Optimizing Your Web Presence
Don’t be afraid of electronic distribution—make your content available online, because it’s the best way to appear on radar screens these days. For smaller marketing departments, it’s the best way to market your books. So says the
National Academies Press’ (NAP) Michael Jensen.
“You have to give material to search engines to munch,” he says. “Content is its own best advertising. That’s only going to increase in significance. Most people feel like once the PDF gets out there, suddenly the market will dry up, [but] it’s demonstratively not true. I don’t know of an instance where somebody made the material available for free and sales went down. I know a lot of instances where the reverse is true. Certainly our experience is that way.”
And he should know. Since the late 1980s, Jensen has helped spearhead the course the STM publishing world would take when it came to navigating the then-newly discovered neck of the publishing woods called the Internet by laying the groundwork for Web sites to offer books online.
For the past four years, Jensen, 48, has held dual roles with the National Academies as both its director of Web communications and its director of publishing technologies. The NAP, one of the first publishers to make content available on the Web for free in an open-access manner, starting in 1993, currently makes more than 3,600 books—close to 600,000 pages of content, according to Jensen—available free for visitors to fully browse and search. The group publishes more than 200 titles a year on a wide range of topics in science, engineering, and health.
The popular site—which Jensen initially helped redeveloped himself—now receives more than 1.5 million visitors a month and is one of the most highly ranked sites of its kind for several search engines. Computer-savvy information seekers can purchase content in book form, buy searchable downloads, or view and print individual pages for free. For about half of the publisher’s books, you can get the PDFs for free. For the other half, the PDFs are for sale.
“The biggest thing we have to fear is invisibility in publishing,” he says. “If you’re not out there in the search engines, on blogs and on the [Wikipedia’s], and being part of the new information environment, you are disappearing. And that’s the worst thing. Figuring out how to participate in all these things is the biggest challenge for publishers. We’re used to having products that once you’re done with them you’re done with them.”
His advice to publishers—especially STM publishers—who have yet to embrace the Web, is for them to do so.
“Go for it,” he says. “Don’t let fear be the main driver.”
The Problem Solver
As a kid growing up in Indiana and Nebraska, and later as a student at Indiana University and the University of Nebraska, computers didn’t factor into Jensen’s career plans.
“I was an English major,” Jensen says. “I got involved with computers as a typesetter. I realized very quickly that the computer was a tool of solving problems. We keep running into new problems to solve. That’s the fun of it. … It’s certainly very new, and it’ll be a long time until it matures.”
After several successful stints with University of Nebraska Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, in 1998 Jensen joined the National Academies Press (NAP)—which was created by the National Academies to publish the reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council—to oversee the group’s online presence.
He would soon become the principal developer of some of the most ground-breaking developments in Web publishing, including the NAP’s Openbook online navigation system—a technology similar to Amazon’s Look Inside and Google Book Search, but developed several years earlier.
Today, visitors to the site view six or seven pages per visit, as opposed to the the industry norm of one or two pages, according to Jensen. He credits the NAP’s executive director, Barbara Kline Pope, with encouraging the team to take risks and letting them build the site the way they did.
“For every chapter, we have a ‘skim chapter’ feature that pulls out the most significant text,” he says. “It facilitates online browsing and online reading. We’ve made all sorts of improvements to the interface that make it, in some ways, better than the book, in terms of searchability and findability. And for a researcher, the online experience is better.”
For perspective on complicated issues, however, Jensen says, books are still the favorite.
“There’s nothing like a book for sitting and absorbing ideas. If you’re trying to find a fact, the Web is great,” Jensen says.
So why, then, has it taken so long for the STM market to fully engage itself in the Web?
“I think it’s because, we, as publishers, have always dealt with physical objects that people held in their hands,” Jensen says. “They don’t trust things that aren’t physical objects. I think we confused the container and the content. There’s a big difference between the two …” he says. “I think we are, by nature, a risk-averse profession. Books are a risky endeavor. People would shy away from taking risks that other people got burned by. The Internet was such a huge shift in … paradigms of information, how we connect to people, that it took some time to see what the reverberations might be.”
The Experiment and the Future
Because of the potential risk, NAP didn’t jump in blindly to the Web-content pool. In 2002, it conducted an online experiment to see what the cannibalization rate would be if it offered its content online as free PDFs. The experiment interrupted customers purchasing online orders of printed books, and offered them free or discounted PDFs of some content.
“The short summary—42 percent of the people that were offered free PDFs took [them],” he says. “The others were willing to pay $40 or so, even though they were offered this free version.”
“We have two competing missions,” Jensen says. “One to disseminate as widely as possible the works of the academy. The other is to be a self-sustaining publisher. They say give everything away, but make enough money to survive. But in this case, the books are perceived by our institution as a way to get the ideas out in the public-policy land, to advise the nation on science, technology and medicine. The books are a means to that end. We don’t craft them to be salable commodities. That’s a different thing than a lot of publishers. The private sector tends to have a lot more of that [kind of] publishing than the commercial sector, naturally.”
The NAP’s experiment showed that its audience was willing to accept an electronic version of the work without completely destroying the print sales. The result was increased online traffic and greater dissemination of information. They found the right balance of openness and marketing, and the conversion ratio of visitors to purchasers is growing.
Despite all the breakthroughs that Jensen has bared witness to in the past few years, he concedes there still will be an audience for books for many years to come.
“It’s certainly true that paper is not going to go away,” Jensen says. “Part of this transitional period is that it’s going to be shades of gray. It’s not going to be all digital or all paper. Books will be around for my lifetime. … The Web is not the best medium for book material, but we can use the Web to promote and advertise and let people taste and sample.”