HarperCollins’s Direct Sales Plan: Necessary or Futile?

If you can’t negotiate with Amazon, beat them at their own game of sales, or remove them from the equation entirely. Many industry experts and would-be experts like me have bandied this solution about, one where publishers will sell directly to consumers on their website. Now, HarperCollins is trying this strategy on a revamped website that sells both print and e-books directly to consumers, according to Publisher’s Weekly. While there will be some sales, most books will be sold at full price. The website does provide links to major retailers like Amazon and B&N, however.

I discussed this solution in a previous article, where I noted that publishers could improve their social media and marketing by having greater circulation on their websites, particularly considering most visitors to their sites are job-seekers. I also questioned whether publishers would be able to provide appealing prices to consumers when confronted with Amazon’s predatory loss-leader pricing. If consumers are going into bookstores only to buy the books they find on Amazon, you can bet that they will find it even easier to search for books on the publishers’ sites and then open Amazon in a second tab from the comfort of one’s home.

HarperCollins is clearly wary of the latter problem, which is why they are providing links to the Amazon page; it knows that it currently cannot compete with Amazon on pricing and that consumers may not end up buying their books on the site, but they want readers to at least start their search on the HarperCollins website.

The comments on the Pub Weekly article provide an apt summary of some of the problems of HarperCollins’s strategy:

  • Multiple readers are treating this strategy as the final nail in the coffin for indie bookstores, since publishers are trying to cut out the middle man distributors through direct sales. Frankly, I don’t believe that the website in its fledgling state will have that significant of an effect–people who shop at indie bookstores aren’t going to abandon them to use this website, and people who buy books online do not bring their business to physical retailers anymore anyway. What does matter is the abrupt shift in the public image of publishers, from the bullied, struggling victims of Amazon to callous, bottom-line businesses abandoning their indie partners to fend for themselves.
  • Some argue that publishers don’t know a single thing about retail and should leave this area to their long-time partners (an argument that ties into the idea that they are abandoning indie booksellers rather than exploring or expanding their options). I would argue that this argument also connects to the arguments made by self-published authors and their fans, who usually lambast publishers for being out of touch when it comes to marketing their books properly. People are losing trust in publishers to market non-major titles or properly exploit social media, and this website provides an opportunity for them to redeem their stodgy image by marketing smaller or backlist titles; or, conversely, to focus on major titles and reinforce that reputation.
  • Finally, some commenters mock the very idea that consumers care about publishers and will buy books based on something other than authors, genres, or staff/Amazon recommendations. To be honest, this assessment is fair to apply to most major publishers. Small publishers and imprints can create a focused website surrounding a certain genre or subgenre of literature, but a major house with dozens of imprints lacks a focused theme to bring in consistent readership. I would personally argue that HarperCollins would do better to focus first on revamping its imprints’ websites, then bringing readers from these disparate sites to one hub retail site for HarperCollins. These publishers are making themselves “too big to fail” but in doing so they are possibly diluting their brands from having much focus or meaning.

I think print-on-demand, direct sales from exciting publisher websites are a necessary part of publishers’ futures if they want to shake off their dependance upon Amazon; moreover, I believe this strategy does not in any way signal the death of bookstores, because publishers love having as many sales options as possible and would bend over backwards to keep these channels open. By creating backup sales options, they give themselves more negotiating power and increase profitability for books in general, which could in turn mean the return of more risky midlist and experimental titles.

I still believe that publishers have a long way to go before reaching that stage, however. I have to admit that I like some of the features on HarperCollins’s site, like search categories for series of books or award winners (i.e. Hugo, Nebula, ALA, etc. for sci-fi/fantasy). Still, I think publishers need to do more to get other people on their site, not just publishing nerds like me. Maybe publishers that do self-publishing services could make some of the best-rated self-published titles available through direct retail to boost circulation from authors. Or perhaps make a greater effort to support interactive author websites that link back to the publisher. Or some other strategies I haven’t thought of; anyone have any marketing ideas to get regular people interested in publishing websites?

Thanks for reading!

Advertisements