Books as brands and the opportunities to sell book-branded merchandise

by Mike Shatzkin

It was really 20 years ago that it first occurred to me that ÔÇ£content marketingÔÇØ would, at least in part, replace ÔÇ£marketing contentÔÇØ. Or at least partly replace selling content. As the world progressed, so did my understanding of how this would play out, and I saw that publishing would increasingly be done by entities extending their brand or their audience reach. I called that the ÔÇ£atomizationÔÇØ of publishing and have written about it for a few years.

But the way it worked out, thanks to an Amazon far more powerful than I envisaged in the 1990s, is that publishers donÔÇÖt actually sell their content direct to consumers very often. Their primary job ÔÇö their primary responsibility to the authors they sign up ÔÇö is to get the content sold by whatever means possible. Publishers have mostly learned that trying to take sales away from Amazon to make them directly costs far more in lost sales than it gains in even ostensibly improved margin. (And, in fact, the margin does not improve most of the time even if the share retained of the selling cost rises, because the cost of serving customers exceeds the cost of having Amazon do it for you.)

So an idea that briefly seemed right to me in the 1990s ÔÇö that publishers would use their content as a springboard to market other things ÔÇö never materialized. And whatÔÇÖs happened is mostly the other way around: people who sell other things are creating content, sometimes competing with publishers, to bring in customers for their primary products.

The world that I envisioned back then has played out somewhat in vertical publishing. F+W has been building on its book and magazine audiences to sell other things, including live events, for nearly a decade.

The general trade publishers are trying some of this too. Macmillan has sold mugs and t-shirts through and other sites it controls that did ÔÇ£fairly well, but nothing earth shatteringÔÇØ.

HarperCollins has been a bit more aggressive. A scale email channel ÔÇô their Bookperk bargain newsletter (which was just grown by acquisition last week) ÔÇô allows them to effectively promote all sorts of things, from e-book bargains to discounts on print front list to event tickets to just fun things, like a chance to win Notorious RBG temporary tattoos. Combining some of that, they have done two virtual pop-up stores ÔÇô one for FatherÔÇÖs Day and one last Christmas ÔÇô where they sold signed editions and non-books like Roxane Gay ÔÇ£Bad FeministÔÇØ t-shirts and Agatha Christie tote bags.

But the publishers mostly have the limitation we pointed out at the top that cramps their ability to sell non-book items: they donÔÇÖt actually sell very many books or ebooks themselves either. So their content marketing efforts are not routinely building toward a transactional relationship with the audiences they touch. That means that ÔÇ£upsellsÔÇØ are not about ÔÇ£putting another item in the shopping cartÔÇØ. TheyÔÇÖre about getting a customer to use a shopping cart with them for perhaps the first time. ThatÔÇÖs much harder.

The full potential to sell ÔÇ£other stuffÔÇØ is now being demonstrated through the ÔÇ£custom bookÔÇØ play from Sourcebooks called ÔÇ£Put Me in the StoryÔÇØ. There are other personalized books ÔÇö like those offered by Quarto (This Is Your Cookbook), Chronicle (ÔÇ£I See MeÔÇØ childrenÔÇÖs books, which are custom books based on Chronicle titles), or the global sensation for kids called ÔÇ£Lost My NameÔÇØ. But PMITS is different because it works with highly-established childrenÔÇÖs book brands and delivers personalized versions of them. So PMITS sees itself from the git-go as a brand enhancement and extension, making a new revenue stream available for the publishers (and authors and illustrators) of the books they build on.

Like the other personalized book creators, PMITS does have a shopping cart; they do have a transactional relationship with their customers.

So when they look at non-book gift products, the book again is central, as it is for their core offer. Like with the book, thereÔÇÖs a royalty payment tied for non-book product thatÔÇÖs directly derived from books and itÔÇÖs another whole new revenue stream for many authors and illustrators. From SourcebooksÔÇÖ perspective, this is what they were trying to do from the beginning. The personalized books add a revenue stream, and now personalized gifts add another revenue stream. (Chronicle also sells chotchkes like stuffed animals that ÔÇ£go with the booksÔÇØ but they are not evidently deeply into doing branded chotchkes, creating extra value for commodity items around the bookÔÇÖs fame.)

Put Me in the Story uses the bookÔÇÖs brand as the key asset distinguishing their non-book products to create companion gifts.

For example, they used the artwork from their own bestselling ÔÇ£I Love You SoÔÇØ Marianne Richmond book to create personalized gifts including puzzles, wall art and placemats. TheyÔÇÖre now beginning to expand their offerings to include many other product types including nightlights, backpacks and ornaments (that last actually in beta just in the last two weeks). Last month, they had a bestseller with a Halloween Scare book and its corresponding Trick or Treat bag.

Selling stuff beyond the books themselves has been on the PMITS road map all along and was launched in a ÔÇ£betaÔÇØ mode a year ago for holiday season 2014. TheyÔÇÖre now working to scale it with new content partners and merchandise so they can create some unique gift bundles with books as the foundation.

The customization capability inherent in PMITS is not actually the most important piece that enables them to sell non-book chotchkes. The requirements are the direct customer relationship with the reader and the licensing relationship with the owner of the book. Sourcebooks has created both with Put Me In the Story. Any publisher with a strong ecommerce business would have the pieces in hand for their own books (as Chronicle is now demonstrating). One could see the value and the opportunity here for a big book retailer, but the effort required to create the licensing relationships necessary would be substantial. (Of course, a big book retailer that owned its own content would have an advantage here. And we can think of one)

An important principle is being established here. A book creates a brand. There are many things people want ÔÇö beer mugs and scarves and t-shirts among them ÔÇö that have greater consumer value if they are branded. Put Me In the Story has made that abundantly clear.