Master the Web By the Book
What it takes to build and manage a book publisher's Web site
by Tatyana Sinioukov
As a publishing medium, the Internet is "maturing," and many book publishers have gained significant experience in site management. We asked publishers and Web service providers what it takes to build--and maintain--a user-friendly Web site, what workflow models work best for book publishers, and what their hot buttons are when it comes to implementing the various workflow techniques.
Site management requires implementing smart workflow techniques, managing updating processes and files across networks and platforms, as well as handling time-sensitive content, automating site production, making the site searchable, promoting it, implementing e-commerce services and handling security issues.
Do the most complex Web sites require the most people and the most expertise?
"I wouldn't say necessarily more people," says Ardy Khazaei, director of Internet development at New York City-based HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.com). "Certainly a higher level of expertise because ... as the Web is getting more sophisticated the tools are also getting more sophisticated."
To begin defining staffing requirements, the question a book publisher should be asking, according to Khazaei, is what is the scope of my site? For example, if e-commerce capabilities are added to an editorial site, it changes the level of site maintenance needed and the amount of people involved. The opposite is true, too. A Web site used only for marketing purposes only can be built simply with HTML, says Duffy Mazan, CEO of Electric Press, Reston, VA. "As soon as you start to offer catalogued books, rapid changes are on the way," he offers. "It's not a marketing effort anymore. If you offer editorial content, you have increased the need to change the site."
David Tobey, Web Services Manager for the Perseus Book Group in Boulder, CO, agrees that the more features the Web site boasts the more laborious and proficient its maintenance will and should be. However, he adds, "Some very complex Web sites can be made to 'run themselves' to some degree through the use of dynamically-generated text and graphics," he notes.
Who should be building your site?
For a very complex site, bring it to your software professionals, advises Andy Musliner, revolution strategist at Century Computing, Laurel, MD (www.appnet.net and www.centurycomputing.com). Century Computing, which was recently acquired by AppNet, Bethesda, MD, leverages the Internet into its clients' businesses (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA, is one of the company's clients).
"When you get into complex Web site development ... you are talking about real, hard-core software development," says Musliner. "If you are going to build a house, don't expect a professional artist to know how to do it." Although, in recent years, technology has become much more acceptable to the lay person, he notes, the minimum one would expect to pay to build an online store is anywhere from $30,000 to $250,000. "So it is equivalent to building a physical store, just in a completely different environment, and you need to recognize that," he says. "A virtual store may be less costly. (But) it's not a panacea, and it's very complex--it requires maintenance; it requires considerable development that you should anticipate."
A recently hired Web developer will create a Web site for Perseus Books Group, including a database usable for the Web and an online catalog page that will be "dynamically generated from that database," says Tobey. Tobey is in the process of developing a group site for the six members of Perseus Book Group: Public Affairs, Basic Books, Perseus Books, Westview Press, Counterpoint Press and Civitas. All publishers, he says, are also developing their own sites independently. According to Tobey, the central feature of the group site is a searchable electronic catalog of all the Group's books. "So a lot of our time has been focused on gathering copy and graphics for the 2,500 or so in-print titles on our lists," says Tobey, "and conforming all of that information into a database that will then serve as the backbone to the online catalog."
HarperCollins' Web site was developed in conjunction with a Web production company about one-and-half years ago, explains Khazaei. Since then it's been a work in progress, "as any good Web site should be in this day and age," he observes, "and that will continue to be the case."
"I think that having a good Web producer is critical," observes Khazaei. "Somebody who has not only visual skills--graphic arts skills--but somebody who can approach the Web site from the understanding of the user interface ... which is not just about layout, but also about functionality." Combining a good sense of design "in the broadest sense" with a range of skills--graphic arts, design, technological skills--is crucial, he remarks. "And I think it's important to be up-to-date with the most current tools, whichever they are, and also to be up-to-date with what are the emerging practices in terms of usability on the Web."
What is the site's purpose?
The purpose of the site determines how it's built and managed. Steve Potash, president of OverDrive Systems, Cleveland, OH (www.overdrive.com), outlines the basics of setting up a book publisher's site. If the purpose of the site, he says, is primarily to post information about your company and general promotion, sales and marketing support, there are a number of standard practices that equate to using common sense to keep files clean and organized. For example, keeping duplicate sites in-house may be a good idea, he advises, maybe on the intranet server, where they can be previewed, posted and managed before they're posted on the World Wide Web.
"But if you're talking about the Web site that services a more dynamic sampling of your company's content, there are a number of additional issues" related to trying to set up how the data from your publication is going to flow through editorial process to a print production cycle over to the Web, says Potash. Ask yourself following questions, he suggests: How are you currently preparing your publication for print? What is the desktop publishing format? What is the final digital product that might be available to you as a company that, once all of the editorial and blueline (work) and all of the markup is done, you can get back in a format that translates to the Web format easily? In other words, Potash summarizes, "if you want to be more aggressive and make your Web site be an access point to your information within your print publications, you have to go back to your manuscript process and put repurposing of content for Web publishing as an objective."
"Our site is there for several reasons: One is to promote and market our books and make it easy for people to find them and buy them," says Khazaei. "The other reason is to have a positive first impression for the company. And that is because of the fact that we believe the Internet is where people are going more and more to find information."
Compelling presence is important, stresses Khazaei, who is constantly working on making the HarperCollins' site "more appealing and user-friendly." Khazaei explains, "We manage our site with that expectation. Our site is not the singular online activity that we carry out for the purpose of promoting and selling our books. It's one of them." HarperCollins is going to start using a database-driven model, where the pages are dynamically created off the database each time they are loaded. "It's much easier to manage that way," he comments.
Fay Shapiro, publisher of Oxbridge Communications, New York, NY, says her company is using the Web as a marketing tool to provide fast access to the same type of data that the company sells in print format and CD-ROM format, as well as to sell the print books online. Oxbridge Communications has built MediaFinder (www.mediafinder.com), a Web site that lists over 100,000 titles (periodicals, directories, catalogs) in its database and offers media research services. Browsers can find publications, mailing lists, and vendors for free. (A paid subscription allows browsers to conduct more complex searches.) Within MediaFinder, an online Media Store markets the print version of Oxbridge's core product, The Standard Periodical Directory, available in most libraries throughout the country, as well as other Oxbridge's directories: The National Directory of Magazines, The Oxbridge Directory of Newsletters, The College Media Directory, The National Directory of Catalogs, The National Directory of Mailing Lists and The National Directory of British Mail Order Catalogues, among others.
"The Web is such a wonderful marketing tool for selling traditional media. I can't emphasize that enough," Shapiro observes.
The company was merely responding--"as many other directory publishers are--to the need to have the information in a searchable format, to have information faster, in non-static format," she muses. "When you publish a book, you publish a book. The information cannot be changed." Therefore, she adds, it was only natural to proceed to the next level and build MediaFinder on the Web when the technology became available.
"We've been able to customize, or adapt our Web presence, to meet the needs of a Web visitor," says Shapiro. Through the partnership with Dawson, a catalog clearing-house information center, Oxbridge is now selling subscriptions to about 100,000 titles online, in over 260 subject categories, on behalf of publishers whose titles are listed in its database. "We are showing publishers a new revenue stream," Shapiro comments.
For Carol Rosen, Director of Publications, World Resources Institute (WRI), Washington, DC, the primary purpose to have a site (www.wri.org) was archiving. Rosen led the building of electronic online archive for WRI using Publiotech software (available from Electric Press). The site is about two-and-half years old and has about 13,000 content pages, a full collection of WRI publications (the access to the archive is through the main site). Some are full-text, some contain partial text, notes Rosen.
"The reason to have an online archive is to make the publications more searchable and provide a more methodical way of organizing the print material," she explains. But it's not just the print material that will be archived. "What we are hoping ultimately to do is to use it as an archive for the Web pages, Web materials that are linked to publications so that the background material of HTML pages that describe the book or accompany the program that produced the book would ultimately move off the main Web site into the archive as the material aged. One of our goals, since we have such a large site, is to update and streamline it a bit more than we have."