Problems are the bane of all businesses, and solving them is a constant battle as publishers fight to succeed. Spurred by a penchant for action, they quickly switch into solution mode and in many cases address the wrong issues. The secret to winning the struggle is not simply solving problems, but first knowing what the real problem is.
For example, a publisher may begin brainstorming with employees by saying, “We have a problem with poor sales. What can we do about it?” A staff wanting to appear enthusiastic and helpful responds with recommendations for solutions. These might include publishing more books, increasing publicity, changing distributors or selling through more bookstores. Unfortunately, low sales are just a symptom of the real problem, and the solutions offered are analogous to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
What if the premise were reframed by asking the question differently? The publisher could open the creative session by saying, “Why do you think sales are down?” This question focuses the discussion on the cause of the problem, not its symptom, and develops an entirely new cluster of solutions.
Now, a staff wanting to appear more thoughtful and strategic might respond by questioning the definition of their target readers, the ability of matching content correctly with those readers and the lack of expansion into non-bookstore segments. Here are several ways in which a creative brainstorming session can define the problem and kick-start new thinking for solutions that are more accurate and productive.
1. Question the objective. Is your objective to increase sales, revenue or profits? Each has a different strategic path to its attainment. For example, changing pricing strategy could lead to lower sales but higher revenue and profits.
2. Have people describe their understanding of the situation in writing before you meet. Some participants may be unduly influenced or intimidated by others during the meeting. If they describe their suggestions prior to the meeting, they may be more precise, strategic and original. And after the meeting, ask them to write their understanding of the solution to confirm major points were communicated as intended.
3. Seek multiple responses. If the only tool you have is a hammer you will look for everything that needs a pounding. In the same vein, book publishers typically see the solution to sales’ problems as publishing more books. Home in on the real problem by changing the way in which you state the question. Asking, “How can we increase sales (revenue or profits)?” will get responses, but the first few are usually the most conventional. Instead, stimulate numerous replies by rewording the question: “In how many ways can we increase sales (revenue or profits) among corporate buyers?” Then ask the same question about buyers in other segments.
4. Stimulate thinking with an unexpected question. Jolt the attendees’ thought process so they do not fall into the “group-think” syndrome where people become afraid to offer what others might misconstrue as unrealistic solutions. Let participants know from the start that this will not be the typical session in which only conventional recommendations are delivered. An example, “If you could wave your magic wand, how would you change the way we currently do business?” Or, “If there were no bookstores, how would we generate revenue?”
5. Use the Five Ws to help describe the real problem. Continue the opening discussion by asking five questions to help define the problem and direct attention to its solution.
• Who is (or could be) buying our books? This requires a definition of target readers or buyers for each title and segment. Define those who would be interested in buying your books through retailers. Also describe buyers in corporations and associations who could use your content to solve business problems. Follow up by asking, “Who is not buying our books? Why not?”
• What sales are down? – Do you offer content in various formats, such as printed and ebooks? Are sales in both categories below forecast?
• Where are sales down? Track sales by segment to learn if certain ones are dragging down total sales. Analyze sales by demographic, seasonal, geographic and transactional segmentation, as well as segmentation by profit potential.
• When are sales down? Is your content seasonal? If so, how can you increase sales during non-peak periods?
• Why are sales down? There are countless conditions that conspire to reduce sales. Find out if the culprit is incorrect or inadequate targeting, pricing, distribution, content or promotion -- or some combination of these.
6. Bring in outsiders. As the saying goes, never ask a barber if you need a haircut. When you bring in people from outside the organization you may get more objective responses.
The real value in soliciting others’ opinions is their perspective. If chosen properly, they are not experts on your particular circumstances and can challenge the status quo.
Where can you find the outsiders? They could be paid consultants, but that is not always necessary. The Association of Publishers for Special Sales (APSS -- www.bookapss.org) offers a Mastermind Program to its members (www.bookapss.org/MastermindGroup.pdf). In it, publishers meet virtually to help each other solve business problems and increase their firms’ potential. APSS also has local chapter meetings where members can interact face to face with colleagues. Or, you can survey customers to discover what they think. (But also survey previous and non-customers to find out why they do not buy.)
7. Analyze positive exceptions. Find out what worked in unconventional situations, and why. For example, one of your authors may have exhibited at a craft fair and sold 20 books. Analyze why that occurred to uncover hidden factors whose influence the group may not have considered. A craft fair has a targeted, interested audience. There is direct communication with potential buyers and the author is able to answer questions and ask for the order. And there is no nearby competition from other books. All these factors are present in making large-quantity, non-returnable sales to corporate buyers, and exploiting this new opportunity could increase sales significantly.
Once the problem is reframed and multiple solutions analyzed, decide which to adopt. Then take action, but with greater confidence that you are implementing a solution to the real problem. And that is more likely to deliver positive results.
Brian Jud is the Executive Director of the Association of Publishers for Special Sales (APSS – www.bookapss.org), book-marketing consultant and author of How to Make Real Money Selling Books and Beyond the Bookstore. Contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.premiumbookcompany.com and twitter @bookmarketing