Is “Giving It Away” Good Business Strategy? An Interview with Nolo Vice President of Editorial Mary Randolph on her company’s progressive approach to legal publishing
In business since the 1970s, Nolo––a Berkeley, Calif.-based trade publisher specializing in legal publications––established a presence on the Web in 1994 and has been aggressively pursuing online opportunities ever since. Mary Randolph, the company’s vice president of editorial, recently spoke with Book Business Extra about Nolo’s stance on controversial topics such as Open Access and Google Book Search, and why the company believes in giving away a lot of its content.
Extra: What do you feel are the biggest challenges your publishing segment is facing right now?
Mary Randolph: We are primarily a trade publisher, and our main markets are bookstores and libraries. As we all know, the number of independent bookstores has been declining for years, and the big chains are not expanding rapidly. But in general, all book publishers must come to grips with the fact that people go online first for information. They may actually find, when they’re searching, that their best solution is in a book. But we all know that people are getting more and more used to finding information in dribs and drabs as they ping around to different Web sites––and they’re used to getting it for free.
Extra: How are you utilizing the Internet and new media to complement your print publications? Which areas have been successful for you and which areas do you hope to grow in the future?
Randolph: … On Nolo.com, visitors can read thousands of free articles; listen to free podcasts; order hard copies of Nolo books, software or forms; download copies of our books and software; read profiles of lawyers they might want to consult; or use our online services, for example, to make a will online. We regularly send free e-mail newsletters on specific topics (legal issues for landlords, for example) to customers who have requested a subscription. We will soon be launching a series of blogs by Nolo experts on some of our main topics, such as business, intellectual property, family law, tax and estate planning.
Nolo was among the first trade publishers to include disks, and later CD-ROMs, in many of our books. The CDs may contain forms, audio or reference information that’s too bulky to be included in the book. This has been quite popular and is a great convenience for readers who need to prepare documents with the aid of our books.
… I would generally expect to see all publishers make better use of technology, both by including electronic media with their books and by offering links to up-to-date supplementary material online. Nolo concentrates on law, which, like science, changes all the time. Readers need the latest information, and they expect it to be instantly accessible online.
Extra: How do you feel about Open Access platforms that allow audiences immediate, free and unrestricted online access to digital material?
Randolph: All I can say is that at Nolo, we’ve always believed in giving away a lot of content. First, it’s because doing so is consistent with our mission of getting high-quality legal information to ordinary people. But we’re also convinced that if people get a taste of our material, they’ll see that we publish reliable, accessible, helpful legal information––and they’ll come back, and maybe buy something, the next time they run into a legal or business question.
Extra: What are your thoughts on services such as Google Book Search?
Randolph: Nolo was one of the first publishers to participate in Google Book Search, and unlike some publishers, we’ve supported the Google Print Library Project. We’ve found it to be a valuable tool for reaching out to people who might not find us in bookstores. Google Book can guide users to deep backlist or esoteric books they might not be able to find otherwise. Like many nonfiction publishers, we rely heavily on backlist sales. But because we update our backlist titles frequently to keep up with changing laws, search hits aren’t necessarily going to jeopardize book sales. People go beyond Google Book to find our revised editions to get the most up-to-date legal information.
And, of course, people using Google Book Search can use the direct links there to buy the book. The top two click-throughs for our Google “Buy This Book” listings are to Nolo.com and to Amazon.com. Nolo was an early adopter of other online “search inside the book” initiatives as well, and we haven’t regretted it; it’s definitely boosted our online retailer activity.