Monday, July 28, 2008

Brand Presence

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 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.


Anonymous said...

It's been done. Bloomsbury licensed the books in print database in 2001 presenting a comprehensive bookselling service in the context of a site titled "literary life".

Unknown said...

You're right--it makes more sense for a publisher to create separate sites for various sections of its list, as the Penguin Uk and HarperCollins UK groups have done. I wish Indian publishers would do the same--they've based their sites on their catalogues, there's very little interactivity and the sites are DULL!

Anonymous said...

I was going to say that Bloomsbury did this years ago - fairly disastrously I think, given the fact they dropped it soon afterwards.

I assume you're talking about the Penguin and HarperCollins US sites? The UK site of Penguin is kind of fine, if a little bland, and very short on content. But the UK site for HC is (IMNSFHO) a disaster.

The big question about publisher sites being successful (for me) is simply - why will people go there? It's a web 1.0 rather than 2.0 problem at the moment - publishers just don't get the why of how people visit sites, and (in a very publisher way) assume it will be a success "because it's there".

In my experience, (I've been producing publisher sites for about 10 years, and still haven't made a perfect one) publishers don't have a compelling enough proposition for their site to mean that lots of people will visit.

By this I mean either they chuck up the same content about their books that is also being syndicated to the book trade - meaning that the sites effectively compete (in search engines) with much bigger sites, like Amazon. This is not a winnable battle with those tactics.

The only way to win that battle is to hand-craft unqiue, compelling content for all of your products, and invest in good, well-written, optimised content. Basic SEO.

Or (and perhaps I mean AND) publisher sites tend to reward the loyal visitors who do go there with an insulting price proposition.

This tends to be -either - buy from Amazon (which makes the visit to the publisher site - and the site itself - redundant); or pay next to full price, when the title is clearly available for significantly less from a customer of the publisher.

Both of these "strategies" can only have a negative effect on any brand in pubilshing.

The sites that don't insult, but reward, loyalty and attention - usually those of the smaller indies - win; and furthermore they do so with guile and talent, rather than expensive (or aggressive) technologies. It is these publishers who have a tangible sense of "brand" and position, rather than just a well-recognised logo.

MC said...


I am more aware of the US sites as you note. I do however see a significant difference in the HC US versus the UK site. I suspect this has to do with divided reporting structures and adds a further complication to the brand issue - for another day.

I agree with your assessment of the content on publisher websites. I hope to address this in another post but perhaps publishers should be thinking of basic and premium content. Basic is available from Amazon and premium is available directly from the publisher and includes more content and more opportunities to mingle and engage. How this occurs will be (should be?) different for each title. Expecting consumers to visit and interact with a publisher when the 'offer' is effectively the same as that on a retailer site (without competitive pricing and delivery) will never succeed.

SEO/SEM will be critical and is clearly only sporadically implemented at the moment. Rodale, a specialty trade publisher in the US use SEO exceptionally well. Sunday night TV here had the first show of the second season of MadMen which was heavily promoted. In that episode one of the characters is reading Meditations in an Emergency which is now 159 on (282 yesterday but much, much further down the list before the show aired). A publisher aggressively managing keywords should be able to take advantage of these serendipitous events to draw traffic to their site and become a primary destination site.

FGB said...

Publishers are producers not retailers. They cannot offer product directly except at full price and consequently there is no great financial return for heavy investment in their websites. A great site might drive sales with retailers, but likely the meagre marketing budget is better spent on ads, in-store promotion and buying the book into lists and displays.

Niche sites work well for small, niche publishers whose publications are generally sold at full price across the board, but again make very little sense for major houses.

Effectively major publishers have outsourced their online strategy to Amazon by offering such extreme discounts. It's a mistake and it's exceedingly boring for the consumer. Hopefully a correction will come as Web 2.0 expands.

Anonymous said...

Corporate sites such as Harper & Collins' might be considered in a different way than promotional sites for individual authors/genres: publishing groups in fact manage on one side portfolios of authors and need to recruit — and manage — their portfolio of contracts.
It makes sense to build sites to gather future authors on the basis of the potential advantages they can offer.
Once under contract, authors in fact compete against each other within the same group as well as against competitors to gain readers' attention. Therefore sites (imo different sites) should be built to manage the relationship between authors and readers, at least at the level of branded thematic collections, down to the individual brand that a successful and prolific author can represent.
Obviously, brands that were attached to a technology (paperbacks) and pricing, such as Penguin, are in a more difficult position to be leveraged in the latter type of sites.

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

I disagree that publishers aren't retailers. Direct sales far outweigh what the book trade achieves. But we're looking at trade publishers here. I think the argument for brands stacks up differently for independents where brand becomes synonymous with niche and the indies often drive out competition from the conglomerates. The key difference in considering publishing strategy is really rather simple. Who has the content? With customers changing their buying habits and reading groups and social networking driving consumption it's arguable that most bookstores will disappear in ten years. Can Amazon maintain their position with no content? Will the development of online offers from publishers draw people to the content rather than to the aggregator. I don't think Amazon's well-earned dominance is as absolute as it may appear and in this age of disintermediation rather than looking at a publisher free future, we may well be looking at the end of retail as a separate function in the supply chain.

Kevin Marshall said...

A couple of my own quick thoughts:

1. It seems likely that Amazon itself will begin to offer publisher tools...perhaps the publishers themselves could work out deals with Amazon to lic. such tools, and it then becomes a win/win for everyone (Amazon has the full circle of content so the consumer is happy and by extension Amazon is happy...and the publisher saves on cost/energy while still providing high-profile, powerful tools for their authors and readers).

2. As far as ind. publisher a casual reader, the area I see the most potential is in book added value...for example publishers should be giving readers more direct access authors (chat live with X author via our site as one example), or extra book-related content (download rough drafts or background material used in writing this book)...basically they need to give the readers a reason to come (and come back) while at the same time providing the authors with the tools/features to help build and engage an audience...connecting these two groups in a way that pure transactional system (like Amazon) does not is the real key to making a publisher site explode onto the scene (in my opinion).

MC said...


I think your comment about retail as a separate function within supply chain is perceptive. I agree and see publishers becoming focused on "Content Optimization" which would include text mining, content assembly and presentation (to the end user/consumer). We have the concept of 'inventory turn'; increasingly we will think of 'content turn' to gauge how effectively we monetise our content.

MC said...


I had a related conversation with a publisher last week. I suggested that the publisher will provide Amazon with a book/content for sale as a basic product for $10 but on the publisher site for $13 would be a more expansive collection of material that provides a deeper experience and connection to the content. Most (say 80%) might be happy with the Amazon version but the balance could become far more valuable to the publisher in the long term.

The other aspect is how dependent should publishers be on two retail outlets without developing a relevant alternative that where they can exert some control.

Anonymous said...

Lots of interesting comments here.

@FG: Perhaps publishers *should* think about becoming retailers? As the retailers become more powerful, and command much higher discounts, it becomes impossible to resist. See the stand off between Hachette and Amazon. I'm amazed that the industry allowed this to happen: they gave the game away when they allowed Amazon to start the price-slashing war that is now killing retail - yet asked for nothing in return. What could they have asked for? Customer data, for one.

@Chris H-E (hi!) Very good points. A retailer-free future is a distinct possibility. If the publishers could collectively keep "premium" content for themselves and "generic" content for others, then they may get something over Amazon, but it takes a strong CEO to refuse to jump when a customer with 15% pf the market says so.

However, it is certainly interesting to consider the idea of Amazon being disintermediated. This is one reason why (and I have heard agents openly talk to authors about this) Amazon is approaching agents about publishing authors direct, rather than via publishers.

It's going to get messy. I'd like to think that publishers would fight back, but based on past history, I'm not sure they will see the elephant in the room until it is too late.

Mike Shatzkin said...

Michael Cairns is thinking along lines that have recently occurred to me. He is spot on calling publishers out for trying to make their 20th century b2b brands into b2c brands. For all the very smart things HarperCollins has been doing, this seems to be a blind spot in their thinking. Horizontal content just won't "brand"! Few and far between are the people who would consciously want to buy the next Harper book.

And Michael's suggestion that each publisher should sell books of all publishers on their site is also absolutely right. There is actually a very simple way to do this: Ingram can set this up for any publisher; presumably Baker & Taylor can as well. One major publisher has already told me they intend to do exactly this with Ingram.

So imagine this world. Each publisher puts their database on the web in a manner that automatically niches: a site visitor can pull up a "Crafts" page, or a "Mysteries" page generated from the database. Those pages are backed and enhanced by offerings from other publishers in the niche, as serves the customer.

In time, each publisher sees what niches are generating traffic. They pay more attention to those niches, adding content, features, stickiness. And BRANDING.

Meanwhile, they are also selling books of all publishers under those niches. Each publisher merchandises in its own way: title selection differs, other content offerings differ, pricing policies differ.

Two wonderful things happen for publishers in this world. One is that they create a path from where they are to the niche world of the 21st century. The other is that this serial individual response creates the most powerful possible collective action to combat the Amazon monopoly. If all publishers did this, there would be hundreds, possibly thousands, of places to buy any book. Each one would have different pricing offers and different content surrounding it.

I think this is where things almost have to go, iteratively and one step at a time. So this is a combination of a prescription and prediction. I have always been reluctant to advocate direct selling, particularly for trade publishers who depend on retailers to reach the lion's share of their market. But the coin of the 21st century realm (as I earned a gold star from Tim O'Reilly for pointing out in a previous post) is traffic, a customer base. No publisher that wants to survive can ignore that reality. And very few publishers are going to get there without niching and rebranding, almost certainly using other publishers' books as part of the process.

Anonymous said...

Great post and great comments!

I agree that genre- and author-based sites would be a good idea, but I think what big house sites need is to focus on single title coherence. Too many publisher sites present duplicate flat info pages per format or edition of the title.

If I, as a consumer, search for Goldfinger, I should read a page (from the publisher) that puts the book (regardless of format etc.) front and centre. That page should ideally centralise lniks to related information (e.g. Ian Fleming author page, more Bond books, Bond films, DVDs etc) and purchase links, and it should also draw in discussion around the book. That page should be the point for me, as consumer, to enter into and contribute to the world of the text on the web.

Or in other words, the title is the brick, not the author or the genre. And the title is like an open API, sitting at the centre of whatever is going on about it on the web.

This is the kind of publisher website I want to see/use/build.

FGB said...

peter, I completely agree.

chris, you're right of course that some publishers are booksellers. I meant that in terms of most major publishing house websites it is not how they portray themselves to the average consumer... presumably because the chains and online massives would have something to say about it (no doubt including the word 'discontinue')

personanondata... I agree about dependence by publishers on a very few retail corporations... madness! Your vanilla book from the retailer versus enhanced book with features from the publisher sounds like the DVD model (albeit where both versions are available from the retailer). Surely though the publisher would need to be confident of traffic to their site in order to drive this though.

Finally, isn't the future for niche bookshops built of bricks and mortar pretty sound? Given that we already draw together great titles, vary stock regularly, form communities and add-value in specialised knowledge, author events and advance information? Certainly in my part of the art and culture pond I attract buyers that websites and chains have lost, and consumer communities that they cannot adequately serve. Sure, some of my customers jot down ISBNs to buy online... but the experience alone usually draws them back for future or additional purchases.

Great post and thread btw. M

Anonymous said...

What has Amazon done for publishers except to cheapen ALL of their brands by making price a dominant consideration for the buying public? The book business as a whole has been stagnant for years. Amazon hasn't helped anyone, and in fact has only hurt publishers by weakening their other more traditional distribution channels. Publishers should develop strategies to lessen the negative impact of this 800 pound (and growing) gorilla.