The relaunch of the HarperCollins website, redesigned with an emphasis on direct sales to consumers, has revived a longtime debate in the book industry. In the new world of pervasive digital communication, social media, and easy direct access to consumers—not to mention the disruptive presence of Amazon—how aggressively should publishers use their websites to sell to consumers?
Today virtually all publishers, from the smallest indie press to large general trade book publishers—with the very interesting exception of the Hachette Book Group—sell directly to consumers in some fashion. But while most publishers offer some form of direct sales to consumers, the big houses prefer to avoid competition with retailers. Indeed, in a time when physical retailers are under intense competition from Amazon and other online outlets, many publishers remain leery of even appearing to undermine booksellers.
“I’m sure HarperCollins is well-intentioned,” said Jack McKeown, a former executive at both HarperCollins and Perseus Books and now president of Books and Books, a bookstore in Westhampton, N.Y. “Publishers do need to engage consumers and offer buy buttons for their convenience. But an aggressive pursuit of direct sales, I think, is misguided and a misallocation of resources.” While publishers with deep expertise in specific genres, such as Tor or Harlequin, can do well selling direct, McKeown said an overemphasis on direct selling is a mistake for large general interest publishers. “Consumers are not looking for publishers, they’re looking to retailers to aggregate and recommend titles. Harper is disaggregating our audience. They can’t offer an array of topics and publications. While I do understand what they are trying to do, they should be working to amplify their existing retail channels.”
Currently, Hachette is the only Big Five publisher that does not sell its print books directly to consumers—although the company offers direct sales of e-books via Adobe Digital Editions, an awkward process and a format not universally supported by devices. Hachette declined to comment on any future plans for retail in the wake of its ongoing dispute with Amazon.
Simon & Schuster offers its full catalogue for sale at full price for the most part, although S&S spokesperson Adam Rothberg noted that the site provides promotions “that are also deals at our retailers.” S&S also provides free shipping on orders of $25 or more.
When it comes to direct selling, Penguin Random House is effectively a house divided. While the old Penguin website does not sell books directly—click a buy-button on Penguin.com and you’ll get links to six traditional retailers—the Random House website does sell physical books directly, although there are no discounts or promotions, and provides retailer links to buy e-books. Random House spokesperson Stuart Applebaum said RH has sold physical books directly online since 2005. But he added, “in the future we plan to bring together our respective Penguin and Random House catalogues in a consumer-facing site.” He was quick to emphasize that this new consumer site will be a “potential convenience for our consumer visitors, not a high volume business.” Random House exhibits the classic behavior of a big publisher when it comes to retail. “Our continuing intention will be to build engaging, sustaining relationships with readers, not in competition, but rather in cooperation with our retail partners,” Applebaum said.
On the other hand there’s Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a major trade and educational book publisher that quietly redesigned its website about a year ago to emphasize selling direct. “We’ve been selling for several years, but now selling has become an elevated priority” said Sarah Battles, HMH v-p, web strategy, for the Trade & Consumer division. Battles acknowledged that consumers are unlikely to visit the Houghton website in great numbers. “We’re not the first choice for consumers, but our website can tie all our audiences together—educational and trade.” Houghton discounts every hardcover and paperback title 20%, sells e-books without discount. The publisher doesn’t provide links to retailer sites for its print titles, but does offer retailer links for e-books. While Battles declined to give specific numbers, she said site revenue has shown “great growth month to month,” both for B2B and consumer sales.
Doug Seibold, publisher of the independent publisher Agate, said the house has been selling directly since 2008. “The biggest challenge for a small publisher is distribution and making people aware of us. Our website works like a sales catalogue and we take it very seriously.” But he acknowledged that selling isn’t really the point. “It’s not a big revenue channel,” he said. “But it helps us stay alert to the market, helps us to be fast on our feet.”
Seibold said selling direct helps him to understand Agate’s customers and see how the book industry is changing. “Amazon.com has been a great partner to us, but they are also a prominent publisher. That’s radically different than it’s been in the past,” Seibold said. “We believe we need a retail presence, but we understand we can’t reshape the marketplace. We sell direct because we want to be ready if it becomes a bigger part of the industry.”