BRING YOUR BOOKS TO LIFE ON THE WEB
he idea is pretty straightforward: Release a book, create a Web site to go along with it,
and, voila, you’ve got yourself a surefire marketing tool. Just putting something on the Web is no guarantee of success, however, which may be why, for many publishers, this simple formula ends up having a lot of variations. Book-companion Web sites—portals providing access to authors, blogs, online forums, games, contests and other multimedia offerings—play a significant role in the world of online book promotion.
Standing at the intersection of traditional, publisher-designed marketing strategies, author-driven promotion and self-perpetuating “viral” marketing, thoughtfully planned book-companion Web sites offer a wealth of ways to increase sales and enhance a reader’s experience. Strategies for success are driven by the nature of the book and what, specifically, a publisher is trying to accomplish.
The Golden Rule:
Connect With Your Reader
“What you’re trying to achieve is interactivity and connection, connection, connection,” notes Jaime Marshall, associate publishing director at the College Division of Palgrave Macmillan. Palgrave offers more than 200 companion Web sites to accompany its extensive line of online textbooks in a variety of academic disciplines.
The sites feature terms, issues analysis, chapter structures, and a student-and-teacher “zone” designed to enhance the content of introductory-level texts. In “a crowded market full of a lot of books that are 90 percent the same,” offering user-friendly features for students and professors is essential, Marshall says.
“It’s a different realm of creativity in which to beat your competitors,” he notes. “More often than not, we’re thinking about what can enhance the value for students and lecturers.”
Standing out from the competition need not mean incurring big expenses. Where once Palgrave would have hesitated before providing a 200-page instructor’s manual, such materials now can easily be posted to the Web to be accessed anytime in HTML or PDF format.
“The Web sites allow us to add a much greater range of content,” agrees Matt Kay, marketing executive and systems coordinator at Macmillan Education, publisher of the “Inside Out” grammar courses. “We can also add supplementary material that you would not put into a teacher’s book.”
Popular on the “Inside Out” Web site (InsideOut.net) are weekly e-lesson plans for teachers. Multimedia features include streaming video suitable for lesson delivery or submission of student-generated content.
“People are becoming more and more comfortable on the Web, and have come to expect a certain level of sophistication from the sites and software they use.
For our courses to be seen as modern and innovative, we need to embrace these types of technologies and deliver materials in these different formats,” Kay notes.
Marshall and Kay agree that the ability to frequently update information is a big plus.
“The old problem of having new books and a new-edition cycle, where your book was inevitably out of date for the last couple of years [until the new edition was published] … we can put a lot of that to rest with online updates,” Marshall says.
For the same reason, publishers of encyclopedias were early to embrace the idea of companion Web sites. For World Book Inc. (WorldBookOnline.com), the move was necessary to stay in line with the expectations of today’s students.
One of the company’s newest endeavors, World Book Advanced, launched in June, integrates current events, primary source materials and multimedia features into a continuously updated bank of reference articles aimed at high school and college students. Users can create customized accounts that allow them to save their work online.
“We have a distinct advantage in that our brand is so well known, but most people, when they think of our brand, think of just the encyclopedia. So what our online products allow us to do is introduce people to some of our other publications, both print and online, in a new format,” says Jennifer Parello, World Book’s associate director of marketing.
World Book Kids, based on the “Student Discovery Encyclopedia,” targets young students (up through middle-school) with easy-to-read articles, interactive games and teacher resources. It is accessible by subscription only. (Subscribers also get a “substantial discount” on the print set of encyclopedias, says Parello.)
The company hired producer Douglas Love, who developed the Disney Channel’s “Out of the Box” kids’ craft show, to design print-out activities. “We wanted to get our online products into classrooms,” Parello notes.
Young students can develop skills in research while accessing and using primary sources, databases and rich media. A mascot, Atlas the dog, guides kids through a colorful series of Web pages designed to familiarize students with cross-referencing and categorical research.
A contest this fall will feature videos sent by kids offering their tips on how best to evaluate Web sites for well-researched, credible, quality information. Meant to increase “information literacy,” Parello says the contest provides “a good way to interact with World Book” through uploading videos and winning prizes.
On the other hand, World Book has “struggled” with the right way to do online forums. “We didn’t want to do it just because everyone else was doing it,” says Parello.
“I think in the future you will see much more interactivity, many more forums and much more of a community,” Marshall adds, “but I do think that publishers should be realistic about the kind of community they can create online. After all, there’s a hell of a lot of competition out there in the Web zone. It’s easy to draw them, [but] hard to keep them there and encourage them to interact in a lasting way.”
That principle perhaps is nowhere better exemplified than in the world of children’s literature, where, these days, intense interest in a book series like “Harry Potter” equals an expectation among Web-savvy kids that there will be a high-quality companion site. Keeping these kids engaged, however, involves the sort of bells and whistles that have made Flash Player and Shockwave as essential to juvenile fiction as jacket illustrations.
The “Harry Potter” site (Scholastic.com/HarryPotter) even offers a downloadable countdown clock that ticks off the seconds until the July release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
Devotees of Scholastic’s recently released “Main Street” book series can take a virtual tour of the books’ locale, Camden Falls, to meet characters, do scrapbooking and send e-postcards. Other Scholastic Web sites feature games, author interviews, polls and downloadable screen savers. Message boards for kids, parents and teachers abound.
“We really let the book lead the way,” points out Suzanne Murphy, vice president of marketing at Scholastic. “We spend a lot of time stylizing the Web areas to the look and feel of the books.”
Scholastic worked closely with “Main Street” author Ann M. Martin to create a site (Scholastic.com/MainStreet) rich with the character and community feel of the books, which follow the adventures of two orphans who move to a new town to live with their grandmother. Aimed at girls aged 8 to 12, the site was set up to provide “a place for girls to go in between books to live in the world of ‘Main Street’,” according to Murphy.
A key component of the site is its adaptability; as more books are released, new activities will be added to reflect the evolution of the characters and their experiences. This fall, the site’s focus will shift to the girls starting school, coinciding with both a plot line and real-life back-to-school time for readers; the same synergy is planned for the holiday season. The plot of a book to be released next year will feature a book club in which the main characters participate—and the Web site will feature a book club as well in which visitors can participate.
“We want to give kids a reason to come back by making it richer and richer as the series is published,” Murphy explains.
The concept applies to other book categories as well. For the self-help title, “The Flip Side,” published in May by Hachette Book Group, the goal was to build relationships with readers by playing off author Flip Flippen’s strengths as a motivator and communicator.
The site (TheFlipSideBook.com) prominently features large photos of Flippen with videos of TV appearances and celebrity endorsements. Kris Basala, director of marketing and communications at Flippen’s consulting firm, the Flippen Group, expects the site to take on a community-
support role as time goes on, hosting reader forums and blogs for those interested in developing the book’s personal growth strategies and sharing them with others.
“We built the site to support what’s coming down the road,” he says. “We want to be a sounding place for this community of people who have been touched by the book. The site is going to evolve into something that is hopefully very, very powerful.”
In the short term, the site’s ability to instantly add news reports and post videos has helped to build momentum. “We found in our marketing and presale strategy that having the site done early was very important to us,” Basala says.
The ultimate goal for the Web site is a seamless integration of the book with the programs and sense of connectivity that are central to its message, a sort of closed-loop synergy made possible by the medium of the Internet as a powerful marketing, communications and multimedia tool.
Palgrave Macmillan’s Marshall articulates a similar idea.
“I think this idea of a companion Web site will, in the end, [go by the wayside] and what you’ll have is a kind of blended-media complete package … [with] print and digital in a ratio commensurate with the technology available out there in the world,” he says.
Marshall envisions a future where the issue of digital rights has been ironed out and content is delivered directly to consumers on-demand, to the extent that the line between what is “primary” and what is “companion” will be difficult to distinguish. “The ultimate textbook is an online thing that can link out to original research, that can link out to case studies, that can be kept up to date in an automated way,” he notes. “If only a book could do that, it would be the ultimate book.” BB
James Sturdivant is an award-winning freelance writer based in Philadelphia, Pa.
- PHILADELPHIA, PA