Why management consultants have jobs: Publishing edition

“Management consulting” seems to be a puzzle: firms spend huge amounts of money, sometimes hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, to get reports and opinions generated most often by recent college grads with no domain knowledge, let alone expertise. Why? Here’s one theory, which holds that “most intellectuals underestimate just how dysfunctional most firms are. Firms often have big obvious misallocations of resources, where lots of folks in the firm know about the problems and workable solutions” and “The CEO often understands what needs to be done, but does not have the resources to fight this blocking coalition. But if a prestigious outside consulting firm weighs in, that can turn the status tide.”

I’m thinking about management consulting because, for a project, I spent some time gathering data from book publishers about bulk book sales. No publishers appear to have information about bulk sale rates on their websites. I attempted to call Oxford University Press on January 11 and emailed them the same day with a bulk sales inquiry; I never found the right person to talk to on the phone and got a short email back today, January 26, containing 25 words and the bulk sales information that ought to be on their website—or at least emailed promptly.

If big publishers hired management consultants, one obvious thing a management consultant could say is: “Put the bulk order discount rates on the website. Also, reply to queries within 24 hours, not two weeks.” One publisher sent a four-page PDF form, full of sensitive information, that the publisher wants emailed back in order to place a bulk order (email is not an encrypted medium and that is a good way to lose sensitive information).

Publisher discovery itself is a challenge. A given book has the name of an imprint on it, and listed on Amazon, but the “imprint” often doesn’t correspond to the actual publisher I need to get ahold of. Some imprints have websites that don’t really exist any more (how am I supposed to know in advance that Bantam Spectra books is part of the Penguin-Randomhouse conglomerate? Seriously, type “Bantam Spectra books” into a search engine and see what you find: then repeat this for a bunch of other books, and make sure you keep them straight). I’m not sure what publishers’s websites are optimized for, or who they’re optimized for—bookstores, maybe—but they don’t seem optimized for readers or for buyers who aren’t already initiated into the secrets of the system.

In grad school, I gave a former student a ride to California and talked to him about how little management consulting made sense to me: why would a firm hire 22-year olds, or even 25-year olds, at hundreds of dollars an hour, to opine on the firm’s business? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Now I wonder if that was bad advice: here’s one reason why the smartest college grads might avoid typical corporations in favor of management consulting or startups.

Publishing might also be unusual in that it faces fewer competitive pressures, or different competitive pressures, than other industries; publishing is still a glamor industry that succeeds by getting liberal arts grads from wealthy families to put in a bunch of time at low wages, so maybe publishers don’t care. But come on, two weeks to get a quote? If Seliger + Associates ran that way, we’d not have a business. Alternately, maybe bulk sales to random outsiders aren’t important to publishers, and I’m such a small part of their business that they can’t bother. As long as Amazon and bookstores are happy, nothing else matters. Still, it might be worth a/b testing what putting true rates directly on the site reveals. Maybe there’s a universe of potential buyers who are dissuaded by poor website design. Overall, I’d take the two-week mark to respond to a pricing query as a sign that other parts of the business must be equally poorly managed.

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