Publishers and the Web: Highs and Lows

computerI have a confession to make. In the past month, I bought more collectible anthologies than I should from Cemetery Dance, a small press specializing in horror. When I signed up for their newsletter, I wasn’t expecting this, not when so many publisher newsletters give me the doldrums. Whoops. Before you knew it, I had ordered several gorgeous hardcovers. They enticed me from right off the bat with phrases words like “72% off” and “Free book” right in the subject lines. Usually, I hate it when companies fill my inbox with lots of offers, but I couldn’t wait to see what they were offering next. Who wants to be left behind?

I have another confession to make. I barely look at most of the publisher newsletters I subscribe to.¬† Usually, I glance at the subject line and think “Meh.” Do I really need to know James Patterson has another book out? (Isn’t that redundant?) Why is this so? The reason came to me the other day. I told myself, “Anne, you should actually read these newsletters. They’ll tell you what’s coming out.” So I opened a newsletter from a major publisher, and they told me about this hot new title. Only I had bought the book at least two weeks ago. Gee, thanks for the update, guys. Shouldn’t you have told me about it three weeks ago? If publishers were really on the ball, they would have told me that John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, just published a new book, Handling the Undead, about zombies in Sweden. Instead, I found it by accident through the Barnes and Noble Web site.

Compare that to the way Harlequin does it. Wow! What other big name romance publisher thinks of subject lines such as “Yard Sale: Get $1.99 Books” and “Magic 8 Ball Mystery Deal!”? Even better, you can tailor their e-mails according to your satisfaction, sort of like going into a fast food restaurant and asking for extra pickles. My newsletters from Harlequin feature books with my favorite themes or from my favorite authors. That way, I don’t get bogged down scrolling through secret baby books when I want to know if there are any new romantic suspense books this month.

Compare that to the subject line from an e-mail newsletter from Berkley’s mystery line… “New September Releases from Berkley Prime Crime & Obsidian Mysteries.” Yawn. It shouldn’t be much of a mystery what the subject line of their October newsletter will be. Inspirational publisher Bethany House tries to entice me with “Your Bethany House Subject Alerts.” Yeah, that’s really intriguing. Some publishers do try a little harder. Hachette will feature a couple of authors names or a current topic. For example, “Fall Fiction from Nicholas Sparks and Emma Donoghue” That’s a little better. But what if I’m not a Nicholas Sparks fan? (I’m not.)

It doesn’t take much to get me fired up about a publisher newsletter. A subject line that makes me want to open the message. Is that so much to ask for? Something to make it worth my while to open the newsletter isn’t too much to ask, either. A discount, a chance to win a free ARC, author interviews, something. Make it worth my while to open your newsletter, which is competing with the newsletters I really want to read. Which one would you rather read, a newsletter that gives you a chance to get a free book, or one that says “Upcoming books for November”?

The same rules apply to Facebook, Scribd, Twitter, publisher blogs and Web sites, and all the other ways publishers have of reaching out to me on-line. I can’t understand why publishers go to all that trouble of establishing themselves on these sites, only to put off updating their presence. (More excerpts, please!) Publishers… it’s OK to be chatty on these sites. It’s Facebook, not a corporate memo. Oh, and publishers? Please be on Facebook, OK, and don’t forget to use it.

When I go on Facebook, I know there’s a good possibility I will see an announcement from Kensington Publishing and from Tor Books. Even if the announcements don’t always interest me (oh yay, Fern Michaels has a new book out), at least I know these publishers are active on Facebook. They’re trying. Other publishers are not as active.

Publisher Web sites are the same. Some still look as if they were designed five years ago. Publishers should take a page (a Web page, that is) from the Avon Romance book on drawing in readers. If you visit their site, something amazing will happen. You will actually want to read it. When I checked the site for a quick visit, I ended up wanting to find out why Dukes Are Like Truffles. I also watched a book trailer and participated in a Web poll. Do you think I’ll remember the titles and authors I saw on that site? Of course!

Then there’s the Big Momma – eHarlequin. I’ve spent way too much time spending my money on their site. How many other romance publishers let you order and download their eBooks before they come out in the store? With some publishers, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to release the eBooks on the same week as the print edition. eHarlequin also has free on-line reads, book trailers, articles, forums and blogs, and even scheduled chats.

One of the best sites belongs to SF/fantasy publisher Baen Books. It’s like the eHarlequin of SF/fantasy, a very interactive Web site with more eBooks and free chapters than you can imagine. They have more than 100 free eBooks available for download – including some from NYT best-selling authors. Their theory is that if you read the first book and like it, you’ll buy the rest of the series. You can also you buy eBook editions of almost all of their upcoming titles, in about seven formats, for six dollars each, or buy an entire month of releases for fifteen dollars. They have one of the most famous (and sometimes vociferous) publisher message boards. Thanks to those boards, I learned that Lois McMaster Bujold had a new Miles Vorkosigan book coming out in November. Thanks to Baen, I bought the electronic ARC several months before its publication, and no, I am not going to tell you how it ends.

Compare that to the typical site for a big publisher, such as St. Martin’s. Their SF/fantasy/ imprint Tor Books has a great Web site, but I wouldn’t know it from the St. Martin’s home page. If I click their link to Tor, they bring me to the “official” Tor page. They don’t let me know about the interactive Tor Books page that has lively blogs, forum posts, and free stuff.

Most big publishers run their Web sites like this. (For example, see the Hachette Book Group site.) Like Avon, some publishers do have great sites dedicated to their imprints, but good luck finding them from the main Web site. They collect all the imprints on one page and expect readers to pore through the category listings, looking for what they want. I guess it’s like putting the milk at the back of the store and hoping that the customer will pick up twenty dollars in groceries when they only came in for a gallon of milk. So that’s why when you go to the site to find out about hot new romance releases, and instead, they’re telling you about a book on the Supreme Court. Or the Supremes. Persistent readers will find the sites dedicated to the romance imprints, however, I think some of them need an overhaul. The Warner Forever line features authors such as Elizabeth Hoyt and Jill Shalvis, but the official site didn’t make me want to stay for long to find out more.

The Simon and Schuster romance Web site¬†fares better. Sure, you have to poke around a bit to find it. But once you get there, you’ll learn that there is a Pocket After Dark site that lets you read chapters from upcoming books, read books for free, interact with other readers, and more. Now that’s more like it! On the other hand, going to the home page for Random House would make a reader believe they don’t sell romance novels. They don’t list romance as a category! Yet they have a romance newsletter and publish authors such as Linda Howard, Lara Adrian, Monica McCarty, Luanne Rice, Sandra Brown, and others. On the other hand, a couple of clicks at the Sourcebooks Web site, and I was brought to listings of their romance novels, not to mention their Georgette Heyer page.

What’s next for publishers and the Web? More interactivity, I hope. Maybe, like some of us, some publishers are scared of interacting too much. Or maybe they’re worried about the expense of keeping an interactive site going. Yet they have to keep the benefits in mind. Tell me what you’re excited about publishing, and I might become excited about it, too. But if you just list a few titles by big names and make me go on a scavenger hunt to find information, then I might give up and buy another book from eHarlequin or Baen.

- Anne Marble AAR

9 thoughts on “Publishers and the Web: Highs and Lows

  1. Yes!

    I’m not a big on sweeping statements like ‘all publishers’ but honestly- all publishers seem to get so much wrong when it comes to readers/buyers. Except for Harlequin/Silhouette I’ve given up, and un-bookmarked, (is that a word?) publisher’s websites.

    Many publishers are treating their customers as though they are 2nd graders instead of alumni. Most mystery (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror) readers know what’s already available for purchase. We want to learn what’s coming, who’s new to their publishing house, what storylines and writers they are excited about. And when. And in what formats.
    Formats= 21st Century!

    I can see more of what I’m interested in reading on the sidebar of this column than on most publisher’s Facebook page or Web site. Why? ’cause they don’t use those online resources themselves. They don’t buy what they’re selling, obviously.

    I do a quick scan of publisher’s newsletters and spend a great deal of time on AAR and other review sites along with Amazon when looking for new releases. I get less blood pressure woes doing it that way.

  2. I’m surprised readers even seek out publishers’ sites. As a reader, before being published, I never even thought about who the publisher of a book was.

    Harlequin is SO branded. But the others? Hachette? Avon? St. Martins? They’re too big and diverse to have a brand identity. And without a brand, marketing is almost impossible.

  3. JML:

    I think SF/fantasy fans might win the prize. On Baen’s message boards, fans have been asking why the books from February 2011 and beyond aren’t listed on their ebook section yet. :)

    Sohie Gunn:
    I can rarely remember which big conglomerate publishers which imprint. Heck, I only recently learned how to pronounce Hachette. ;) With those giant companies, I think most of their branding is in the imprints. I don’t know of anyone who goes out looking for a Hachette book, but I do know people who keep an eye out for certain imprints. (Warner Forever, Forge, etc.) So why do pubilshers try to cram all the imprints on one website without having other options? It would make more sense for them to have the main page but also have separate URLs for the imprints. That way, they can “catch” people who Google “Warner Forever.”

  4. I think your comments are dead on. I’ve often thought that most publishers seem kind of tone deaf to the marketplace, relying on their gut and beliefs since sales data lags behind so much — which in this day and age is completely unnecessary. Hello, Supply chain software — it’s the bomb.) They are equally tone deaf when it comes to the marketplace. It’s nonsensical for Tor to have two Web sites. I suspect it came about because they lost patience with their main St. Martin’s-developed site, but talk about confusing readers! Publishers have lost the art of putting themselves in the place of their buyers. Well, you can’t lose what you probably never had, so scratch that last sentence.

  5. Sandy…I agree 100%. Seems like most publishers are so quick to jump on the Social Networking Bandwagon — then don’t know what to do with it. Like buying the latest techy toy just to say you own it (Boys and their toys anyone??) regardless of whether you know what to do with it or not!

  6. Case in point: Warner sold their Forever imprint to Hachette YEARS ago. But people still call it Warner Forever. It’s just “Forever” now.

    As a Forever author, I know we’ve tried to put marketing together with other Forever authors, but it never quite sticks. We’re just too diverse. Also, authors come and go so quickly, it’s too much trouble to invest in a publisher site, only to move on and leave all that “branding” behind. Better time spent branding ourselves, as individuals.

    I’ve had my website up for about three months now, and I’ve NEVER gotten a referral from the Hachette site. I’ve gotten several referrals just from this comment stream in the past two days!

  7. Ack, I keep forgetting that Warner isn’t Warner anymore. (Well they’re still Warner in our minds, I guess.)

    AAR Sandy:
    Tor having two websites is crazy, but I guess it’s no worse than the slew of sites so many other products have. Coke has a main website, a separate website to advertise Diet Coke, another website for their Coke points, etc. I feel sorry for their IT guys — but at least they’re keeping their web identity fresh and, uhm, sparkling.

  8. Coke is one of the most well known brands in the world. They don’t have a brand problem. With that said, Diet Coke is a different brand than regular Coke. And, yep, people know that brand.

    Keeping a Web identity fresh is important, but every Coke site — and everything Coke does — remains true to that brand.

    Publishers aren’t branded. Most consumers don’t know what company published the book they are buying with the exception of the two you’ve cited as doing it right: HQN and Avon. Romance buyers who aren’t online KNOW HQN. I’m not certain if most could name Avon, but they know how to recognize an Avon romance. (Only problem is other publishers mimicing the Avon style. And there’s a very good reason for that.)

    To have two separate Web sites for essentially the exact, same thing is not smart. Which is the real Tor? As I said, I suspect it came about because savvy people at Tor got sick of the St. Martin’s Web site and their probable reluctance to alter the site, but still. All Tor can hope is that readers find the right Web site.

  9. I absolutely agree! I was in the PR department of a small Random House imprint in 2000 when all of this was revving up and was dismayed at how “this is how we’ve always done it” the attitudes were.

    But then at the time getting anything out to the public was such a committee decision, that I was always grateful that any publicity went out before a book was published.

    I hope your column is circulated in every PR department–even printed and tacked to publicists’ doors if that’s what it takes. Sure, writing chatty, fun, lively blog, tweet, homepage, email, and other copy isn’t always possible, but is sometimes (and should be often) possible.

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