In an attempt to increase book sales, HarperCollins Publishers will begin offering free electronic editions of some of its books on its Web site, including a novel by Paulo Coelho and a cookbook by the Food Network star Robert Irvine.
The idea is to give readers the opportunity to sample the books online in the same way that prospective buyers can flip through books in a bookstore.
Following HarperCollins’ recent Web renovations, Random House today unveiled their publisher-driven alternative to Google: a new, full-text search engine of over 5,000 new and backlist books including browsable samples of select titles. The most interesting thing here is that book samples can be syndicated on other websites through a page-flipping browser widget (Flash 9 required) that you embed with a bit of cut-and-paste code (like a YouTube clip). It’s a nice little tool, though it comes in two sizes only — one that’s too small to read, and one that embedded would take up most of a web page (plus it keeps crashing my browser). Compare below with HarperCollins’ simpler embeddable book link:
Worth noting here is that both the search engine and the sampling widget were produced by Random House in-house. Too many digital forays by major publishers are accomplished by hiring an external Web shop, meaning of course that little ends up being learned within the institution. It’s an old mantra of Bob’s that publishers’ digital budgets would be better spent by throwing 20 grand at a bright young editor or assistant editor a few years out of college and charging them with the task of doing something interesting than by pouring huge sums into elaborate revampings from the outside. Random House’s recent home improvements were almost certainly more expensive, and more focused on infrastructure and marketing than on genuinely reinventing books, but they indicate a do it yourself approach that could, maybe, lead in new directions.
In general, people in the US do not seem to be reading a lot of books, with one study citing that 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year. People are finding their information in other ways. Therefore it is not surprising that HarpersCollins announced it “Browse Inside” feature, which to allows people to view selected pages from books by ten leading authors, including Michael Crichton and C.S. Lewis. They compare this feature with “Google Book Search” and Amazon’s “Search Inside.”
The feature is much closer to “Search Inside” than “Google Book Search.” Although Amazon.com has a nice feature “Surprise Me” which comes closer to replicating the experience of flipping randomly to a page in a book off the shelf. Of course “Google Book Search” actually lets you search the book and comes the closest to giving people the experiences of browsing through books in a physical store.
In the end, HarperCollins’ feature is more like a movie trailer. That is, readers get a selected pages to view that were pre-detereminded. This is nothing like the experience of randomly opening a book, or going to the index to make sure the book covers the exact information you need. The press release from HarperCollins states that they will be rolling out additional features and content for registered users soon. However, for now, without any unique features, it is unclear to me, why someone would go to the HarperCollins site to get a preview of only their books, rather than go to the Amazon and get previews across many more publishers.
This initiative is a small step in the correct direction. At the end of the day, it’s a marketing tool, and limits itself to that. Because they added links to various book sellers on the page, they can potentially reap the benefits of the long tail, by assisting readers to find the more obscure titles in their catalogue. However, their focus is still on selling the physical book. They specifically stated that they do not want to be become booksellers. (Although through their “Digital Media Cafe,” they are experimenting with selling digital content through their website.)
As readers increasingly want to interact with their media and text, a big question remains. Is Harper Collins and the publishing industry ready to release control they traditionally held and reinterpret their purpose? With POD, search engines, emergent communities, we are seeing the formation of new authors, filters, editors and curators. They are playing the roles that publishers once traditional filled. It will be interesting to see how far Harper Collins goes with these initiatives. For instance, Harper Collins also has intentions to start working with myspace and facebook to add links to books on their site. Are they prepared for negative commentary associated with those links? Are they ready to allow people to decide which books get attention?
If traditional publishers do not provide media (including text) in ways we are increasingly accustomed to receiving it, their relevance is at risk. We see them slowly trying to adapt to the shifting expectations and behaviors of people. However, in order to maintain that relevance, they need to deeply rethink what a publisher is today.