This Friday, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic — the Wall Street Journal in the US and the Guardian in the UK — will publish the first chapter of the much-awaited Harper Lee novel, “Go Set A Watchman”. The licensors who authorized these excerpts are HarperCollins in the US (and they are, of course, News Corp cousins of WSJ) and Heinemann, a division of PRH, in the UK.
I have not seen any reports detailing whether any money changed hands for the rights to publish these excerpts. But, unless it was a lot of money — an amount worth reporting — doing first serial this way of such a newsworthy and anticipated book seems like an anachronism, a mistake.
In the pre-internet days, first serialization to magazines or newspapers was both a way to get substantial revenue (which in most standard contracts was largely delivered to the author) and, certainly more important to the publisher, a way to jump-start awareness of the book and add some firepower to propel the first week of sales that is so important to bestseller list positioning.
But what was true in a print world is not true in an Internet world.
Most people who read the first chapter of “Go Set A Watchman” on either newspaper site will almost certainly not be a regular reader of either newspaper! They will have gotten to the excerpt some other way, through some other link or discovery point. So the “contribution” of awareness and readers from the Guardian or WSJ is likely to be far less than the additional traffic sent to them by the power of the publisher’s content. That’s a hint. It’s backwards!
Just think about what the publishers are giving up by doing these deals. All that traffic and a slew of Google-juicing inbound links could have been coming to their site. Competitors to the Guardian and WSJ, who will probably be reluctant to drive up traffic at a rival, might not link to it, but almost certainly would have if the excerpt were on a book publisher’s or author’s site. The publishers have given up the potential to get email names — perhaps hundreds of thousands of them or more — in exchange for the privilege of reading a bit beyond the first chapter or some other perk. The publisher hosting the content could aggressively upsell the book or ebook, and be driving traffic to their retailer partners, which gets them both goodwill and affiliate revenue. (How far would that affiliate revenue go toward covering any licensing fee they collected?)
Excerpts of major book releases are, in and of themselves, news events that many entities would want to “cover” and would happily link to. In the world of the web, the hosting brand is often of trivial importance, particularly when they aren’t the “source” of the content itself. Sure, people factor the Guardian brand’s credibility into their evaluation of a political story or the Wall Street Journal’s expertise for a financial or business story. But for this book excerpt? The only name that counts is Harper Lee! And the most authentic place to get her content is either from her publisher or her own branded website.
This example writes large that publishers need to reconsider their strategy and tactics around serialization. This is “content marketing” in its purest form. Penguin Random House and HarperCollins are both forward-thinking companies with a lot of digital chops. But, on this one, they’ve underscored that book publishers are often stuck in old models that need to be rethought.
It should be acknowledged that the simple purity of this lesson is muddied a bit because the Wall Street Journal excerpt might well live behind a pay wall. On the one hand, that means fewer people will see it from outside their normal base. (But it’s a weak pay wall; if you Google any WSJ headline, you can see that story without the pay wall.) But the point remains. The appearance of this excerpt will be big news that should generate all sorts of ancillary benefits to the publisher and author. Those benefits will be lost, or at least substantially reduced, by sticking to this 20th century strategy.