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London Book Fair 2.0

Here’s one of two articles I wrote for The Bookseller, for their London Book Fair daily editions. I rejected this one for all sorts of reasons, but thought it worth posting anyway (especially as how I haven’t in a while).

The brief was to write something accessible for the majority of visitors to the fair, and to also try to make it topical. I thought I had sledgehammered the article into meeting the latter requirement, and that it was all a bit too jargony to meet the first. Anyway, here it is.

In the caffeinated, optimistic and excitable spirit of the fair, and following the trends of the wider business world, we could now talk about how we are all leveraging web 2.0, blogs, MySpace, Twitter, user-generated content, YouTube and Flickr. We might even discuss RSS and Second Life avatars without losing the will to live.

We could do. And if we were all twenty (or forty) years younger, spent more time online than in front of the TV (or with our faces buried in manuscripts), we might possibly do so knowledgeably. Who knows, between us we may yet today have a conversation that turns into a startup company heralding publishing’s second coming.

It’s certainly seductive to believe that the future of publishing, bookselling and marketing lies in the arcane, youthful and ever-emerging worlds parallel to MySpace and YouTube. And in very many ways, it well might.

My personal view is that a “MySpace for Books” (or some other book-related web service) will emerge, if it hasn’t already (and I’m not referring directly to Bloomsbury’s latest venture). Such a service may even become wildly popular. I just can’t see it being born successfully out of a publishing house – or on top of an e-commerce proposition.

Why not? For two main reasons. Firstly, publishers do not have the skills, experience, perspective or vitally the time to make such an endeavour a success.

Secondly, none of the web 2.0 success stories we’ve all heard about has yet been based around a transactional model (which must be the justification for it being set up out of valuable publishing revenues). Instead they have been born in garages, delivered by little more than passion and guile.

Paradoxically, many of the successes of the internet Amazon, eBay, Google, MySpace and upstart LibraryThing demonstrate web users’ interest in, and love for, books as well as the web’s innate aptitude for serving these passions. So, to be sure, online marketing remains a massive opportunity for publishers to exploit.

The problem with the “web 2.0″ technologies listed above is not just that they are incompatible with the target audiences of most books, but that publishers haven’t yet harnessed the basics of “web 1.0″.

How many publisher sites even offer rich, up to date, better-than Amazon data? Attractive, intuitive design? Value-added content, access to authors? Search engine optimization? Flawless commerce and customer service? Above all, consistent and engaging communication of the singular proposition of that house and its authors? Booksellers are not immune from this criticism either.

Without a grasp of what makes a good site compelling and successful, it is implausible that a publisher could “leverage” the new technologies to worthwhile benefit without wasting the ample opportunities before them. If you haven’t ever mashed-up a video on YouTube, what makes you think your readers will?

This is not to say that good marketing for books can’t take place through these channels. Quite the opposite. It’s just that, for most publishers, attempting to do so would be like running before you can walk. It may not be so exciting or sexy, but my point is that there are (for now) more effective technological methods for publishers to employ for selling more books to more readers.

By all means experiment with new technology, if you have the time, energy and digital experience to employ your critical faculties as to what makes one good. But do so carefully, lest you end up, as one of my sager clients described, being guilty of ‘corporate dad-dancing’, probably whilst wearing the emperor’s new clothes.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Bookseller, Publishing.

Innovation in Publishing Nibby // Links, April 2007

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