Can we all agree that the web will increase in importance as the place where people find things, find out about things, talk about things, and then buy them? If you need convincing on this point, take a look at four of the universe's most successful web sites: Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, and Amazon. These have been successful because they let us find things (Google), learn about things (Wikipedia), talk about things (Twitter), and buy things (Amazon).
Or ask yourself:
My answer: I call Google. Immediately. Google usually knows the answer.
When I want to know something about a product I'm interested in buying, what is the first thing I usually do? Whom do I telephone?
My understanding is that Amazon has overtaken Barnes and Noble as the largest seller of books in the US. That trend - buying books online - will continue apace, and if the data is uncertain today, I will bet you my favorite ten books that in five years online book sales will dwarf what is sold in bricks and mortar stores.
Further, the great driver of book purchases, the newspaper book review, is an endangered species. With newspapers closing down their review pages, and indeed newspapers themselves starting to drop off, where will people go to read about, talk about, and write about about books? Here are a few hints, and some more hints, and some others. More if you need them.
So let's assume that as a publisher, your job is to make sure that you produce books that sell well so that you can pay writers and editors and all the others to make more books. Then your job, as I understand it, is to have a handle on how people find out about, and then buy the things you want to sell. If that's the case, and if you don't have a handle on the web, or a plan for it, or a plan for panning on getting a handle on the web, then you are ignoring the most important place where people's eyes are, and where they spend their time looking for the things that interest them, things they might buy. And if you ignore that, well, I'd suggest your future as a business is bleak indeed.
On reading some of my previous rants, Dan at the Casual Optimist suggested that, especially for small publishers, the problem is a lack of time, money and/or skills to grapple with the web. Fair enough, I can understand that. I am sympathetic to small publishers and their budget constraints. But here is an idea for a summer intern ad that every small press ought to send out to craigslist:
I might consider responding to such an ad myself. (That's not to say that summer interns are the answer to the publishing business, but that a decent web strategy and implementation needn't be expensive).
Small publisher seeks a summer intern who is passionate about books, reading, fiction, and skilled on the web. Must know their way around installing, tweaking, and managing a wordpress site, and have some basic design chops. Tasks will include helping us design a wordpress website, putting our catalog online as wordpress pages (with links to Wikipedia pages, and RSS feeds from Google alerts, Technorati, and delicious to scour the web for any mention of our books or authors, as well as links to any online stores that sell our books: Amazon, Indigo etc.) Finally, must help us explore the possibility of: setting up our own online shop (using shopify.com?) to sell ebooks, and also to show us how to convert a Word file to .epub using Stanza or other similar tools. Ability to upload a file to a server will be richly rewarded with nice coffee as well. Twitter and Facebook knowledge are taken for granted.
As for Penguin, HarperCollins, Randomhouse and the rest: they are owned by the biggest media companies in the world and their inability to have their sites rank in the top 10 or 20 google results for their books and authors is totally baffling to me.