A net gain
14.09.11 | Peter Cox
Publishing has an acutely uneasy relationship with the internet. We all recognize its importance and inevitability, yet most of us aren't actually very good at using it profitably.
Publishers' websites are a case in point. Like drunken orgies organised by committees of virgin teetotallers, these sites mostly seem clueless, perfunctory and pretty much devoid of passion. I spent a few hours perusing them for this article—and came perilously close to losing the will to live. Or at least, the will to buy books.
The problem is not lack of talent. Many gifted people toil behind the scenes: but somehow their combined efforts liquidise into a terrifying gloop whose blandness makes Justin Bieber seem, well, deep and original by comparison.
We have to face facts and admit that most readers will simply never care enough about a publisher to want to visit their website. They're busy doing far more interesting things: we are never going to rank on their agenda. That understood, we should cease our efforts trying to make them "destination" consumer sites and concentrate instead on making them great catalogue sites (which, by the way, most aren't either at the moment).
Truth be told, few publishers are instinctive "netizens". Most of us still aspire to dominate it by building the one true killer website or app. But the internet is like quicksilver: the harder you try to possess it, the faster it will run away from you. Looking at the world's most successful websites gives us two important clues: first, people want access to information; second, they want connectedness, access to other people. There's your key.
Simply bolting on a token element of social networking to an otherwise worthless website will inevitably fail. HarperCollins' late (and unlamented) Book Army is a gruesome example of where that kind of thinking gets you. Oddly, the Book Army approach had been tried years before by another major publisher with equally grim results—and even more bizarrely, it's still being emulated by other publishers today.
Here's an insight worth pondering. The internet couldn't care less about your company or its website! What it cares about more than anything is broadening and deepening its own interconnectedness. Understand this, and it will profoundly transform your thinking: not just out of the box, but into a new universe of infinite possibilities. The first publisher to grasp this insight will hit electronic El Dorado.
Let's dream a little. How about the HarperCollins network supporting book bloggers? They are the real book army—fund them by providing an ad sales team – like Google AdSense, but more targeted. Set up a hub-and-spoke ecosystem for shared resources and social interaction. Serve them well and faithfully, and they will serve you. Give the internet the right tools, and it will build a publishing Jerusalem for all of us.