Interview with Sara Domville, President, F+W Media
For podcast release Monday, April 2, 2012
KENNEALLY: As the online media marketplace evolves, publishers recognize they must redefine their businesses. The path Cincinnati-based F+W Media has chosen leads directly to the consumer via communities of shared interest, from writing, screenwriting, and fine art to genealogy, craft, woodworking, and design. By opening communications channels to its audiences, F+W curates editorial output and facilitates discovery.
Welcome, everyone, to Beyond the Book, the podcast series on the business of publishing presented by the nonprofit Copyright Clearance Center. My name is Christopher Kenneally. And since 2008, when Sara Domville became President at F+W Media, the definition of a book, not to mention that for bookstores, has evolved dramatically. She joins me now to discuss all that. Welcome to the program, Sara Domville.
DOMVILLE: Thank you so much, Chris. So nice to be here.
KENNEALLY: Well, it’s a pleasure to have you join us. We first had a chance to talk at the Digital Book World conference in January in New York City, and I really enjoyed the conversation and wanted to bring it to our audience, because what F&W is doing, as I said in the introduction, is really helping to redefine what, in publishing, we mean by book and bookstores. And I suppose a place to start is to ask you to tell us about the various stores that F+W now operates for its various books and magazines.
DOMVILLE: Very happy to do that. We actually 22 stores, all online e-commerce stores. And then we have a very deep library of unparalleled quality content, products, and services. And we aim to really exceed our consumers’ expectations by delivering a one-stop shop for those consumers in their chosen niche vertical. So we’re all about serving that passionate enthusiast. And we very much view ourselves as the Amazon of our verticals. Our employees bring a very unique, authentic, trusted voice to the community, and there’s very much both a content community and a curation aspect to our e-commerce business, which really helps us build it aggressively. And that’s what we’ve really been doing since 2009 when we launched the stores.
KENNEALLY: Well, you mentioned curation. That is one of the buzzwords going around the business right now. And why is that a key capability at F+W?
DOMVILLE: Well, curation is fundamentally important, because, of course, if you want to buy something online, you can go to Amazon or B&N, or wherever you’d like to go to. If you know what you want, then they’ll service your needs and ship it to your door, during 24 hours. It’s a marvelous experience. But for many people out there, they don’t know exactly what they want to buy. So with our deep knowledge of the content of that vertical, we’re able to tailor the content and products and services to exceed those consumers’ expectations. So we have a very much a curated, guided approach. It’s like having your sort of personal shopper at your right hand, really telling you what you need to buy next in order to go from a beginner to an intermediate to an advanced, whether it’s an artist, whether it’s someone interested in craft, whether it’s antiques, numismatics, whichever of our verticals you’re in, it’s very much an effective sales process which helps guide that consumer through the selection to the right product at the right price for them.
KENNEALLY: And it’s not your end of things telling the customer what they need, it’s you asking what they want.
DOMVILLE: It’s absolutely that. It’s us asking, and us really listening to what they want. I mean, the beauty about it, again, in traditional publishing circles, we have no idea who goes into a Barnes & Noble store and picks up one of our books. But actually, in our communities, we can actually take that to a whole new level, and ask those individuals in the community, because we trust their voice. They’re in the market, in the community. And so before we even start to produce the right kind of product, we’re constantly talking to them, and listening to them, and asking their opinion, and surveying them, and really being at one with the community. And that’s really the power of the community model, because it’s seen that it’s built by the people for the people, and then you really can deliver the right kind of content. So you’re not in an ivory tower. You’re very much with your consumers, and learning from your consumers, and that’s a very different approach for our media business.
KENNEALLY: Right, I mean, that relationship you’ve developed, and that closeness you have, is one that is relatively new to the book business, and as I would say, is redefining what it means by book, or what we mean by book, and what we mean by bookstore as well. And within the business, you’ve got your staff working in new and innovative ways. So, for example, the editorial team and the marketing team are in more sync than they might have been in the past.
DOMVILLE: Yes, because we – our publishers, if you like, we define them as community leaders. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re leading the community. They invariably are experts in their field. So for a good example, Jeremy, who runs our art community, he is an artist. I could never switch our community leaders around, because they’re very much involved – and the vertical is their passion, it’s their hobby, it’s what they do as well, so really enables them to be the right sort of leader for that organization. Because you have to have that trusted voice. You have to have your editorial teams really talking about the right kind of products, and why they’re pleased to have them within the store.
It’s also important to know that it’s not just all about F+W. We very much want to be the destination for the right curated product which suits our consumers from everybody, whether it’s third-party hard goods, or whether it’s DVD, whether it’s other publishers’ books. We want to be the absolute Amazon of our verticals, and really believe in that sort of mission and vision for our business. And it’s certainly served us well in the last few years.
KENNEALLY: Well, how do you work out that relationship with your partners, and what’s been the impact for the books you sell by others and the books you sell for – that come out of F+W?
DOMVILLE: Well, I think there’s two things to say there. As far as the F+W books are concerned, I mean, that obviously gives us an edge for our community. And we sell more of our own products than we do of other people’s, but that’s purely because we have the information that enables us to produce the right kind of products that they enjoy buying.
Having said that, there’s also a wealth of other fabulous content out there published by other people, and produced by them, whether it’s hard goods or whether it’s published titles. And so we have an arrangement with Ingram so we can bring in any book published on the subject. So, again, our experts within the business will be looking at what the best-selling charts are, what’s really working those verticals. And if it’s a book that’s not by us, which quite often may be the case, then of course we’ll buy that through the Ingram relationship.
In addition, on the hard goods side of things, as well as – again, using the art example – having all the how-to information, we’re also very keen to have selected goods, whether it’s paintbrushes and paints and easels. And so, again, we’re going out to the manufacturers, and we’re bringing those products in, we’re inventorying those products, and then selling those directly to our consumer. So not only can you buy the how-to to paint that beautiful flower that you’ve seen in that how-to book, but you can also, at the click of a button, get all the materials that you need to actually execute it.
KENNEALLY: Right, and again, what it sounds like is really kind of tending to the consumer first and foremost. The store you have isn’t so much your store, it’s their store.
DOMVILLE: Yes, I think that’s very true, and we very much like to make sure that we’re exceeding those consumers’ expectations. And we have a no hassle-free return policy, we like to make it as easy as possible to interact with us. We have a very simple, straightforward shopping experience. And we’re looking to others in the marketplace to constantly refine and improve our service to our consumers. We have all our customer service in-house. We chose to keep it in-house because that connection with our consumer is fundamentally important. We’re looking at a long-term value for that consumer, and we want to make sure that those people have a good experience, and they’ll come back to us. And the scale of it is at such now that we have over six million consumers which we’re reaching monthly to interact with in this way, so it’s a very important thing that we’d like them to be our consumer for the next 20, 30 years, not just next 20 or 30 minutes.
KENNEALLY: And that’s all about the market end of things. But on the development of content, I wonder if you could tell us about how the digital revolution, if you will, is changing the way you think about the editorial process.
DOMVILLE: Absolutely, and that really has changed enormous amounts, Chris. And it’s actually very exciting. It’s a marvelous time to be in publishing, because it really makes you think about things in a different way. And our content acquisition process is a very key change there. We very much used to have a book acquisition program, and new idea, come in, will you want to do this book, yes we’ll publish it, blah, blah, blah. But we’ve got to a stage now when we’re really thinking about, this is the kind of content that we’re interested in commissioning. Invariably will come from an idea which comes through from the community, or from our community leaders. And then we’re really thinking about it in a multitude of ways. Do we want to actually do a 60-minute Webinar to introduce the subject? Do we want to have a six-week course with our Writer’s Digest University or our North Light University, Artist’s Network University? Do we want to create a video program we have in ArtistsNetwork.tv? Maybe it’s going to be an article in one of our magazines. And at the back end, maybe it’s also going to be a book. But the book is no longer the first – you know, point A and point B. Now we’ve got a whole selection of choices, because, again, the community is enabling us to deliver that content how the community would like to really learn and absorb that content. And it’s not necessarily in book form or magazine form, and in some cases would be every aspect of the sort of legs of the spider. But in some cases it’ll be maybe two or three legs. But we’re thinking about it is, this is the content we want to create, and then how do we spin it off into the various different appropriate channels.
KENNEALLY: Right, and so the container becomes, if you will, irrelevant. It’s really about the content.
DOMVILLE: It’s all about the content, absolutely. And, again, it’s the consumers, how they would like to reach that content. That’s what’s important, and you’re there to enable them to – if some people want to learn by watching a video, and other people want to learn by reading a book or a magazine, then there’s an opportunity to not just have one-time use of that content. It enables you to have multiple use. And that enables you to create more content, and be more efficient at higher margins, too, so it helps everybody.
KENNEALLY: Well, one piece of this that fascinates me is the way that you title all these various products. It’s really not about creative and snappy and catchy any longer, it’s about something else entirely.
DOMVILLE: Well, absolutely, and that’s another interesting point you raise, actually, Chris, because SEO has become very important to us, search engine optimization, and we’ve actually now got a department of people who are viewing the naming of every one of our products. And what’s exciting about this is that not only can you use that to make sure you’ve got the right key words so that on the Google searches you come right at the top of the list, or as close to the top as you can. It also enables you to use it in the reverse, and to see what people are searching for, and then create the right kind of product for what they’re searching for. So, again, it’s listening to the people rather than just being in an ivory tower and saying, we will publish this because we like it, and you should buy it. That’s not our philosophy. Our philosophy is very much, listen to the consumers, listen to the community, and deliver the kind of content that they’re looking and searching for. So we’re very aware to that sort of search engine optimization, and really using that as a tool to give us a competitive advantage.
KENNEALLY: Right. Well, we are talking right now with Sara Domville, who is President at F+W Media. And the emphasis of the conversation, Sara, has been about the digital part of the business, but you remind me that print is still very important. And could you talk about that, and talk about the relationship that’s evolving there between the print side and the digital side?
DOMVILLE: I think they both help each other in many ways. I mean, we are very much a media business. We try to be as digitally savvy as we possibly can. We think digital first, we think e first. And in our minds, that’s either e-commerce events – that’s an e, although it’s not quite digital – but it’s the ultimate community experience. But so everything we do, we feel that there’s a digital application, and the digital application arguably will come first.
Having said that, we also know that our magazines – and we have 35 magazines in the business – are a great way of driving people to the community. Having a subscription, having a subscriber who gets that magazine six or seven times a year, great way for us to showcase all the other things that we’re doing, and really bring people in. We’ve done a lot of analysis, financial analysis, to really illustrate where people come from in the community, and our magazines are still a great marketing tool. So although one needs to run a profitable magazine business, and that’s been challenging in the last few years, but we’ve got it to a place where we’re profitable as a business, but we’re also see it very much as an opportunity to bring people into the community. And once we do that, then we know that they will buy many of our other products, and we think of it very much as that long-term value proposition.
KENNEALLY: Well, we talked at the beginning of this sort of about curation, and you are curating your customers as much as you’re curating your content, it sounds like.
DOMVILLE: Well, I didn’t say we’re curating the customers, because –
KENNEALLY: Well, I mean caring for them –
DOMVILLE: Yes. Yes, that’s a better way.
KENNEALLY: – (laughter) in that sense of it. But it really does seem like, while the content is clearly what F+W produces, the really important relationship is the customer.
DOMVILLE: Absolutely. We’re here to create content that is going to exceed people’s expectations, and deliver, frankly, for the business a return on our investment. So the more and the closer we can get to those people, the more likely it is that we’re going to be successful, and we can drive our business to greater profitability, because that’s what we’re in business to do, to be honest.
KENNEALLY: Well, Sara Domville, President of F+W Media, we appreciate your informing us of the ways that F+W Media is rethinking its own business. Sara, thank you so much for joining us today.
DOMVILLE: Thank you very much for your time, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.
KENNEALLY: We should tell everybody that Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows now. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or on our Website, copyright.com/beyondthebook.
Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.