How to get round losing the plot

Overwhelming competition from internet book sellers is forcing publishers to rethink the purpose of their own websites. If direct retailing is out and people are not coming to buy, what can the publishers do to sell themselves?

Featured sites

It is a truth occasionally acknowledged that the internet is quite useful. It was this belief that convinced every company worth its salt to create a website. The question, now the hype has vanished, is whether they should have bothered.
There are some areas where it is difficult to see the point. I have been looking at book publishers’ sites.They have a big problem: while they can easily enough sell books online, they are likely to be outflanked on two sides by online retailers. First, they cannot by definition match the range of a site that carries every book in print. Second, in most countries they will be horribly undercut, at least on popular books. The Bloomsbury site will sell you Ian McEwan’s Atonement for £16.99; a click or two will take you to, where the price is £8.99.
So what can publishers do? A clue that they do not know the answer to that comes in the extraordinarily diverse offerings on their sites. A general theme is that they are trying to generate brand loyalty by producing material that makes visitors want to come back for the sake of it – and so feel a sense of comfort with the brand. In that sense they are like food or drink manufacturers – their websites have to compete with magazines, television, even going to the pub.

Communities and forums

A few succeed, even without the huge budgets of the brandbuilders. Simon and Schuster’s site has one of the most successful ‘communities’ on the Web. On Tuesday its Stephen King discussion board had 139,662 postings. These range from big chunks of pseudo-King novels, via a discussion of the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Hallowe’en, to many subjects that have nothing at all to do with Stephen King. In other words, Simon & Schuster has succeeded, more by luck than judgement I suspect, in turning its site into one of the world’s biggest coffee shops.
So, the answer is to set up discussion areas and wait for readers to flock to it? Turn again to Bloomsbury’s site. Its “reading group discussion forums” are largely untroubled by visitors. The busiest I could find had 12 postings. Why Bloomsbury does not have a forum for its magical golden goose, Harry Potter, is a mystery. Not that its Harry Potter area is bad – but it has huge competition, not least from Warner Brothers’ super-slick offering.
In other ways the Bloomsbury site is well up the rankings. It is intelligently using the web’s ability to store masses of material by, for example, including the full text of Ned Kelly’s (very long) Jerilderie letter, as part of its support for Peter Carey’s book on the man with the tin head. Other good content includes the Bloomsbury Research Centre, where you can search its reference books such as The Guide to Human Thought, and a literary “on this day” feature. Frankenstein was published on my birthday, apparently.

Edited highlights

How else can publishers sites set themselves apart from Amazon? Well, they can publish long excerpts. Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub has a mini-site attached to Random House. Not only can you read excerpts, you can listen to them on audio, with a Vincent Price soundalike accompanied by spooky music. I particularly like the way a threatening roll of thunder peals out every time you click on a link.
Hodder Headline’s site also has plenty of excerpts. Like Random House’s, they tend to be hidden away on author’s mini-sites, such as the one belonging to Lord Bragg. The problem with these sites is that they have an inevitably jumbled design (and often navigation), reflecting the many ‘brands’ of their authors. An interesting alternative comes from a site promoting a single book. The Month of the Leopard is a financial thriller that is published by Simon and Schuster, but has its own site ( Mr Harland is in reality Matthew Lynn, formerly a financial journalist, who creates an engagingly sinister impression with his mysteriously blinking photograph (shades of Harry Potter?), striking design and extensive downloadable excerpts. Sensibly, he directs us to Amazon if we want to buy the book.
One threat publishers do not yet have to worry about is being ‘disintermediated’ by authors publishing directly on the web. Stephen King’s remarkably flaccid site created a stir in 2000 by selling a new book, The Plant, in episodes – visitors could pay to download them as they appeared. But not enough of them did, and Mr King simply stopped posting the updates. The idea that the web can be to authors what Household Words was to Charles Dickens has yet to pass the commercial test. Will it ever? We shall see.
Does this mean that book publishers should give up? Yes and no. Unless they do create material that is genuinely attractive, it is difficult to see why they bother on the web at all. But as the Simon and Schuster site proves, if you do hit the spot, you can score spectacular successes indeed.

First published 02 November, 2001
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