Publishers urged to learn more about their readers

— With book sales flat and the public increasingly choosing other ways to spend its leisure time, publishers received some blunt advice Thursday on how to expand the market.

Get to know your readers.

"The answer lies in the ability to create ways to understand the consumer better," said Kosmo Kalliarekos, a senior partner with the Parthenon Group, a strategic advisory firm, and the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the Association of American Publishers.

Kalliarekos documented how the most profitable areas of the publishing business -- education and professional books -- were also the ones that communicated best with its customers. Sales for general fiction and nonfiction books, meanwhile, remain slow because, in part, the industry doesn't really know what people want.

"It's too internally focused," he said, adding that instead of looking to consumers for answers, the industry is trapped in a cycle "of producing more and more and hoping the law of averages will work out."

Publishing has already changed radically. Thanks to corporate buyouts and computer technology, the book business is nothing like the tweedy culture of the mid-20th century. But one lasting characteristic is a preference for instinct over research, a faith that the publisher's passion will somehow transmit to the general public.

Publishers are seeking new ways to reach readers. The president and CEO of HarperCollins, Jane Friedman, said her company has built an "author tracker" e-mail list of more than 200,000 and can alert customers with news about a favorite writer.

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