Everyone in the business of predicting popular interest tries to apply lessons from the past, but lessons are often conflicting and it's tricky to figure out which one applies to the current situation.
The three trade publishers who produced the Starr Report each brought different experiences to their decision. Gina Centrello at Pocket Books at first concluded, based on Pocket's experience with the Unabomber book, that it's wise to stay away from subjects that have already been exhaustively covered by the media. But, as Pocket's accounts began to ask for the book, a more important lesson ruled the day: Listen to your customers. Peter Osnos at PublicAffairs looked to his own success at Times Books with publishing public domain titles, such as the Tower Commission Report and the Papal Encyclical on birth control, but he was concerned about the competition from free access to the full text on the Web and in several newspapers. However, Prima's founder, Ben Dominitz, and COO Matt Carleson, based on their experience with computer game books, felt that the web, far from competing with books, actually promotes them, so they regarded the Report's availability on the web as a positive factor.
This is a major lesson of publishing the Starr Report: the web generates attention, which generates book sales. Of course, we'll never know how many of the hits on the web represented lost book sales, but with nearly a million copies of the Report in print and reportedly doing well in the marketplace, the book ventures have been a clear success. Add to this the fact that all three books appeared on Amazon's bestseller list, purchased by people who clearly have access to the web, and one must conclude that print maintains a strong appeal.
So, in this first major test of the viability of books against free information on the web, it seems that the book remains the preferred format. Prima's Matt Carleson told PW he feels this experience is evidence that the web is quite a different animal from TV. While TV encourages passive watching, therefore discouraging reading, the web demands interaction and, most important for publishing, requires the user to read. And, reading in an uncomfortable medium engenders more interest in reading in a comfortable one. PW's own recent studies of book-buying habits seem to bear this out. Those who responded to an online questionnaire bought more books and went to bookstores more often than those who responded to a telephone questionnaire.
It also seems, at least for now, that traditional publishers have the edge. We haven't seen guys with desktop publishing systems running off copies of the report and hawking them on streetcorners. There's still quite a bit more to publishing than just printing and binding, even when the manuscript arrives fully edited and in digital form; a firmly established distribution system is still critical. We shouldn't get overly comfortable with this idea, however. Consider that Denver's Tattered Cover bookstore plans to have an on-demand printer producing $10 trade paperbacks for their customers sometime after the first of the year. If they had it running a bit earlier, they could conceivably have been creating and selling their own fully bound Starr Report title.
An old bookselling lesson appears to work in the online environment, as well: displays sell books. Which edition hit the top spot on the Amazon list? Not what you might have guessed -- the least expensive, mass market edition from Pocket -- but the trade paper edition from PublicAffairs. Why? Because that was the one featured on the Amazon.com home page. The mass market paperback edition was listed at #101 (although it hit the #2 spot on the USA Today list). Perhaps there is a corollary here; even though it is very easy to search out other editions on the web, customers seem willing to accept the first one they see. This may further suggest that customers may not be so eager to shop around various online booksellers to save a few pennies; customer loyalty online may be attainable.
This experience has also reinforced the lesson that timely information wins out over complete information. News stories all over the country reported the position of the Starr books on the Amazon list because it's updated hourly, even though the Amazon buyer represents less than 1% of American book buyers, and a very specific demographic at that.
Thus, we've relearned several old lessons in a new context, and in the bargain gained evidence that books and the web may enjoy a mutually beneficial future together.