Penguin Group USA has become the first major U.S. publisher to offer all of its titles for sale directly through its own Web sites, allowing consumers to buy books either from penguingroup.com or us.penguinclassics.com. Although many midsize and small publishers sell books via their sites—and some offer discounts—the larger houses have refrained from offering books directly to consumers. The possibility of antagonizing booksellers as well as a reluctance to fulfill small individual orders has kept the largest publishers out of the e-tailing business up until now.
Penguin CEO David Shanks said that, as the book business has become more complex, "it's become more difficult for bricks-and-mortar retailers to carry our entire backlist. There are fewer and fewer spaces for our titles in the retail marketplace." Shanks sees Penguin's e-tailing efforts as complementing sales by traditional retailers rather than cannibalizing sales. "We need to find a way to display and sell all the books we publish," Shanks said.
There are no plans to increase Penguin's promotional budget to drive more readers to its site. The goal, Shanks said, is to capture the sale from readers who have found their way there. "It's always bothered me that we spend a lot of money on the site and get people excited about a book, but we couldn't ask for the order. Now we can," he explained. Shanks said Penguin has "no grand expectations" about generating significant sales through the site in the first year. "We know how many people come to the site; now we want to learn how many will buy." Shanks said the e-tailing effort is a test of Penguin's ability to sell books, and he sees it as similar in nature to retailers starting publishing operations. Since it began selling titles on the site about two weeks ago, sales have been minimal, Shanks noted.
Penguin is charging full price for its titles, plus shipping and handling costs, although, Shanks said, the company may offer discounts in the future. Authors will receive the same royalty rate from sales via the Penguin site as they do from sales through online e-tailers. The Penguin sites offer a full range of options found at other e-tailers, including a search engine that allows searching by title, author, ISBN or keyword. Results can also be sorted by publication date, alphabetically by author or title, or by volume order. In addition, customers may read excerpts of certain titles.
The site also provides the names of other e-tailers selling Penguin titles and a link to locate physical bookstores.
While Penguin's actions may lead other major publishers to add online selling, none contacted by PW said it was preparing to do so. Representatives from both HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster said that while they "wouldn't rule it out," neither had plans to adopt such a program soon. Lisa Herling, spokesperson for HarperCollins, said that at present, the company's strategy is to use its site as a marketing tool, directing customers to booksellers. According to spokesperson Adam Rothberg, S&S recently relaunched its simonsays site, making it more personal for users, but did not add a selling component. Random House spokesperson Stuart Applebaum said, "We have no imminent plans to change our selling practices." A Barnes & Noble spokesperson said the company had no comment on Penguin's initiative.