Let’s clear this up right away: Emerson did not say, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The mousetrap was invented seven years after Emerson’s death. Wikipedia (with the Bible, one of the very few publications whose title is not italicized) has an amusing article on this, which includes the following astonishing remark:
The phrase has turned into a metaphor about the power of innovation,and is frequently taken literally, with more than 4,400 patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for new mousetraps, with thousands more unsuccessful applicants, making them the “most frequently invented device in U.S. history.”
I suppose the Wikipedia itself is a kind of better mousetrap, though it doesn’t always catch all the mice.
So let’s indulge in a groaner of a paraphrase:
Build a better Web site and the world will beat a path to your store.
Yes, painful to read, but it does speak to the hard truth that anyone who wants to sell things online–scholarly books, books of any kind, any kind of merchandise, anything–has to begin at the beginning, with Web traffic. As I have been studying the direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales of university presses, one thing has become obvious, and that is that to be a successful Web seller, it’s not enough to be on the Web; you have to be of the Web.
A good Web site (more on what that means in a minute) is not all you need, of course. You need the basics: the ability to post book metadata; ecommerce capability (usually summed up in the phrase “shopping cart”); the ability to fulfill sales, preferably for both print and electronic titles; a database for customer information; and, not inconsequentially, personnel whose job it is to analyze and improve the overall process day after day. All these things are now widely available (except perhaps the personnel), whereas ten years ago it was hard to find a commercially available shopping cart or DAD (digital asset distributor such as BiblioVault or CoreSource). And it’s only a few years since solutions for secure credit card transactions became widespread (captured in the phrase “PCI compliance,” for Payment Card Industry). You now can make the ebooks you sell available on mobile devices; you can even contact an outfit like BlueFire and have reading apps that bear your own press’s brand. But if no one comes knocking, what’s the point?
The problem for academic publishers in trying to build a strong D2C business is not what we usually hear, the challenges of the shift from print to digital. As a practical matter, that shift is not a challenge but a gift: no more returns, no more working capital tied up in inventory, the ability to address a global audience. The real problem is that academic publishing was created to look to the academy itself for its audience and to the library in particular. But the Web faces the opposite way, not inward to the library but outward to the world of consumers and individual purchases. The contradiction here between the library as the center of attention and the individual as the marketing target is captured beautifully and ironically when we see highly specialized books for which the readership may at best number in the hundreds–books that nevertheless get promoted on a Twitter feed, on an author’s blog, or on Facebook. To sell more books D2C a publisher has to think harder about the potential connections between the publishing enterprise and the roiling communications of the open Web and social media.
I don’t know what a fully-optimized Web presence for a university press would look like, but it is likely to include some or all of the following capabilities:
*Someone in charge. This, strange as it sounds, is the most important thing. Someone has to be tasked–and rewarded when successful–with developing and augmenting the Web strategy. That strategy would include growth in unique users month by month AND a constant improvement in the conversion rate. The conversion rate is the percentage of people who come to a Web site and then go on to complete a transaction. It’s easier to increase the number of Web visitors than to improve conversions. Of course, the person in charge also has to have some money to invest in programs, including R&D.
*Outside advice on SEO and SEM. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization; SEM is Search Engine Marketing; the former is a subset of the latter. While it can be useful to buy ads on Google, it is more important to improve results from organic search. So, for example, I just Googled “the economic history of the American Civil War” and came up with no university press books among the first ten search results. A bad example? Please choose your own, choose dozens. Unless you choose an exact book title, it is truly rare for a university press book to get high ranking on Google, and if it does get a good ranking, invariably the link is to Amazon, not the publisher’s own site. And what of that, what is wrong with getting good results with the exact title? The problem here is that if a prospective customer already knows the book title, the marketing task is mostly complete. A Web site has to reach farther; it has to be a source of discovery for people who may not yet know that they want a book.
*Adapt examples from outside the book business. One of the odd things about university press Web sites is how overloaded so many home pages are. If you want to sell books directly from your Web site, start there. When someone comes to a Web site, the first thing he or she should see is the store. Some sites are doing this now (which, by the way, are the ones showing a higher proportion of D2C sales), but this is not universally true. Compare the home page of virtually any publisher with that of an airline. Airlines have a very strong need to sell tickets, and for the most part they are competing with other airlines that can sell almost the very same thing. So when you go to an airline site (e.g., http://united.com), the first thing you see is the tool for buying tickets. Airlines have tabs for any number of things on their sites (e.g., frequent flyer programs, airport security protocols), but they know full well that some things–commerce–are more important than others.
*Open windows, not just the front door. Search engines atomize Web sites. While a publisher likes to think that everybody will start at the home page, Web search drills into a site–it comes in through the window. This means that the listing for every single book has to be optimized for discovery. Here presses are inconsistent. I just reviewed the online catalog of one press that had clearly invested a great deal in its Web site, but often the metadata for its books was literally briefer than what is found on Amazon. Don’t we think Google’s search engine will notice? Also, and puzzlingly, each book is surrounded by buttons for social media (Facebook, Google+), but it is missing Twitter! Why would you leave out Twitter, which can yield highly targeted communications to specialist readers? Every page a home page; every page, every book listing, should be outward-looking, attempting to draw new users in.
*Remember that is a mobile phone in your pocket. Most of us in publishing sit at desks all day with a desktop or laptop computer in front of us. That’s not representative of the Internet any more, and we all know it, as we fork over big bucks for iPhones and tablets. Surely our readers are doing the same. A Web site has to be optimized for mobile devices. This is no easy trick. Few presses have done this. I just sampled a dozen press Web sites on my iPhone. With few exceptions I could not get much information to display properly on the small screen. But then go to Amazon and you download pages that fit your screen size. It’s one thing to say that Amazon will underprice everyone, quite another to say that you expect readers only to access your online store while sitting at a desk.
*Content marketing. Content marketing is a term of art; it refers to the creation of content as a means to acquire new users or customers. While there clearly is a cost to creating content of any kind, content marketing is an essential tool for any publisher in bringing people to a Web site. The most obvious example of content marketing is blogging, which, when done on a regular basis, attracts users–and search engines, which bring more users. We see this at work here at the Scholarly Kitchen, where the dose of one blog post each day drives traffic. It’s not just the intellectual range, savoir faire, and good looks of the Kitchen contributors but the sheer frequency of the posts. The Kitchen’s traffic is such that it could be the marketing tool for an online bookstore. Similarly, an academic publisher could invest in content marketing in a particular subject area and use that to drive traffic. A Twitter feed that consists entirely of plugs for books will attract few followers, but one that tweets several times a day about news in a particular field could attract an audience. Every tenth tweet could then include a link to the Web page to purchase a book.
*Verticalization. More radically, content marketing could lead to verticalization. Presses today publish in many fields, typically lacking critical mass in any one (there are exceptions). To get more leverage out of a marketing budget, it is better to go deep in a limited number of fields, or even one, than to try to cover the range of a university. It is going to be very, very hard for presses to become increasingly vertical, regardless of what business consultants will tell them, as the narrower the range of the list, the harder to get widespread faculty support on campus.
I am writing this just as the news has broken about how Amazon is pressuring a major trade book publisher, Hachette, on terms of sale. The response among publishers is to decry Amazon’s actions as immoral and bullying, but my test for “morality” in business is to ask if I would do the same thing if I were in the same position (There but for the grace of god . . . .). If alternatives to Amazon are needed, the way to build them is not to express moral outrage but . . . to build them. Alternatives will be hard to create, but at least one section of the marketplace is under a publisher’s own control, its very own Web site. If you want to be an effective D2C marketer, that’s the place to start.