On audience

If, in the course of browsing books on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you become curious about who published a book, be sure to squint your eyes. On either site, the publisher is tucked in along with other important details like the ISBN and the trim size. In other words, they consider the publisher to be an equivalent (meaning, insignificant) piece of metadata.

I think there are two reasons for this: first, most generalist publishers have failed to develop a meaningful brand, thwarted by their own large and all-encompassing lists. As such, their names are interchangeable. I do not recall off the top of my head who published the latest Clay Shirky book, not because I am inattentive, but because it doesn’t matter.

The second reason is that publishers have outsourced their audience. Publishers do not sell to readers directly—they sell to bookstores. It does not behoove Amazon or Barnes & Noble for you to develop a close relationship with the publisher. They want to keep you to themselves; and they have done so by delivering a customer experience that most publishers have neglected.

If publishers are to continue to be relevant, they need to repair both of these errors: first, by publishing lists, not books—meaning, collections of books where each book fits into the list and contributes to a larger story—and second, by cultivating a relationship with their readers. In either case, it helps to be small.

We didn’t set out to number the titles from A Book Apart; it was Jason Santa Maria’s idea to add “No. 1” to the cover when working on the design, so as to make a visual connection to issue numbers on A List Apart. But the more I think about this, the more I think the numbers are paramount to the list: it forces us to think about the way each book leads into and supports the next. We’re not only publishing individual books—we’re telling a story about the web one book at a time.

Moreover, that the first title from A Book Apart has been a raging success is not only due to Jeremy Keith’s excellent (and hilarious) writing, nor to the topic, but to the fact that between A List Apart and An Event Apart, we already had an audience that trusted us and valued what we had to say to the world. I myself learned about the web from A List Apart and feel a special loyalty to it that runs deeper than what my own editorial involvement could ever achieve; likewise, the hours spent meeting and talking to people at An Event Apart have been some of the most rewarding of my career. The seeds of our first title were planted not when Jeremy agreed to write for us, but when Jeffrey started A List Apart more than a decade ago.

Our audience is our most trusted asset, more important than even our authors. (I say this with profound respect for all of our authors, whom I am deeply honored to be working with.) But we couldn’t do justice to the books they write if we didn’t first care greatly for our readers. We could hire a distributor to handle fulfillment and customer support (tasks I’ve spent many an hour on), we could sell to bookstores and let them cultivate a community for us, but then we’d be abandoning our readers right at the moment when they are seeking us out.

Over the past few months, I’ve responded to readers who were frustrated that the book didn’t arrive fast enough, or annoyed at having received a damaged book; I’ve also read many heartwarming notes from people whose understanding of the web changed because of this one little book, or whose initial disappointment at its slimness turned to delight once they started reading. I’ve watched as the orders came in from Florida to Fiji, from libraries to military bases. One man sent us a photo of himself reading the book on his fishing boat; another sent a photo of his toddler flipping through the pages—he called it “the future.”

We could have outsourced the time it took to read and answer all of these emails; but then we’d be missing out on the most important part of this little business: you. Looking back, I can’t believe I spent a decade in publishing without this connection; I can’t believe any publisher who doesn’t take this seriously can make it. At SXSW last year, Paul Ford called the web a platform more suited to customer service than publishing; I didn’t entirely agree with him when he said that (I still don’t), but I’m coming around. One reader at a time.