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Steve Jobs’ 14 Lessons for Book Publishers

Much of the discussion about Steve Jobs’s Walter Isaacson-penned biographyOpens in a new window revolves around his management style—or lack thereof. But after reading the book myself, I found a lot of information that’s relevant to the publishing industry. This is part one of my interpretation of Steve Jobs’ philosophies as they can be applied to book publishing.

  1. Focus
  2. Simplify
  3. Take responsibility end to end
  4. When behind, leapfrog
  5. Put products and customer service before profits
  6. Apply intuition to market research results
  7. Bend reality

1) Focus

According to author Walter Isaacson, “I once asked [Jobs] what he thought was his most important creation, thinking he would answer the iPad or the Macintosh. Instead he said it was Apple the company. Making an enduring company, he said, was both far harder and more important than making a great product.” The lesson here is to maintain attention on building a business rather than simply selling books.

This may not be as obvious as it appears. Many publishers (particularly author/publishers) work in their business instead of on their business. Their focus is the day-to-day struggles of selling books instead of long-term expansion. Your mission and vision should be cast in stone, but the journey to fulfill them may diverge from the plan as the industry evolves. Focusing on your mission concentrates your attention and frees you to act on your markets, message and means.

Focus on your markets. Define your target readers and do not try to market to “everybody.”  Know where they shop and why they would be interested in your content. Segment them into groups of like-minded people, and consider non-retail buyers such as those in corporations, associations, schools and the military.

Focus on your message. Each segment of buyers purchases your books for different reasons. Retailers want store traffic, inventory turns and profit per square foot. Librarians want to help their patrons and the media want higher ratings. Corporate buyers want to use your content to help them sell more of their products. Communicate how your book can help them reach their goals.

Focus on the means for delivering your message to your markets.Implement traditional promotional activities such as publicity, advertising and sales promotion.  But also consider cutting-edge promotion strategies such as avatar marketing, mobile marketing and social commerce (vs. social networking).

2) Simplify
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” said Jobs. Similarly, book marketing can be as simple as PIE if you Plan, Implement and Evaluate your actions. Think about what you are going to do and coordinate your actions in a concise, functional plan. Then take action, evaluate your relative success and make necessary changes.

It sounds simple to give your prospects what they want to buy, but it is not always easy. Consistently communicate your message so your title is on the minds of buyers when they are ready to purchase.

3) Take responsibility end to end
Isaacson said, “Jobs knew that the best way to achieve simplicity was to make sure that hardware, software and peripheral devices were seamlessly integrated … allowing devices to be simpler, syncing to be smoother and glitches to be rarer.”

Book publishers can apply that philosophy by integrating the writing, publishing and marketing functions of the business. Content based on market need, published in the form most desired by the users, and then distributed effectively, priced accurately and promoted consistently will outperform competitors.

4) When behind, leapfrog
Any content you publish must be different from, and better than, what is currently available. If not, be creative in your promotion so your message stands out in a positive way. Position your content in a way that separates it from the crowd.

Do not allow your products to languish on retail shelves among competitive books, but seek new buyers in non-retail segments. While your competitors are slugging it out for shelf space, you can grow your revenue by finding new uses, new markets and new users for your content.

Cannibalize your product line or others will. If you do not update your information in a new edition, during the authors’ presentations or on your website, you will be losing ground. Stay one step ahead of your competitors with new content or a new twist on your existing material.

5) Put products and customer service before profits 
Some publishers have a profit objective each year, and understandably do all they can to reach it. Yet, that philosophy may not be in your best interests. That may lead to cutting corners to reduce costs to improve profits. Think in terms of profit optimization vs. maximization. This will generally lead to better long-term financial results. You can improve your bottom line in two ways: cut costs (without sacrificing quality) or increase the top line through product, distribution, pricing and promotion innovation. Focus on making great products and marketing them properly, and profits will follow.

6) Apply intuition to market research results
Elicit market feedback, but apply a dose of intuition as you evaluate it. Prospective customers may not be able to articulate what they want and your instinct must compensate to provide a solution. For example, while trying to sell my job-search book to buyers at various states’ Departments of Labor I found the reason why they did not purchase them, even though my book’s content met their needs.

The DOL representatives conducted workshops for the unemployed, and my perfect-bound book was difficult to use because it did not lay flat. A quick trip to Staples provided the solution. They removed the spine and re-bound it with wire. It solved the problem, the state placed an annual blanket order for over 30,000 books and I also sold my services as a speaker at their workshops. Once that model was in place, I took it to other states.

Talking with your prospects can help you build your business if you understand that their feedback will describe a problem, not a solution. Apply your creativity to solving their problems and you can create an entirely new revenue stream.

7) Bend reality 
Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field was well known among those close to him. When applying this field he would not admit a task was impossible. He believed that if people say something cannot be done it just means they cannot do it. But if pushed they can make it happen.

In this same way, publishers can deal with and overcome challenges. Bookstores may not accept your book. Sales may be below expectation and returns above forecast. You may get a bad review. Everything costs more than expected, and there is never enough time to do all you planned.

Whatever happens, deal with it. Find out why sales are down and make corrections (Is the content seasonal? Does the content or packaging need to be improved? Is there improper—or no—planning?). Could returns be eliminated with more targeted promotion or through sales to corporate buyers? Learn from bad reviews (maybe they are correct). Reduce your costs (but not quality), create good work habits and utilize your time more effectively.