I was talking to one of the smart C-level people from a major house at a party last June at BEA in Los Angeles. He was very excited about what his company had accomplished.
“We’ve set up a database and CMS so we can deliver a web page for every book a web page for every author, and a web page for every subject showing all the books we have on that subject.”
“The very first morning we had the site up, we got our first direct order from a consumer at 11 am. We were able to see that this woman had googled for “crochet” and gotten delivered to our selection of crochet books. She bought two — full price plus postage and handling. She apparently never thought about the fact that she could have bought them cheaper by clicking over to Amazon.” Or to BN.com.
Readers of this blog know where I went with that right away. I figured: this will teach them about niche, about verticals. They’ll see over time that their crochet page and their cooking page (or whatever…) are getting a lot of traffic and, after a while, somebody will say “hey, let’s put some content up there for that traffic.” And, over time (I wish I could say “before you know it”, but that would be too much to expect), they’d develop verticals. Just the mere fact of setting up this capability for their web site would lead them into the future.
Nice thought. But there was more.
“So, we thought, why stop with just our books! Ingram is our partner for other activities. We can just use them and sell everybody’s books. As long as we have that buyer on our site with their order book open, why not sell them anything we can?”
Better, I thought. Using everybody’s books will teach you about niche even faster! In fact, depending on how you merchandise it, you could learn about niches for which you don’t (yet) have any books! Cash-flow positive market research! What could be better than that?
Over the next couple of months, I thought about this some more. After a while I realized, hey, this will happen to all the publishers. They’re all setting up databases of their own catalogs so that they’ll be able to deliver web pages on the fly to suit any search. They’ll all start selling direct to consumer; digital downloads sort of force them to start and then it’s just silly not to offer your own books. They’ll all learn about niche in an orderly and organic way.
And once you start doing that, as this executive surmised, why not sell everybody’s books. You have a customer, they’re buying. You want margin and you want information. You get more of both if you can take orders for everybody’s books!
Then the epiphanic part: this would be the “Amazon antidote.” Publishers worried about Amazon hegemony online (and all the big ones, and many of the small ones, are) would all be participating in a “solution”. If a dozen or a score or a hundred publishers were all selling the books of all the publishers, and each one was merchandising according to what worked best for them — free content with this one, a free audio download with that one, a copy of the author’s last book for a dollar with another one — then price comparison gets difficult. All of these publishers, each grabbing its own sliver of the market (for everybody) would chip away at the giant aggregator whose ability to call so many of the online sales shots right now is making its suppliers nervous. (What do I mean? Think ebook pricing…)
Obviously Amazon would remain the biggest part of the online sales market, but at least publishers would have some leverage (where now they have none.)
What an insight! What a game-changer! I had visions of publishing a piece on this in both Publishers Weekly and The Bookseller to emphasize what a brilliant insight this was: one that needed to be shared on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously for maximum impact. I was drafting; I was thinking; I was talking to editors.
Then I told this to a friend who has run big distribution operations and worked at a couple of major publishers. He laughed. Forget it, he said. The publishers’ web sites have no traffic. They don’t have anybody on their staffs that can handle the merchandising. This is an idea that will never happen, never work.
He’s right, of course. The publisher that had the idea in the first place hasn’t gotten hooked up yet to sell everybody’s books nearly a year later. Every big publisher I talk to is disappointed with their own direct sales. And I’m the one who keeps saying that these big “catalog on steroids” web sites can’t garner much in the way of consumer traffic.
Publishers do need to establish direct relationships with customers because they have to market directly, regardless of how the sales is consummated. But they need to leave the horizontal work to the aggregators: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BN.com, Borders, Borders.com, and all the chains, independents, and online booksellers they can possibly find. They need to help rewrite the rules of engagement, particularly on how names and customers can be shared constructively between publishers and intermediaries in the digital world. But they need to focus their customer contact on people with whom they can establish a relationship. And that surely isn’t every person that stumbles into a horizontal web offering.
It is getting harder and harder for a general trade publisher to do the right thing.
And, note to self: it’s great to be an out-of-the-box thinker and creative enough to see what isn’t there and maybe ought to be. But you can’t beat having smart friends who won’t hesitate to put the pin in an overinflated idea.