sandusky Publishing professional Brett Sandusky had an epiphany last month, brought on by a panelist at a publishing conference who kept repeating the phrase, “The reader is the consumer who is your customer.”

Up to this point, the publishing industry has been strictly business-to-business (“B-to-B”)—not dealing directly with consumers, but with intermediaries such as agents and bookstores.

It’s as if we are an industry of ninjas, or a group of faceless factory workers buying, creating, selling, and promoting products without one genuine interaction with the people for whom we are making these products. This, of course, makes sense because we are a business of taking someone else’s work and selling it to a third party. Had we been involved in content creation, perhaps we would better understand what it means to understand someone else.

But now, the Internet and digital books are bringing about disintermediation. Thanks to social networking and the web, consumers are becoming a lot more aware of how publishers’ actions are affecting their ability to read the books they enjoy—and the fact that publishers typically don’t include consumers in their considerations makes them look cold, uncaring, and unsympathetic.

You saw it in the complaints a couple of months ago that John Sargent’s open letters about the Amazon/Macmillan blowup only addressed others in the industry, and referred to Amazon as a customer—leaving out all the readers who thought they were the customers.

Sandusky points out that the publishing industry needs to start paying more attention to the consumers who are its real customers.

[The] reality is this: we can no longer afford to act as a B-to-B business. The future, if we have one, depends on our ability to reconfigure as a B-to-C business and start interacting with readers directly free of buffers and intermediaries. From product development, to consumer feedback, to buyer-less sell-in for digital products, to direct to consumer sales, to verticality, to providing readers with what they want, a new wave of customer interaction needs to guide us along our paths to the future.

They could take their lead from Baen, who has built a very strong business-to-consumer community around the Free Library, Webscriptions, and Baen Bar over the last ten years.

Will the publishing industry be able to change its ways in time to avoid turning off consumers altogether? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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  1. In a way, it will be something like the airline industry. It used to be that airlines sold big blocks of tickets to agents, who then passed them on to actual travellers. Now, airlines are selling tickets directly to the travellers, and the travel agents are…well, they’re all out of business now. And that’s where new-publication bookstores are going to end up.

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