Looking Inside HarperCollins’ Online Marketing Initiatives

April 9th, 2007 · 9 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Though we are often (very) harsh on the publishing industry, we secretly understand the trials, tribulations, and, yes, challenges they face. When we rage about the industry’s inability to move into the late 20th century, it is with love that we rant, not anger. Okay, sometimes anger. It’s 2007. There are many topics that we should be discussing in the past tense.

Allowing authors to speak their own thoughts in their voices humanizes the person on the other end of the book.

So when we had a chance to talk to Carolyn Pittis, Senior Vice-President of Global Marketing Strategy and Operations for HarperCollins, how could we say no? Especially since it was Pittis who reached out to us after we, well, said some unflattering things about her company’s website search engine. Our issues were immediately addressed — extra bonus points to HarperCollins! — and we given the opportunity to ask more questions about the company’s marketing initiatives.

As you all know, HC has been an industry leader when it comes to digitizing back catalog. We cannot begin to express our belief that this kind of project should be undertaken — immediately if not sooner — by every publishing entity. And authors whose books are not currently associated with a publishing entity. If your book isn’t digital, it’s less valuable. Motion pictures studios made the commitment to digitize their libraries in the late 1990s; publishers took a look around circa 2005 and thought, “We need to get cracking, no?”

Another sigh for another day.

Pittis made it clear that the HC goal was two-fold: making content available digitally and protecting the digital copy. For a person who used to collect articles about anti-piracy busts (every girl needs a hobby), this was good news. Any follower of new media knows that protecting digital property means engaging in Digital Rights Management (“DRM”). DRM is often the bane of consumer experience and the raison d’etre for copyright holders. Consumers often find corporate approach to managing rights to be overly restrictive while the corporations need to both manage the consumer product and the original asset. We feel for both sides, and eagerly await the results of EMI’s decision to sell DRM-free music via iTunes. There is a happy medium between free-for-alls and locked vaults. It’s a work in progress.

Our big issue — and, yes, you’ve heard this before — is that overly protected media is Google-proof. In this case, we use Google in the generic sense of search rather than the specific. We strongly believe that search is the most important challenge facing all online business. If they can’t find you, they can’t find you. Search is also a touchy subject for companies like HC. They understand the delicate balance between finding content via search and controlling what is available to searchers. The publisher errs on the side of protecting the interests of themselves and their authors.

The question Pittis raised, one we cannot answer in a single post, is how can all the parties involved discover what is in authors’ best interest when it comes to search and other online initiatives? We have discussed the notion of giving content away for free, but we agree with Pittis that authors expend a lot of effort when it comes to online marketing. Turning into a lean, mean promotional machine is not necessarily a natural fit for many authors. Pittis notes that authors often “don’t know the science of online marketing,” and they shouldn’t have do market their product and themselves on their own.

She also says that for many authors, their “marketing reach on their own is not as big as they think it is”. Having a publicity machine at your back is a good thing for many authors. And, yes, it can be argued that publicity dollars often flow to a limited number of titles, but that doesn’t mean that authors published by houses big and small should not take advantage of every single service their publisher offers. Publishers are continually asking consumers what they want while individual authors don’t have the resources to engage in market research.

The results of author efforts seem to driven more by peer pressure than carefully considered campaigns. Authors need to stop seeing the online world as seventh grade: just because everyone has this cool thing or that cool blog or their own pad in Second Life, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it, too. We admit it, we voiced our current most favorite theory that authors are not, contrary to what you’d think, great bloggers. Though Pittis chose the route of polite diplomacy, we like to think she agreed. Good blogging is like all good writing: it requires effort and talent.

As Pittis noted, “today’s authors are indundated” with marketing choices. Do this, try that, join this group. It’s the little things, like working with your publisher’s existing newsletter program, their online ventures, and their offline activities that can make a difference. One example is the HC initiative that pulls author RSS feeds into their pages on the HC site. This is a fascinating move by the publisher, from our perspective, as, well, we are curious to see how major corporations deal with unmoderated third party content. If, for example, Neil Gaiman were to blog about something that didn’t fit neatly into the HC corporate message, how would such a situation be handled?

One hand, it’s Neil Gaiman…on the other, it’s the corporate website. We preach transparency and openness and freedom, but we, well, have very few shareholders to answer to. Such is the beauty of letting felines buy all your stock.

HC has chosen to take an “open approach” to pulling in third party content. Pittis cites importance of authenticity and candor in today’s online marketing environment. We know other publishers are struggling with this issue, when it comes to pulling in RSS feeds and when it comes to other types of user-generated content (we’ll discuss HC’s forays into this world in another post).

We applaud this type of cross-marketing because — and, yes you’ve heard this before, too — web traffic flows from many directions. You never know what link will drive a reader to your site. In fact, as any site-statistics addict (you know who you are) knows, sometimes the oddest connections bring someone to your little corner of the web. Engaging in true cross-marketing requires relinquishing some control. Scary but necessary.

One aspect of cross-marketing that we barely touched on was the newly launched HC widget. HC, like other publishers such as Random House, offers code that can be embedded into a website. This widget — and we were reminded today that this word means so many things to so many people — displays cover art, a link to more information about the book, and sometimes an excerpt. It provides a different way of interacting with content and give authors added flexibility when it comes to adding information about their books to their websites.

It’s still too early to see if the widget concept will be embraced on a wide scale. We’re interested to hear how others are receiving this feature and how they’re implementing it. Tell us more, tell us more, tell us more.

Mid-list authors and below often find themselves frustrated by marketing and perceived lack of publisher support. In some ways, this frustration is justified. While actual monetary support might be lacking, there are other opportunities offered by publishers. What Carolyn Pittis and her team at HarperCollins are doing clearly offers chances for authors to plug into existing marketing efforts — in other words, ask and you might be surprised about what your publisher can do for you!

File Under: Marketing For Introverts

9 responses so far ↓

  • MikeShatzkin // Apr 9, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    The ideas Harper is implementing would work even better if coordinated by subject niche. I know the have a “romance” site; maybe they’re moving in that direction. The whole idea of “general trade” doesn’t really map into the 21st century world of niches on the net. It is easy to see that these tactics mushroom in effectiveness if you can apply them to 20 authors writing on the same subject rather than across horizontal topics of interest.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 9, 2007 at 10:52 pm


    It’s sort of like saying, “Hey, BS, tell me what you’re going to write about next!” Only probably not really next because I am still working through my thoughts.

    But, yes, HC does have a genre-specific site. Two actually. They’re quite interesting, which is why I noted that I’d be discussing the user-generated content, which relates to your topic, later. It felt like it needed its own discussion. You know me, always accommodating the issue!

    But, yeah, you’re right in that publisher sites need to be less general, more targeted. It’s really hard because houses are so generalized. But readers, by and large, are specialized. There are those who are desperately seeking anything, but more than likely, readers are looking for something specific. Pushing to specific genres is very helpful.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself.

  • The ways word gets around at pinkyspaperhaus // Apr 10, 2007 at 8:09 am

    […] Booksquare talks to Harper Collins’ Senior VP of Global Marketing Strategy and Operations about the publishers online initiatives. Included is this pearl from Booksquare herself: Authors need to stop seeing the online world as seventh grade: just because everyone has this cool thing or that cool blog or their own pad in Second Life, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it, too. […]

  • David Thayer // Apr 10, 2007 at 9:27 am

    I’m having Leo Tolstoy as a guest blogger. That’s pretty cool.

  • Lorra Laven // Apr 12, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Hey BS,

    This was a great post. Keep that info coming.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 12, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Lorra — thanks for checking in! You’ve been AWOL for a while. I worry, you know.

  • Diana Hunter // Apr 13, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Your points about midlist authors feeling overwhelmed certainly hit home! Get a website, join MySpace, have a newsletter, start and maintain a blog, join the chatrooms, sign up and participate in every list that exists! All of these are expected of you to do on your own (at least when you’re publishing with a small press). All of a sudden, you’re spending all your time promoting and the writing slips to second priority. Knowing HC is starting to do something for its authors gives me hope that more publishers will take heed.

    (btw, I have a shop for my books in Second Life, and of all the marketing strategies listed above? SL seems to be the one that works for me…besides which…it’s just plain fun! In-world live readings of my works, getting to meet readers “face-to-face”? Love it!)

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 13, 2007 at 8:30 am

    And great comment. I am, yes, aware of your SL shop and it’s on my list of places to check out when I have a free moment. I have a hard time getting out of Caledon these days — it’s just so amazingly brilliantly cool. Makes my lack of artistic talent seem even more sad.

  • Emma Ward // Apr 25, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Nice information in your article and some great responses. Diana- You should try a listing on bookhitch.com.