Why Smart Publishers Build Bad Websites

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

shutterstock_234489289When you compare the online traffic of a news website against that of a publisher’s website, who do you think gets the most visitors? Think the New York Times or Fox News versus HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster. To almost no one’s surprise, it’s not even close: the news sites get much more traffic. Yet both groups create massive amounts of content that people enjoy reading. So why such a big difference? Put simply, one group understands the power of content.

Let’s face it: most readers never visit publishers’ sites. And if they do, they don’t find many good reasons to return. That’s because the typical publisher’s site is covered with dozens of images showing frontlist releases, current bestsellers, author listings and some lame ads to join a boring mailing list.

In other words, a publisher’s site feels like an inferior online store. Yet if it were in fact a good online store, the retailers would get upset. It’s a bit of a catch-22, which is why most publishers’ sites work against themselves.

Is there a better approach to take? Yes. Mimic the news sites and focus on offering compelling content rather than just selling product.

Publishers possess huge repositories of great content that people want to read. Too often, though, this wealth of content is left sitting in a publisher’s warehouse or on its servers. All this dormant content represents a vast amount of untapped selling power. Yet I rarely see publishers taking advantage of this great opportunity on their sites.

For example, HarperCollins recently allowed The Wall Street Journal to publish the first chapter of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman. The national buzz surrounding the release was huge, yet HarperCollins gave away a massive marketing opportunity. I’m sure big money changed hands in the deal, but HarperCollins could have taken the long view, directed millions of people to its site and taken advantage of the chance for substantial exposure. It’s a classic example of news sites capitalizing on publishers’ shortsightedness. News organizations understand the power of content, while publishers don’t seem to get it—even though they’re both in the content business.

So how can publishers maximize the content they own? Consider these three areas:

Attract Interest
• Capture reader interest: Dedicate prime space on the publisher’s homepage to featuring several types of free content that entice people to read (book excerpts, advance material for upcoming titles, lost chapters, bonus resources, etc.).
• Offer daily incentives: Create a daily blog on the publisher’s site that offers exclusive content from books, author interviews and special deals.
• Become author central: Monitor interesting online activity by primary authors and repost or link their material to the publisher’s site. Become the hub for author updates and interesting information.

Engage Readers
• Give away exclusive content: Go beyond sample chapters and offer exclusive book excerpts and large chunks of backlist content that induce readers to subscribe to the publisher’s email lists.
• Leverage social media to drive new readers: Use the publisher’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages to highlight free content to encourage followers to join the publisher’s email list (notice the email theme here).
• Enlist your authors: Provide the same free content to authors and encourage them to promote it to their followers.

Sell Books
• Sell to your email lists: Send frequent email blasts loaded with links to free content, book advertisements and author updates. Provide links to buy books from the publisher’s site or key retailers based on preference.
• Promote book offers: Include book advertisements and/or “buy now” buttons at the end of every piece of free content that’s offered (email blasts, blog posts, PDFs, etc.).
• Funnel the traffic: Use free content to create online sales funnels and landing pages on the publisher’s site that lead readers down a natural path to purchase specific books.

When using these ideas, be sure to avoid one common mistake: don’t set up separate sites or communities that are independent of the main publisher’s site. This mistake will fracture online traffic, confuse visitors, prevent cross-selling and reduce the positive effect of Google search results. Instead, let the publisher’s site be a one-stop-shop where visitors can get everything they want in one place.

An effective publisher’s site gives readers legitimate reasons to visit and return. But the key is to focus on content rather than product. Readers don’t like to be sold, and they rarely visit publishers’ sites in the first place. Flip the script, act like a news site, showcase great content and turn a publisher’s site into a book-selling machine. Do that, or just let Amazon continue to gobble up more marketshare.

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2 thoughts on “Why Smart Publishers Build Bad Websites

  1. Anthony Pero

    Building a community website with engaging bloggers such as Tor has done is the way to go. It not only allows you to market material to engaged readers, but it builds your brand at the same time.

  2. Frances Caballo

    What an insightful post. And I agree with everything you’ve said here. I know that this year I need to publish more frequently and vary my free content more. And I need to create more free content. Thanks for the push!



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