Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Publishers Be Crazy...Or Desperate

I just read this article about, a new joint venture being launched later this summer by Hachette Book Group, Penguin USA and Simon & Schuster. Per the article:

The site intends to provide information for all things literary: suggestions on what books to buy, reviews of books, excerpts from books and news about authors. Visitors will also be able to buy books directly from the site or from other retailers and write recommendations and reviews for other readers.

The publishers — Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group USA and Hachette Book Group — hope the site will become a catch-all destination for readers in the way that music lovers visit for reviews and information.

A couple of sentences further down, you'll read:

“There’s a frustration with book consumers that there’s no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors,” said Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “We need to try to recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment, but which we don’t believe is currently happening online.”

There are three problems with Ms. Reidy's statements.

First, there is NOT "a frustration with book consumers that there's no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors," because in fact, there are several sites that offer one-stop shopping for author/book information. Perhaps Ms. Reidy just hasn't heard of such obscure, underground sites as,,, and

Second, nobody needs to "recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment," because for the average consumer, discovery of new books NO LONGER HAPPENS IN THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT. Once again, it's Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari and LibraryThing to the rescue here, not to mention genre-specific online communities like
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and format- and device- specific online communities like Kindle Nation Daily.

Third, Ms. Reidy and her compatriots don't "believe [this is] currently happening online." Why not?! How is it possible that publishers are THAT FAR out of touch with book buyers? I'll tell you how: traditionally, publishers have viewed booksellers as their customers, and book-buyers as the customers of booksellers. They have little to no idea what's bouncing around in the head and life of the typical consumer, because they haven't had to know those things to run their business at any time in the past---past being the operative word there.

So these three major publishers are sinking massive amounts of time, effort and money into a huge new initiative that I think just about any typical book-buying consumer on the street could tell you today is destined to fail. And how do you suppose they'll be financing this new initiative? Certainly not by reducing the prices of their books, or signing more new, unproven authors, or keeping books on physical shelves longer to give them a better chance of catching on, or giving individual authors more marketing money.

I'm sure the publishers would say this initiative is all about supporting their authors and marketing books in a cost-effective way, so kudos to them for good intentions. But while they may know book and author marketing today is all about author platform, they clearly don't understand that author platform is all about community, and community is about making personal connections and feeling like you're part of a movement. Which do you think a fan of Stephen King would rather visit: Stephen King's personal site and online community of fans, or the obviously corporate umbrella site, content will necessarily be vetted and vanilla, so as not to hurt the corporate images and reputations of its backers and to avoid offending any site visitors. Anyone who wants the raw, unfiltered version of musings from their favorite authors and opinions of others in those authors' communities won't bother with when they can get the straight scoop right from the horses' mouths elsewhere.

I hate to sound so negative and dump all over publishers like this, because it's a good thing that they're finally willing to try something new. But at this point, they face the same problem Microsoft did with its Zune MP3 player: Apple got there first with the iPod, and they did it very well. If you're going to enter the marketplace with a new product for which the demand has already been fulfilled by someone else (or several someone elses), then your product has to be so incredibly, amazingly compelling that consumers will feel they're missing out by not switching to it. Microsoft tried it with the Zune; I think by now we can all agree they failed to capture enough of the MP3 player market to even make Apple break a sweat. And Microsoft has decades of experience with technology and marketing direct to consumers.

So gets an A for effort, but a goose egg for vision and sustainability.

Publishers: maybe you're looking at this all wrong. Maybe instead of trying to supplant the Amazons, Goodreads and Shelfaris of the world, you should be looking for ways to leverage what those sites and communities are already doing, and doing very well: crowdsourcing.

Let them tell you what the readers want to see in print and ebook forms. Listen to consumer complaints about ebook release windows and pricing, and respond accordingly. Switch to POD book production so you can offer a much wider variety of titles at a much lower cost; grousing about the lack of variety and fresh, new voices from mainstream pub is so common as to be a pastime in reader communities. Stop chasing after blockbusters and start tuning into the pre-existing discovery network to locate your new literary stars. Keep your ears to the ground for breakout indie authors, and sign them, knowing they're already proven commodities. Get and keep a bead on technologies consumers are excited about (color ebooks, interactive book apps, etc.) and invest in those technologies.

Your role as arbiters of taste and gatekeepers is a thing of the past, and the position of Reader Community Leader has already been filled. Own it. Restructure your businesses and legacy thought patterns to embrace this new reality. Now, your role is to find out what consumers want in print books, ebooks and emerging media technologies, and give it to them. Period.


Mimi Barbour said...

Wow!! Loved the article and agree that there are a lot of sites available for the discriminating consumer.
But if they could come up with something new - of course I'd be interested.
Thanks for the article.

Dan said...

I think publishers might want to consider simply setting up independent websites for each of their authors. Authors are gravitating toward building their names as brands anyway, so if the publisher designs and maintains the individual website, the publisher automatically has a pulpit for pushing their author's works without seeming too corporate.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Given that setting up websites is NOT a major investment, I don't think it's crazy or desperate. How effective it will be is another matter. Dan's onto something in his comment -- They could also invest in separate author pages and sites. I think they or agents may already be doing some of that. The publishers will get their cut even if people go to Amazon (unless they're buying used), so ultimately all web publicity that leads to sales anywhere is going to be good for them and they have to do something to make up for losing retail brick and mortar stores.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks to all for reading and commenting.

Marion - while it's a dirt cheap proposition for an individual like you or I to set up a website, it's not so cheap or easy for a corporation. They tend to set up and staff entire new departments for this sort of thing, and employ lots of content producers, and copyeditors, and network administrators, and researchers, and web designers, and photographers and artists...and of course, administrators, clerks and interns. Now imagine the logistics of getting THREE corporations in on it. Surely, an attorney or two is thrown into the mix at that point, if for no other reason than to draft the contracts. Then there's the advertising and promotion budget for Bookish itself.

Don't you doubt it: hundreds of thousands of dollars will be spent on the launch and maintenance of

CS McClellan/Catana said...

And they will, of course, be offering titles from publishers not part of the group, and self-published books. After all, isn't that what one-stop shopping means? Somehow, I doubt that's their intent.

Keith Sheppard said...

Are we perhaps missing the point here? The problem with Amazon, Goodreads etc. is that they might, heaven forfend, recommend books or authors not published by Messrs Simon & Schuster, Penguin or Hachette.

Angela Kulig said...

What I want to know, is are they charging a book sellers fee when they sell books on these websites? You know the percent Amazon etc would keep? Because they sounds like another great plan to defraud writers out of money. I have read a lot of really troubling new tricks recently, and it worries me that some people can't seem to look at them objectively.

Essie Holton said...

The problem I see with is people who stumble upon the site and believe that, for their purposes, it is the best out there BECAUSE it is from the publishers. Believe it or not, there are people out there who still believe that publishing companies know best, just like there are people out there who believe that Microsoft or Apple make the best computer applications/games. People are going to use it, believe that it is best, and those people are going to miss out.