Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Intuition, not market research, the crucial factor

I'm deep in the most enthralling book I've read in several years.

Swimming Against The Stream [sub-titled Creating Your Business and Making Your Life] by Tim Waterstone, hb Macmillan 2006, pb Pan Books.




Although the paperback was published on 19 Jan 2007, I'm the first person to borrow it from Guernsey's Guille-Alles Public Library.

Maybe it wasn't displayed on the face-forward shelves at the top of the staircase. Had it been, I'm sure it would have been grabbed long before now. The island is awash with ambitious young businessmen and women. Though perhaps they don't use the library in their lunch breaks.

On page 5
Tim Waterstone
writes – "My own logic behind Waterstone's, when, with just £6,000 of my own left in my pocket, I founded the business in 1982, lay in the fact that as a devoted reader I found it inexplicable that a city as great and culturally diverse as London had within it barely a single stockholding literary bookshop, and certainly not one that was open past noon on Saturdays, let alone in the weekday evenings. New York had great bookshops open at every hour, and Paris too. Rome also. San Francisco. Boston. All the civilised world over. So why not London?"

He goes on, "It was intuition on my part, and intuition only. What else could it be? The business schools teach that the four hallmarks of good new business launches are these: sound market research, skilful planning, a strong customer focus and a dilegent execution performed in line with the plan. Well, I'll tell you what I think. It is difficult to argue with an orthodoxy of that sort at first glance – and yet a reliance on these classic maxims is not in the least how an entrepreneur actually operates. It certainly was not how I was thinking at that moment. And the fact that I was not gave me one of my points of advantage against the overwhelming market leader of the time, WHSmith."

"It was always so. The big corporations' simple, blind, safety-first reliance on these classic maxims is invariably a severe mistake. It disadvantages them against the entrepreneur. For what is the weakest link in it all. Market research. It always is...It is not market research but intuition that is crucial if a corporation is to enjoy continued growth in the future, find new markets, and exploit them. Intuition, and nothing else, will have to find those markets. But big corporations do not do intuition. What they do is safety. It is the reverse of entrepreneurs, who are all intuition and have contempt for safety…So, at Waterstone's we used not one jot of market research in deciding our action plan. We just did it."

This is good advice for writers as well as entrepreneurs. Today many authors and would-be authors are writing to a market defined by editors rather than following their own instincts. Sometimes the editors are influenced by the reactions of panels of readers.

Within the limits of the genre they're aiming at – crime, romance, adventure etc. – writers should write what they long to write, not what other people tell them will sell.

Boyd Tonkin review


Reviewing the hardback in The Independent Boyd Tonkin wrote -

"Tim Waterstone himself sprinkles plenty of romantic anecdotes about the early days of his chain through his handbook for entrepreneurs, Swimming Against The Stream (Macmillan, £16.99). He offers bold advice about trusting to intuition, and spurning market research: "Waterstone's was aimed at me." He delivers splendid broadsides against "the current state of capitalism". Yet the exiled bookstore Bonaparte says little about the current state of his creation.

The unromantic truth is that British chain bookselling - with Waterstone's as its battered figurehead - now looks suspiciously like a murder victim who has decided to speed up his demise by committing suicide. The pincer movement executed by the likes of Asda and Amazon has made the cut-throat discounting of a few sure-fire bestsellers the norm - with all of its risks to future diversity. Far from resisting this assault, the retail chains - and the corporate publishers whom they now bully - have opted to act as their own Sweeney Todds. At Christmas, stores worked frantically to teach shoppers that the true value of a much-publicised new book with a cover price of £18 or £20 is, let's say, £6.99. It amounts to voluntary death by a thousand cuts."

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6 Comments:

At 22 May, 2007, Blogger Richard Havers said...

I feel passionate about this and I've posted on several other blogs over recent weeks about this sad state of affairs. The fact is that publishers have a hard time understanding what marketing is - they confuse it with selling. Until, and unless, publishers get to grips with marketing then the whole thing is going to go even further downhill.

Trying to publish books "that cross all markets" is like trying to write only songs that will go to No.1 in the charts - it ain't never going to happen. That is what publishers all too often want; as that is what they perceive is what the supermarkets desire.

I worked for many years in the airline business and not that long ago if you had said that an airline should market and sell its seats directly to the travelling public and avoid travel agents (and particularly bucket shops) you would have been considered barking mad. The internet has changed all that. Publishers look to the internet and see the success of Amazon and think they should be getting on board; the problem is they don't know how to do it. It's a cliché but what publishing needs is thinking outside the box when it comes to marketing. Not that this does a lot for Waterstones et all. I think things are going to go further down hill for the big chain retailers.

 
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