Random House has announced that it will be creating a Web site to market selected titles as print on demand. This has come under criticism in a number of quarters, not because POD is not fully appreciated but because of the truism that no trade publisher has a brand that means anything to a consumer. Thus, RH or any other trade publisher is making a mistake if it believes that consumers will go to the RH Web site. Rather (the argument goes) RH should participate in an aggregation with other publishers, re-creating for POD (or ebooks, for that matter) the kinds of aggregation already familiar in the bricks-and-mortar world (e.g., Barnes & Noble) or online (e.g., Amazon). Therefore, POD is great, Web sites are great, but a RH Web site is missing the point.
It may depend on which point you wish to make, however. I happen to agree with the idea that the brands of trade publishers have little meaning to consumers, despite the handful of exceptions (such as Penguin, Dover, and branded reference works such as Frommer’s, the For Dummies series, and Merriam-Webster). And I am all for aggregations. But RH may be looking beyond this. This is because on the Web, aggregation can take place in real time, and what appears to be a would-be stand-alone destination site may really be a starting point for syndication, not to mention an important element of an intellectual property strategy.
To begin with the easy point: the RH Web site is a natural outcome of the proposed legal settlement between various publishers and Google. That settlement marks a significant change in the publishing landscape, from a time when the key split was between works under copyright and works in the public domain, to the settlement terms, where the split is between what is in print and what is out of print. By building an extensive POD site, RH is now asserting that more and more of its titles are in print, thus keeping them under RH’s direct control and away from Google’s agreed-upon right to exploit titles that are out of print. So score one for RH in terms of intellectual property: What was out of print is now in print, and the POD Web site is proof positive.
Once RH asserts its rights, it can then exploit them. One way of doing this is to create a Web site that is search-engine friendly, which will drive traffic to the RH site. But the traffic need not come to the RH home page; the links can be deep inside the site, on the granular level of individual titles (or keywords associated with individual titles). This is real-time aggregation: the Google search-engine results page is the new B&N, the new Amazon, an aggregation created dynamically every time somebody does a search. In the ecology of the Web, a publisher’s own site is simply a loose assembly of parts, each of which is indexable by Google–thus findable and potentially leading to purchases, whether on the RH site or at the site of any other designated storefront. Offline, few publishers’ brands mean much of anything; online, only one brand matters, and that is Google. All the rest of the Web is a basket of keywords, woven together by the act of search.
If all that matters is keywords and the individual products they support, why not build a Web site for each book? Not a bad idea, costs aside, but this raises the question of climbing high in search-engine rankings. Now, the algorithms of search engines can change at any time, but at this time a collection of pieces (books, book descriptions, articles, etc.) has a higher ranking on search engines than would an individual item. The individual book, that is, benefits from the combined search rank of the rest of the site. This is seen clearly with Wikipedia. Test it. Go to Google and search on an obscure item. You will find a link high in the rankings for Wikipedia. You may be the only person who has ever searched Wikipedia for that item, but still the link to Wikipedia is usually among the top four or five on Google. This is because search ranking is cumulative: your search for an obscure item is raised up by the billions of Wikipedia searches on such popular terms as “Obama,” “Britney Spears,” and “George Bush.”
We should not assume that RH does not know how search engines work. RH’s Web site will give a higher ranking to all its books simply by putting them in one place and playing to Google’s current search algorithms. The RH brand may have little meaning to consumers, but it will develop a huge significance for Google. It’s simply wrong to think that the RH Web site is built for people: it’s built for search engines, who then direct people to the ranked sites.
Another reason for a publisher to have its own site is simply to assert control of the information about its products. For all the merits of reader reviews, comments, and the like, few marketers of any product like to have others determine what is said about their products. The RH site gives RH an opportunity to create metadata (including abstracts, summaries, reviews, etc.) about each book, content that may then be syndicated across the Web even if no one ever reads it on RH’s own site. If a particular title is available from Amazon as well as RH, Amazon may choose to use the RH metadata to sell books at its own (that is, Amazon’s) site. This is true of any venue for books, which benefits from free access to the information RH has developed. In this scenario, the RH site is not a Web destination but a toolkit for other sites–not an aggregation in the conventional sense but a repository for others to draw on.
Having taken great pains to assert that the RH brand means little or nothing to consumers–but that having a RH-branded site is valuable regardless–it’s probably worth asking if RH may be undertaking a long-term effort to give meaning to its brand. It couldn’t do this in bricks and mortar; it couldn’t do this when it sold one book at a time. But online, many things change. RH may begin to market subscriptions to certain categories–The Mystery Subscription or The American Politics Subscription. In effect, RH may be taking the earliest steps toward a new kind of consumer publishing, one in which publishers’ brands will matter. Offline, this was impossible; online, anything is possible.
Fundamentally, it’s time to stop thinking of the Web as a universe parallel to bricks and mortar. Offline, there are stores; online, there are evolving dynamic relationships. Offline, aggregation is critical; online, aggregation takes place in real time and sweeps up virtual objects wherever an IP address can be found. Offline, B2B brands matter little to consumers; online, such brands can cleverly insinuate themselves into the value chain. We should not assume that the people at RH are stupid, despite the fact that they are, ugh, book publishers.