I’m willing to bet that not many of you who read this will not cop to reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But judging from the sales that this sexy train wreck of a novel has garnered, odds are some of you have. And there is an innovation lesson for marketers in why this controversial book has been a runaway success.
In fact, the interesting part of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy isn’t the rampant BDSM (although we could discuss the sexual politics until the vampires come home). The real story is how this piece of erotica came to reside on shelves by the checkout lanes of your local retail store.
The publishing model of the past would never have let this happen, partially because traditional book publishing is based on speculation. Agents and editors receive submissions and proposals for potential books and make their selections based on what they think will sell. Very reasonable when you consider the high overhead involved with printing and distributing a book, and the fact that bookstores can return unsold copies for a refund. In other words, publishers take big risks every time they put out a book, and who would have guessed millions of moms would scarf up erotica while they were picking up paper towels and picture frames?
The introduction of e-readers changed everything. Distributing an e-book is cheap and fast. The overhead is low, so pricing is flexible. Have a series of three books? Offer the first one as an e-book for $.99 and just see how the sales of the other two go up.
But that’s only half the story, because the rights to “Fifty Shades” were bought by Vintage Books, an imprint of publishing goliath Random House. It was an easy decision for Vintage to pick up the book. All it had to do was look at the incredible e-book and print-on-demand sales to know they were making a safe bet. Slap on a cover similar to “Twilight” and folks are flipping pages in their local discount retail superstore, right next to the $5 DVDs.
Mind you, “Fifty Shades” is no fluke. Amazon has been leveraging its massive customer base with publishing imprints of its own since 2009.
Moreover, it recently broke through the wall by publishing its own physical books, keeping it from brick-and-mortar distribution. Through its partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Amazon Publishing books can now be sold in Barnes and Noble stores under the pseudonym New Harvest. This imprint’s first book, “Jeff, One Lonely Guy,” was just released.
And it doesn’t end at books. Amazon Studios is using digital collaboration to prototype films for testing and retesting, which promises to make filmmaking a much more iterative process.
Here’s the lesson: Everyone knew digital distribution was changing things. First, experts thought it would just be an addition to physical media — much like television and radio had been. Then, with the downfall of newspapers and print magazines, it looked like it would replace physical media.
But now it looks like it will be full-scale revolution and innovation. Now you can distribute digitally to test the wisdom of a print investment. You can use the flexible cost structure to promote sales and increase demand. And you can use digital collaboration to offset development costs, enabling you to allocate resources to making the end product really shine.
If that doesn’t work, you can always tie up your customers and flog them. More and more people seem to be into that these days…
Barrett Condy is a senior copywriter at gyro, the global ideas shop.
Follow him @barrettcondy