@BEA: Do Book Publishers Really Know How To Sell Direct To Consumers?

“Let’s be honest,” said Tom Turvey, Google’s Director of Strategic Partnerships. “Publishers have never really cared about their consumers.”

As sales move online, and the bricks-and-mortar stores that used to be publishers’ main customers become less important, what can publishers do to sell more e-books? That was the subject of a future of e-books panel at BookExpo America today that was moderated by Turvey.

Though none of the panelists, publishers all, were ready to say they don’t care about consumers–Random House Digital President Amanda Close immediately responded that “we have always cared deeply about our consumers”–they admitted that they’re facing stiff challenges in getting readers to discover new e-books. “Publishers do not know how to market e-books yet,” said Evan Schnittman, Managing Director of Group Sales and Marketing at Bloomsbury. Or, rather, they know how to market the new titles that they’re simultaneously marketing in stores, but the older titles that publishers are converting into e-books present more of a challenge. “Let’s be honest with ourselves, we’ve never marketed backlist before,” Schnittman said.

Bestseller lists have become more fragmented, Turvey noted, as more e-retailers publish individual lists (like the Nook and Kindle bestseller lists) that may be driven by price cuts and promotions. Will that affect discoverability? Schnittman said consumers need “systems of vetting and finding authority” and bestseller lists can provide that. Andrew Savikas, SVP O’Reilly, disagreed: “I don’t see a future for the single-source, objective bestseller list [like the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) list].”

When Turvey moved on to new business models, he said, “Amanda [from Random House] has already recused herself from this question. I think I see her attorney in the back.” No Random House spokesperson would have provided the answer that Savikas gave: “I think we’ll move away from being a purchase-based industry. We’ll move to access-based models in which the actual price of the unit is irrelevant.”

Turvey asked if publishers could perhaps do what magazines have done and reach out directly to their consumers. David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus Books Group, said magazines are more recognizable brands than most book publishers–for every well-known brand like Zagat or Rick Steves, there are more traditional publishers that are not recognized as brands.

“I’m struggling with holding up the magazine as a beacon of success. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) singlehandedly destroyed the magazine industry,” Schnittman said. “We have millions of products to sell. I think we have to have a marketing relationship with consumers. I’m not sure we can effectively have a sales relationship with consumers.”