With its announcement last week that it is moving from print to digital catalogues beginning with its fall list, HarperCollins became the first major trade house to abandon print catalogues in favor of electronic versions, but other publishers are certain to make the move as well. Ten publishers just finished participating in a beta test of Edelweiss, an interactive catalogue created by John Rubin, founder of Above the Treeline, and publishers see merit in electronic catalogues. Hachette was one of the companies in the Edelweiss pilot, and CEO David Young said it's clear electronic catalogues “are the way of the future.” He does believe, however, that at least in the short term, there will still be room for print catalogues to meet the needs of such functions as publicity and to give some buyers “a sense of the season.”

The HC catalogue is organized by season, but president of sales Josh Marwell said the electronic version “allows for lots of flexibility.” Noting that many accounts don't necessarily follow a seasonal pattern—some, for instance, prefer to buy monthly—the electronic catalogue “can be adapted to the selling patterns of individual accounts.” The HC catalogue is continually updated and includes such additions as drop-in titles and changes to previously announced books. While the catalogue will always be accessible at www.harpercollinscatalogs.com, HC will send out e-cards after each sales conference to remind booksellers to check for the season's new books.

HC used the electronic catalogue at its sales conference last week, and Marwell said it was a big hit. Since all parties—reps, editors, marketers—were confident that the information was correct (“no arguing that ISBNs are different,” Marwell noted), the conversations “were about the books and how they can best be positioned,” he said. The launch of electronic catalogues doesn't mean reps are becoming extinct, Marwell said. “Reps will continue to represent our list and act as filters,” he said. “The human element is still important.”

Although the HC catalogue has been designed as a tool that can be used by all HC departments, accounts cannot place orders directly through it; Marwell said Harper, which is also supporting Edelweiss, may add an ordering function in the future. Rubin's Edelweiss, however, already offers ordering functionality for stores that are part of Above the Treeline, and a number of the 30 booksellers who took part in the recent test did use the ordering option. Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands, said she used Edelweiss to place orders with four publishers and found the system easy to use. “It's a different way to buy books, but it is a better way to buy,” Shanks said, noting that she is willing to change her habits after buying from publishers for 35 years.

Rubin is now loading in fall catalogues for the 10 publishers who took part in the summer test and is adding Workman, Columbia University Press and Cambridge University Press. He is also opening Edelweiss (edelweiss.abovethetreeline.com) to any account that wants to use it. Edelweiss is free to retailers and is supported by publishers; Rubin is currently developing the fee structure. Rubin hopes that Edelweiss will become the industry standard, arguing that booksellers won't want to learn different systems from different publishers, especially if the catalogues are to be used for ordering.

That fits perfectly with the thinking of Ken White, manager, general books department at San Francisco State University Bookstore, who participated in the Edelweiss test and has looked at the HC catalogue. White said he is “not against” electronic catalogues, although he understands why some people would prefer print editions that are more portable. He stressed, however, that if publishers intend to make electronic catalogues an ordering tool, they need to use a single system. “The only way this will work is if there is an across-the-board solution,” White said. “I don't need to learn 30 different passwords. I'd be at a standstill.”

“ If publishers think they can each have their own protocol, it will be a disaster,” Shanks said. In addition to not wanting to learn different systems, Shanks noted that the ability to look at a month's purchases from all publishers at the same time is extremely important. Edelweiss isn't without its flaws, Shanks said, but for a first version “it really is amazing.”