Most people in our industry recognise the irony inherent in discussing brand management in the publishing industry. Every aspiring author and agent seeks the validation that being published by a major publisher brings, yet most consumers have only a passing awareness of the publishers' brand. There are exceptions--Harlequin, Hungry Minds, O'Reilly- but across the panoply of publishers, brand strength is only partially monetised.
This recognised fact has not stopped publishers from investing heavily in branded web sites that cocoon their authors in an experience that generally is not relevant to the consumers they are attempting to attract. That is not to say that the content and applications available on the websites of most large publishers are inadequate or unsophisticated, but they are misappropriated. I especially like the websites of Harpercollins and Penguin, who have both taken up the challenge of community building, widgets and e-Content. And it is difficult to be critical of these attempts, given the aggressive level of experimentation undertaken.
What seems to be lacking in all publisher websites, though, is a strong sense of engagement. And engagement that is resilient. Just as consumers return to their favorite booksellers, publishers need to believe they can engage their consumer base to such an extent that they return each time they are interested in purchasing a book. And that's any book.
Publishers are best placed to build author-centric and subject/theme-oriented websites--not sites oriented around a "brand" that isn't relevant, but those that focus attention on segments of the business that remain relevant to consumers. Envision the Spiritual segment at a site supported by Harpercollins which has a unique, appropriate and relevant focus far apart from the current 'corporate' approach. All segments are valid candidates for more of a silo approach to marketing publishers' products. And I would go further in recommending that publishers consider marketing within these silos all titles available, rather than just those produced by the publisher. What better way to condense a market segment and become a destination site for Self-Help, Spirituality, Mysteries, Computer and any number of other book-publishing segments. Consumers aren't dumb. Amazon's main attraction is that all the titles in any one segment are available in one place. As long as publishers continue to ignore this fact, they will under-serve the market and under-perform given the investment in their sites.
So, which publisher will be the first to license a "Books in Print" database (as B&N, Google, Borders and many others have already done)? That would be an excellent start; moreover, the publisher is best placed to augment this data with more details, content and community- building applications that will draw in consumers. A quick search for Doris Lessing and George Pelecanos shows that Books.Google.com and Wikipedia are more likely to be the initial reference points for consumers. On their respective publisher's sites, these authors retain a significant presence, but that presence does not appear to be adequately monetized. Many publishers will argue that they are there to support the retail sale and as long as a book gets sold-- based on their effort-- they have done their job. There is something to this argument but the age-old paradigm on which it is based--multiple retail channels, limited retailer power--is long behind us and getting worse for the publisher.
Web presence for many companies (including publishers) remains a fluid engagement. The inherent benefit of the web is that you can try and fail repeatedly, with limited downside, assuming you monitor closely. In the publishers' case, it is important they not attempt use the web to build brand awareness around their trade-marks which continue to be removed from consumers' experience, Internet or not. What their focus should be is building a discernable alternative to the predominant web retailers by segmenting their offerings around logical categories and building their brand around those segments as they use their content knowledge, author relationships and technical expertise to build something powerful for the future.