Sunday, January 31, 2010

Category Management

You're a big-time publisher, you look around at the so-called retail landscape and try to keep from soiling your shorts. It's a stone-cold nightmare out there. Borders has one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel. Barnes & Noble is lying low, its time-honored policy of "let someone else innovate, then we'll come along and cash in" now looking like the passivity of an also-ran. Big Bad Amazon is flexing its muscles just the way the national chains did back about twenty years ago, except Seattle's Beast is the only online game in town. Shite. Target, Wal-Mart, and the clubs are protecting their SKU allotments like machine-gunners in a bunker. And the indies are still being forced to trade market share for mind share by your credit and payment policies. Protecting multinational corporations from getting skunked by "the little guy." Hell, mind share and two bits'll get you one twist of the knob on the gumball machine.

And now you've got the whole ebook eruption, which has the look and feel of a tsunami that will come and wipe out whatever slim margins you'd been hoping to hang onto. You're looking for someone to save you, Apple, Google, anyone with a piece of slick technology and deep pockets who might still think that selling text-based content is an okay business to be in. You look around and think to yourself, how in god's name did we get into this mess? Twenty-five years ago, we were throwing parties, taking three-hour lunches, and working the supply chain like a love-sick whore. Twenty-five years ago, we had newspapers and magazines with book sections, we had mall stores and healthy independents, the beginnings of the chain superstore growth, rack-jobbers all across the country working the newsstands and drugstores, lemme tell you, poot, it was an effin business back then. We had
glamour. Who'd've believed that twenty-five years ago we had six big bookstores in an eight-block stretch of Fifth Avenue in New York City and they were all making the nut? Crazy, right?

Something happened. The money men, the guys in suits, the clever boys who talked the talk and walked the walk, they came into town with their silver buckles and clinking spurs and cleared out the Midtown Saloon. They had their MBAs and bottled water, their gym memberships and PDAs, they had Stephen Covey and Spencer Johnson and Tom Peters, and they had their mantra. "Get close to your customer." Great. Except they thought their customers were Borders, B&N, Walden, Dalton, BAM, Hastings, WalMart, the clubs, the IDs, AMS (remember them?), Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and all the other middlemen. The guys in suits didn't read, so they never understood that their real customers were the ordinary people who liked to read and bought books. The clever boys were taking semi-literate merchants out to dinner,
getting close to their customers. Golf outings, expensive hotel rooms, ballgames, concerts -- getting close to their customers. A little spiff here and there, maybe some extra incentive, or co-op ad money -- sure, why not? -- we're just getting close to our customers.

The independents? Nah. Small potatoes. Readers, the people who actually buy our books? Nah. It's too much work to try and connect with all those individual readers. Let our
customers take care of 'em.

The misbegotten drive to
get close to customers reached its apogee when Borders -- the same Borders that is now going down the toilet -- "invited" publishers to be its partners in something called Category Management. For a substantial fee, of course, and a commitment of personnel, and T & E expenditure, and research time, and data processing and analysis. If you were awake back then -- this is less than a decade ago -- you remember what it felt like: publishing sales people all over the island of Manhattan would come back from Ann Arbor with their eyes glazed over, stupefied, blubbering, utterly shorn of any dignity, after having faced the incoherent and childish ravings of the Borders category management planning teams. Not only did the emperor have no clothes, but the emperor didn't have anything worth covering up. The only people who weren't in on the joke were the suits who didn't read books, the publishing suits getting close to their counterparts at Borders. Who knows how much publisher money was pissed away on Category Management.

Now it's January 2010 and it's a nightmare out there. Brr. The only ones who feel for you are a handful of indies and those passionate readers who still buy books. And you don't know who they are, because you never paid attention to them and now you don't know how. They're your customers, and you don't even know who they are.

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