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More on Tribal Buying–I Didn’t Mean Bookstores

April 13, 2009

tribesI’ve been genuinely thrilled by the response to my last post on Tribal Buying.  (And my thanks to Mike Hyatt, Scott McKain, Joe Wikert, and Steve Protratz for the push.)   But I’m afraid that it had an unintended consequence:  I didn’t mean that independent bookstores, as we now know them, will necessarily be benefactors of tribal/microtrend buying patterns.  So please allow me a couple minutes to clarify.

If Godin and Penn are correct about people becoming more “tribal” than ever, then it follows logically that buying patterns will change as a result.  Because the “tribe” is becoming the new source of information and inspiration for people, we’ll be looking for fellow “believers” to supply the products, information, and services needed to fulfill the needs and desires of tribes.

I made the comment that the influence of the big boxes will become displaced by these independents, these specialists.  Emphasis on “influence.”  I don’t believe all big box retailers and webtailers will disappear, but I believe it follows that there will be less of them and that their influence–their power–will diminish, supplanted by more and more specialists who appeal to the needs of the “tribe.”  The vendors, manufacturers, and purveyors of intellectual property who expect the lion’s share of their sales to come from a big box will miss maybe half or more of their potential sales, because the so-called “little guys,” the independents, will represent more and more of the market’s share.  


The trick for us vendors is to figure out how to reach them–to efficiently and profitably sell a case of something times a few thousand independents rather than thousands of widgets to a couple big boxes who currently hold the power–and our awe.  This change is going to mess with our sales models.

I’m not sure this is necessarily good news for independent booksellers because independent or chain, most booksellers are still generalists.  They specialize in books generally, not specific content.

I DO think this could be good news for independent publishers (and independent distributors) who create specialized content and can sell effectively into niche channels.  And Imicrotrends1 believe that large publishing houses that can help their imprints refine their identities can benefit as well.  

It may well be that for the first time in the history of publishing that “brand” could become important not just to the bookseller but to the consumer; as in, “X publisher always produces great books on Y subjects.”  

Bookstores and book webtailers that can figure out how to put category “believers” on the floor would then be able to improve “hand selling” of books.

To drill deeper into my example from the last post…when I challenged our people with “what if there were no big box booksellers?” we hypothesized about where an upcoming book we will publish about Paul Revere would appeal–where does the affinity group for this kind of book congregate?  We came up with a lengthy list, including antique stores, Boston area museums, bed & breakfasts, and chambers of commerce, military posts, and clubs both physical and digital.  The hard work is:  how do we get books into these places?  It’s not hard to figure out why our books should go there (we can add value!); it’s very hard to come up with efficient sales, marketing, publicity, and merchandising models that make it profitable for these businesses (and our own) to carry our books.  

But if Godin is right, I believe we need to invest some serious energy into figuring it out.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2009 9:40 am

    Two thoughts: the first is that independent publishers have been developing consumer level brands for a period of time. One I owned and ran for seven years, Soft Skull Press, was quite successful in that regard, I felt; ditto presses like Chelsea Green, Akashic Books, Melville House, Seven Stories, Small Beer… One of the bets things ever said about Soft Skull was in the comments section of a blog post at The Guardian a few years ago, the topic being, What Books Get You Laid. One commenter: “Anything by Soft Skull Press.” That’s a tribe, methinks.

    Second thought. Some book publishing/selling is local/regional, as opposed to thematic. So booksellers can indeed become publishers, de facto community centers, who could cluster reading groups, writing groups, self-publishing services, events, etc. Some tribes can be geographically defined…

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