What Is Our Product? Who Is Our Customer?

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


Like the head of any organization, I continuously ask a series of questions to keep business growing. Among those questions are “What is our product?” and “Who is our potential customer?” These questions inform Scribe’s business development, investments, marketing efforts, and other strategies. This is the fundamental information that determines how and whether we will continue to grow. If we cannot demonstrate our value proposition to potential customers, we will wither—or at least be priced out of the market. To properly address these questions, we need to know our potential clients’ products and customers. Without that information, we cannot understand their needs.

Since June, I have been conducting marketing research with publishers, competitors, and publishing services companies. I have concluded that too many publishers produce and deliver PDF files for book distributors and sellers.

This conclusion is based on a number of things. The first is publishers’ customers. At first blush, one might think a publisher’s customer is the reader. However, the recipients of publishers’ products are not the people who read them. The readers are serviced by reviewers, distributors, and booksellers. The customers of our customers are Amazon and others like them. And the product that our customers deliver is a PDF. Interestingly, the typical e-book is not the product of the publisher. It’s usually produced by their customer—Amazon.

It also begs the question of whether publishers provide distinctive products to their customers. My conclusion is that publishers are not perceived to be adding value—they are not meeting the needs of their customers. Consider the upswing in self-published authors, sales channels that offer their own publishing solutions, or the fact that people no longer can identify the publisher of the books they buy1. We may blame Amazon for this, but they are only trying to meet the needs of their customers (more than anyone else, they know who their customers are and they serve them well) with more content. Of course, this line of reasoning can continue ad infinitum.

What if, however, publishers asked what their product was and who their customers were and drew a different conclusion. And what if they decided the way to differentiate themselves was to meet the needs of the reader? What would they do differently? First, they might start treating their product as valuable, because they would see it as both an end product and advertisement for their company. They would produce high-quality books that exceeded the expectations of their customers instead of disappointing them with poorly constructed e-books derived from PDFs. They would be connected with the aspirations of their customers. They might decide that in order to meet the needs of their customers, they would need to proliferate ideas, information, imagination, and inspiration. They might decide to develop print and electronic products to cultivate their niche for years to come. In this hypothetical scenario, how would publishers edit and produce books in order to meet the needs of their customers?

  • They would produce books that are identifiable and focus on having customers identify them. This means editing and producing distinctive books that cause people to return for more.
  • They would produce books that are discoverable. This means more than just adding metadata or turning books over to distributors hoping they can market books. It means structuring and editing books for discoverability and placing them everywhere they might be found.
  • They would superbly produce books in every format that their customers desired, whether print, large print, ePub, or any other format, and set up a system to accomplish this in economical ways.
  • They would make sure that they had repurposeable content and would stop focusing on the creation of dead-end products.
  • They would value their product and create it to be distinctive.
  • They would share the vision with those that worked for them (even outside vendors) and demand that all worked in step with their goals.
  • They would realize that, while technology can reduce the cost of certain tasks that they perform, it shouldn’t cheapen their product.
  • They would learn everything they could to meet the needs of their clients and expect that from everyone who worked for them.
  • They would pressure suppliers of their products to develop better delivery methods that are aligned with their goals, not vice versa. And they would produce books in such a way that they could take advantage of those features as soon as they were released.

To do this, our potential clients would have to be nimble, consistent, and disciplined. They would shift towards a sustainable, distinctive, publishing program. They would develop customers in ways that are distinctive and reach them in creative ways. These publishers would have to identify their customers as those who pursue ideas, information, imagination, and inspiration in a narrative format—no matter what the reading technology—not as consumers of PDF.

1 Anecdotally, I ask people the publisher of the books they are reading. They don’t know. But they love their Kindle and find it convenient to buy from Amazon.