Speaking recently before the AAP’s Young to Publishing Group, as the first installment of its Living Legends Series, former editor-in-chief of Random House, Jason Epstein, presented his now somewhat infamous vision of publishing’s future. By his estimates, it’s only a matter of years before an ATM-like machine located at your nearest “Kinko’s, on the corner of your street, or [at] a Starbuck’s, or a school, or a library or hospital” would receive transmission of a book in digital format and instantly print, trim and bind it, essentially making the term “print on demand” literal. Using the Internet, the consumer would order the book directly from the publisher, who would stock its entire list in digital form, and the end product would be of the same quality as current paperbacks. Epstein’s dream machine, which he claims to have witnessed “in a shed beside an airport in St. Louis,” would eliminate the current financial burdens of warehousing and distributing, and would make maintaining backlists all the more palatable for publishers. It might also eliminate the bookseller. (It’s Sprout déjà vu all over again.)
However farfetched this magical printer may sound now, few publishers would deny that the Internet is already an integral intermediary between them and their readers. The extent to which publishers use the Web — whether for marketing or sales, or both — is not only a topic of heated debate, but a matter currently in flux. Increasingly, authors create their own websites, with or without their publishers’ help, and often the book’s or author’s URL is printed on the jacket. But, according to some, Penguin recently went too far on the Internet. It stunned many in the industry by adding that familiar little shopping cart icon to its website, suggesting publishers shouldn’t stop short of using the Internet to sell directly to consumers. Despite many scientific, medical, reference, and specialty publishers having sold directly online for years, many obviously thought that trade publishers should not take the reins into their own hands and risk trampling the traditional booksellers.
Penguin says its objective — contrary to what many may have thought — was not to put the bookseller out of business. To date, they have not offered discounted products nor any other incentives to lure the buyer; and in fact, Penguin’s site still links to other retailers’ sites. So, why did they do it? Besides, the question that pretty much everyone asks — except, perhaps, those in the biz — is, why would a publisher sell directly to consumers, when the average reader goes by a book’s title or author? Thinking the average reader knows the publisher’s moniker is as naive as believing the average film-goer knows who the cinematographer is. But two words begin to explain Penguins motivation: Penguin Classics. “With a backlist of over 30,000 titles, it’s the case that very few physical stores, if any, can stock and support all our titles,” says John Schline, Senior VP of Corporate Business Affairs, Penguin Group (USA). “Our sales have confirmed this, with the vast majority being for books published more than two years ago.” So far, less than 1% of the company’s total sales occur through its site, which is managed in-house, though hosting and some database administration is handled outside. Schline also said that feedback from past site visitors, as well as from authors, implied that “people using the Web expect a site that markets products to also accept orders for those products.”
And, finally, part of Penguin’s purpose was simply survival. With traditional notions of retailers, wholesalers, authors, and even publishers becoming increasingly blurry, Penguin thought it might be time to re-examine its flippers. “In a world of auction sites, online used book networks, retailers who publish, authors who sell directly, etc., we feel that some of the separations have become unrealistic and peculiar to trade book publishing,” Schline says. “To ignore something that is growing as quickly as the Web because it is inconvenient to existing business structures would be short-sighted.” The company’s existing infrastructure basically put it “one step away” from being able to accept online orders.
In many cases, small publishers working with very tight budgets witnessed the power of the Internet and its cost-effectiveness long before the big houses. Brook Noel, CEO of Fredonia, Wis.-based Champion Press, which began in 1997 and now has 130 available titles, says online retailing put her on equal footing with the big players. “Programs like Amazon Advantage or Abe Books allow publishers great access to online sales,” she says. “The way consumers are purchasing is changing dramatically, and publishers need to adapt and track those modes of purchasing to remain competitive. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with booksellers. We do many author events and signings and special promotions — however, we need to be prepared to sell to those who are buying online.” Not only do publishers increase sales with websites, but they can build mailing lists as a way to remain in touch with customers to announce future books, she says. “We have mailing lists by topic — educational, lifestyle, cooking — that our readers can subscribe to for monthly newsletters” — and, of course, to buy more books.
Elongating Shelf Life?
Ultimately, Epstein sees the Internet as a tool connecting readers with the right publishers. “The books in digital form will be posted on websites of related interest — a book on fly fishing will be on all the fly fishing networks — so that people will find the books they want as they go to the websites that interest them,” he predicts. “Rather than put a book in a bookstore where people may or may not find it, where it may be taken away in three months and junked, now books can be available forever on those websites.”
This scenario, which Epstein thinks will draw “great opposition from publishers,” is not so much a vision of the future as a slightly altered version of the present. The self-publishing-and-promotion guru M.J. Rose, who now publishes with traditional presses and teaches classes on how authors can better promote themselves by using the Internet, thinks the average reader is flummoxed by the number of books he has to choose from, and the Internet helps readers find authors of their liking, and vice versa. “With six to 12 weeks of work, [an author] can reach from 3,000 to 50,000 readers … and with under $2,000 you can do a serious outreach that will sell books.” Plus, Rose points out that the Internet has elongated the lives of non-bestsellers. “A year-old … or 10-year-old book can get buzz and traction online and take off in an amazing way. Plus, they are always available to be bought, when stores are no longer stocking them,” she says.
You can’t talk about online marketing or book longevity and not mention The South Beach Diet. Dr. Arthur Agatston’s book — craze might be a better word — has been on the New York Times “Advice, How-to, and Miscellaneous” best-seller list for over a year. The “blanket the Web” campaign, produced by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Waterfront Media, is responsible for approximately one-third of all online sales, says Cindy Ratzlaff, VP/Associate Publisher at Rodale. Online book sales, however, is not the “key focus” of Waterfront’s Internet marketing campaigns, which also include Tyndale House’s Andrew Weil’s My Optimum Health Plan and the Left Behind series, among others. Noting the sensitive issue of publishers selling directly, Heidi Krupp of Krupp Kommunications, who works on external PR for Rodale, said, “Publishers are still very diplomatic with their brick-and-mortar booksellers. The booksellers are the ones who have always given them their bread and butter, and I don’t think anyone wants to take that away.” Instead, Krupp calls what the South Beach Diet Internet campaign does “creating a content community to retain customers” and compares it to the way bookstores now have coffeeshops and live music. “Waterfront is not replacing books,” she explains. “It is making a longer shelf life for a book.”
Publishers finally have woken to the benefit of online marketing, said CEO of Waterfront Media Inc. Ben Wolin. Unlike traditional book campaigns that are strong right around the pub date, Wolin said Waterfront’s campaigns remain aggressive from launch forward, always attracting more subscribers and, presumably, more book buyers. “We can definitely give consumers a way to get familiar with the brand, to learn a little bit about the brand, and then they can decide to purchase if they want,” he said. To date, Waterfront manages more than 5 million total subscribers for its handful of newsletters — 300,000 of which are paid subscribers who get other benefits.
When it comes down to survival, the Internet is the best way to reach your target market without emptying the coffers, says Noah Kerner, partner and Senior VP of Marketing and Creative at SoulKool, LLC. Instead of buying ads in the various media to promote the release of Love & Death (April, Atria Books), an exploration into the death of Kurt Cobain, Simon & Schuster hired SoulKool to create an Internet marketing campaign “with more grassroots appeal,” which included building a microsite, www.cobainwaskilled.com that posted a new “clue” each day for three weeks before the pub date. The site, its message board, and newsletter reached 45,000 unique users. SoulKool also hyped the book on its own site www.soulkool.com, and about 500 other sites, chat rooms, message boards and egroups — most aimed at young people who would have an interest in the book. “If you’re not aware of Internet marketing, you’re not going to stay at the front of the pack,” Kerner says. “It’s by far the most influential medium.”