In the short time it's taken the subject of dot-com to go from charmed to dirty, publishers have been busy promoting and printing scores of e-business books. This puts houses in an awkward spot: scramble to repackage, or cut print runs and expectations. Either way, it could leave them with a lot of stillborn books.
In the last five months, publishers have released how-to business titles straight out of 1999: Taking Care of e-Business, Cyberbranding, Seven Steps to Nirvana (Strategic Insights into eBusiness Transformation), The e-Aligned Business, e-Business or Out of Business, Partners.com, e-Leadership, Art of .COMbat, Leading at Dot-Com Speed ande-Leader, to name only a fraction. The next few months will see the releases slow but not stop, with books like Dot Vertigo and Net Attitude.
Some of the titles have gotten, or are getting, rewrites and new covers. Most are just being pushed out. "A lot of publishers got caught with their pants down," said a business editor at a large trade house who asked not to be identified. "You see these books on the business bestseller list and you think, 'I have to get some of those.' And then these books are in the pipeline and what do you do? A lot of publishers are just going out with them. And a lot of them are going to die big deaths."
In conversations with people throughout the category, what emerges is a story of breathless, me-too publishing that didn't always stop to ask important questions. The genre, they maintained, was never sufficiently defined, its editorial too general and its market too murky. "It's failing for the same reason that Cisco can't sell routers," said the editor. "There's no one left to buy it."
Time lags have always hit publishers harder than other print media. But the e-business category came on the scene with such unexpected promise—titles like Patricia Seybold's Customers.com hit the bestseller lists from out of nowhere—and left with such quickness that many publishers are left holding the galleys.
Not all publishers are without hope. "Our pitches are going to have to be different than what we've been doing," explained Perseus director of publicity Lissa Warren, who said she's targeting niche magazines like CFO instead of mainstream pubs like Business Week. "I don't see it as insurmountable, but it's definitely a challenge," she said.
Perseus debated but decided against dropping the suffix from Partners.com. It's a conversation familiar to many houses. For its recent release of E-Leadership, the Free Press decided late in the cycle to replace the phrase "e-Economy" in the subtitle with "Digital Economy" and had to put stickers on the galley. Wiley debated changing the name of its upcoming Radical E but, in the end, left it. "We're not trying to put dot-com in the titles, but we will if it's relevant," said director of publicity Lori Sayde. She said future lists won't change as much as you might think. "We're very selective, but we're still considering titles that are appropriate to the marketplace," she said.
Perhaps the archetype for the flubbing e-conomy title is Patricia Seybold's The Customer Revolution. Widely regarded as a sure thing when it was signed up by Crown, the book faded quickly after its March release, garnering only about 800 orders through Ingram and appearing on no major bestseller lists. Another book thought invincible was Gary Hamel's Leading the Revolution from Harvard Business School Press, an August 2000 release on which the house reportedly spent at least a high six figures and hundreds of thousands more on marketing. It caught the tail end of the boom and sold well—more than 9,000 orders through Ingram alone—but not as well as the house had hoped. HBSP, which has hitched its fate to business titles like Clayton Christensen's bestselling The Innovator's Dilemma, will likely make the most interesting case study of what happens when the bandwagon takes a sharp turn.
Yet for all the rethinking of e-business, there are signs that publishers have latched on to a new Next Big Thing: dot-com rise-and-fall books. In the fall, HarperBusiness will release a new edition of its modern classic, The Internet Bubble, as a hardcover, and Wiley will bring out Stephan Paternot's The Very Public Offering, about the fluctuating fortunes of TheGlobe.com founders. More in this vein are sure to follow. Of course, there's always the possibility that a revived NASDAQ will foil their plans. But somehow we doubt it.