the atmosphere with a knife” variety). Whilst I had not much enjoyed Charlie Redmayne’s morning keynote presentation – his contribution during the Driving the Future Panel – on the subject of his experience of taking Pottermore DRM free – was a powerful one, and he repeatedly made comments that were both astute and pragmatic (always a winning combination in my book). I’m cautious on quite how much other publishers can learn from the J K Rowling / Pottermore example, however throughout the session Redmayne was on the nail in his observations, in particular his pithy statement “Amazon taught us the value of the customer relationship“.
I was discussing this afterwards with a colleague who ventured the view that Amazon don’t actually know all that much about their customers, they know about service. This may or may not be the case but what Redmayne said was the “value” of the customer relationship. Owning the execution of the financial transaction is to own one of the two anchor points of the supply chain. It is an anchor point that publishers have traditionally viewed as a distraction and outsourced to wholesalers and re-sellers and this is one of the reasons many trade publishers in particular are playing catch-up when it comes to understanding what consumers want – and how they want to engage with books.
If you manage the financial transaction you own one of the two indispensable elements of the chain (creation and sale). One of the most remarkable things that Pottermore and Bloomsbury have achieved is to wrest a direct-to-consumer sale for a “trade” product away from Amazon. And no matter what the scale of our business, whether we publish hundreds of thousands of Harry Potter books or highly specialised information that sells in tens or hundreds or copies, the value of the customer relationship is something we would all do well to think about.