HarperCollins Saves Trees with Online Catalogues

In the spirit of online innovation, this fall HarperCollins will be taking the bold, tree-saving leap of relying solely on a digital catalogue. AND CHANGE THE WORLD!

In Michael Tamblyn’s 6 Projects That Could Change Publishing for the Better address at the 2009 BNC Technology Forum, he makes a strong case for digital, ‘smart’ catalogues. To paraphrase, the contemporary print catalogue is a waste. “…[catalogues] are obsessed over, great care is given to their design…and as soon as they are completed they are shipped across the country at a great expense at which point they immediately become out of date.” With 90,000 new ISBNs on the market last year, booksellers need a better way to sort through frontlists and make an informed buy. Michael Tamblyn makes a solid case for the digital catalogue, and while ‘online’ and ‘books’ are two terms that keep a lot of retailers in cold, damp sheets at night, a compelling argument is made for a better front-list buy using online catalogues (the brunt of which is ‘get ca$h’)

Does HarperCollins have the answer? Using Michael Tamblyn’s recommendations from his 6 projects speech (point 4, if you’re looking for specifics), let’s take a quick run through the new HarperCollins catalogue and see if we have a new model. Michael Tamblyn has a wish-list of five things he’d like to see in an online catalogue: Embedded sales data, conversation between the buyer and seller (essentially sales force notes, links to and embedded media (reviews, author interviews, etc.), sample chapters and basic layout and design pages (BLADs) and the ability to custom design each catalogue for each buyer.

The new HarperCollins digital catalogue has made no great leaps in design, basic black and white text with colour menus and book covers. What it lacks in consumer-driven pizazz, it makes up for in bookseller practicality. The site includes several tools for retailers, including downloadable order forms, HarperCollins ordering policies, and more importantly, personal accounts.

What it’s got right is the sales person to buyer communication. As requested in the 6 Things presentation, there is a section for sales people to leave notes, as well as quick links from each book page and the book menus. Each bookseller creates an account and can receive and create a shared book list. This way, a sales person can pre-make a list for the buyer and come in with more information on the titles by allowing the buyer to look into some of the titles beforehand, and having a better idea overall of what Harper can offer him or her. It’s not only creating an easier way for buyers to find books, but enabling them to become more knowledgeable about the titles they are offering.

A nice feature is the ability to save or print off a spreadsheet of each season’s new titles for each imprint with your notes attached. It’s an efficient way to keep track of orders, and a great reference tool to remember why you ordered them.

There is a lot of information for booksellers here, including order forms, selling policies, release updates, new titles announcements, and media/author event news. Which is great, but draws my first criticism. Why isn’t there an RSS feed? Or email updates? I, the savvy bookseller, am not going to visit the HarperCollins page once a day to check stuff out. I’m sure the marketing team is going to email me every time an event happens, but, you know, if I had this on my feed, I’d probably be more apt to stay in tune to the HarperCollins news. Just sayin’.

The book pages themselves are still plain, but have a great layout and are easy to navigate. Not a lot of bells and whistles, design wise, which seems like a smooth move. Not all booksellers are master computer wizards, like myself, and the simplicity makes the transition from paper to screen quite easy. Each book page has all the standards, ISBN, specs, a short synopsis (with a ‘read more’ option, but generally it’s not a whole lot more), etc. There are also various tabs for author information, alternate formats of the title, marketing and publicity and backlist.

BTW, for the less environmentally conscience, there is an option to print out catalogues and title information sheets in PDF format. There’s also an option to fill your humvee full of leaded gas and club baby seals. Again, just sayin’.

And there’s an extras tab! Now I really had high hopes for the extras page, especially from the blurb on the front page: “This online sales and marketing tool has many exciting features including up-to-the-minute specs and jackets, video and audio clips, BrowseInside AREs, interior spreads and photos, and much more.” It’s not there yet. There’s a couple of pull quotes and review quotes, but that’s really it. There aren’t even links to Harper pages. According to Publisher’s Weekly , all of this is coming, but right now it’s looking a little weak. I can’t imagine this is going to be the case forever, but right now the site is boring.

And where are the previews? Seriously, nothing from the adult catalogue at all, and extremely low-res single page BLADs in the kids section. They take up about 1/8th of your browser window and you can’t even read the text most of the time. What’s confusing about this is that they have a great preview tool called ‘Browse Inside’ and there are no links to it.

Michael Tamblyn’s first item on his catalogue wish list was embedded data in the catalogue. I mean, yes, he’s the CEO of BookNet, but it’s a good idea. It’s a great idea. And yes, I am the BookNet intern, but ask a sales person and I’m sure they’ll agree. Being able to track what sells, buying more of the same and making sure your store is adequately stocked with books your customers will buy… seems like an ok thing.

I mean, if you were a savvy Canadian independent bookseller, you could always check out BNC Prospector.

Tree hugging aside, HarperCollins has created and implemented an incredible tool and can only benefit from this move. Right now, it’s a little spare, and is almost a direct port of the paper catalogue to the screen. That said, there is a lot of room for expansion, and I can’t see them not taking full advantage of the online media. It’s going to be interesting to see where this goes, and how quickly other companies follow suit. Good Job!