While they didn’t break their necks rushing to get with the program, media companies have nevertheless made major concessions and changes to their business models over the past couple of years.
Meanwhile, most of their counterparts in book publishing are still stubbornly digging in their heels. Google is determined to smooth their path to digital enlightenment.
Why would a search engine care about all that printed and bound paper? Google Book Search is why. If Google can persuade publishers to digitize their backlists and let Google crawl them (for starters — the best-case scenario is all new releases), Google can offer more content to searchers, and more inventory to advertisers. Perhaps it can even collect more fees from its nascent Checkout service.
So in typical Google style (big!), the search engine invited publishers in for a day of talk at The New York City Public Library. The event was dubbed Un-Bound: Advancing Book Publishing in a Digital Era.
The Web evangelist speaker line-up was nothing short of stellar (although their names may be more familiar to you than they were to most of the publishers in the audience): Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson (author of “The Long Tail”); author and marketing guru Seth Godin ; Cory Doctorow, author, BoingBoing co-editor and USC Fulbright Chair; and Tim O’Reilly .
Authors Figure it Out
Chris Anderson informed an audience of several hundred publishers that the average book sells 500 copies per year, “a depressing statistic” that places over a third of books squarely in the long tail.
“If [authors] are writing books to be read, how can we maximize that?,” he asked. “De-stigmatize the mid-list, de-stigmatize the long tail — 999 readers is success! If you can turn that into 2,000, that’s doubling your success. Those tools typically do not require big marketing budgets from publishers. Yet if you’re expecting publishers to do it, you’ll probably be disappointed. The solution is for you [the author] to do it.”
The answer (of course) is to leverage every Web 2.0 tool out there. Anderson’s success story of spending two years blogging the writing of “Tail,” giving review copies to every blogger who requested one (“we didn’t discriminate by size – the copies cost $2 apiece”), crowd sourcing the cover art, and throwing MeetUps rather than bookstore signings was just the beginning of a panoply of author-orchestrated success stories.
Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin have been giving their books away online for free for several years now, in some cases before the title appears in print. Doctorow, a vocal opponent of restrictive copyright protection, goaded the audience. Alluding to the file sharing endemic in music, film, and video, he asked, “Why don’t people care enough about literature to steal it? I think that’s genuinely alarming. It’s because books are Web-invisible. The Web is all about serendipity. When you’re on the Web searching for food, you should find books about food. Book search should work like Web search…Free e-books make commercial sense.”
“The enemy is not piracy. The enemy is obscurity. If books are invisible, that’s a really good recipe for not getting stolen from — but not for selling. The Web is the greatest distributor for the frictionless sale of books in history,” chimed in Godin.
“I’ve read seven of Carl Hiaasen’s novels,” he continued, “Still, the publisher has no idea who I am, so they spam the reviewers. Why can’t they just say ‘Seth, it’s ready?'”
To prove that opt-in, permission marketing isn’t a publisher’s pipe dream, Godin cited Scott Adams’ success with his Dilbert books, based on the comic character. Adams began to include his e-mail address in the syndicated strip. Fans wrote, so he launched a newsletter. “So he delivers a book to Harpers, e-mails his list, and it’s the #1 bestseller,” Seth explained. “How long did it take to make it a best seller, one day? No. Seven years. He built an asset.”
It’s not just Internet luminaries who realize the Web is a far more powerful tool for best-sellerdom than a tepid book tour. Josh Kilmer-Purcell, author of “I Am Not Myself These Days: A Memoir,” asked himself the hard question: “Who’s REALLY gonna be interested in a book about a drag queen and a sadomasochistic escort?” So he teamed with other writers to form The Memorists Collective on MySpace. The group began a frenzy of cross promotion that generated publicity, search visibility, and book sales.
“Seem as accessible as possible, even if you’re not.” That piece of advice from “Freakonomics” co-author (and blogger, of course) Stephen J. Dubner was a sentiment echoed by all the authors I met who took their marketing in their own hands. J.A. Konrath, creator of the Lt. Jack Daniels mystery series, runs a Web site offering over 100 pages of resources for newbie authors — in addition to pushing his own titles.
Free Sells Books
Of course, publisher converts to online were also present to extol their success on the Web. “Free sells books,” affirmed Dan Weiss of Barnes & Noble’s study guides, SparkNotes. “Everything that’s in print is free online,” he said, and over half his site’s traffic comes from Google search.
Cambridge University Press’ former Managing Director Michael Holdsworth talked about the imprint’s “zombie titles” that don’t sell at all, then rise from the dead in digital versions. The company has instituted a “Lazarus program” to bring back books that have long been out of print and make them available on Google Book Search “It’s pretty cheap to do, and we love it to pieces. Book search visitors look at more Cambridge pages, are twice as likely to order, and spend 50 percent more per visit.” Springer, too, is successfully reviving its backlist online, making once-defunct titles available via print-on-demand.
Are Publishers Convinced?
Over lunch, I chatted with a number of publishers in attendance. Reactions were mixed. One publisher, specializing in reference books for the K-12 market just doesn’t see the value of online. His titles are bought exclusively by school systems, primarily for classroom use. An author in the audience felt all the blogging was great — if you’re a best selling author like Godin, or, like Doctorow, behind the Web’s most popular blog. Many others were convinced, but dreaded bringing the message home to the higher-ups.
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. To do that, they need cooperation that won’t immediately be forthcoming from book publishers. Dollars to doughnuts, you won’t be able to download the next Harry Potter title before it hits the shelves.
And when you can, let’s hope it’s not just Google that has access to those pages. Online publishing must grow into an equal-opportunity open book.
Meet Rebecca at Search Engine Strategies in London, February 13-15, at ExCel London.
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