Meet the relatives

I’ve been looking for a book on the history of the Whole Earth Catalog, a short-lived and influential periodical co-founded by Stewart Brand. Searching various retail sites, I’ve found a few promising options.

If you buy books online, you’ll probably agree that it’s pretty easy to find a title you know you want. You’ll probably also agree that searching for a book you don’t know you want – by topic, for example – can be pretty hit or miss.

Looking for background books on the Whole Earth Catalog has been a bit of the latter. My experience reminds me of comments made by distributors and retailers I interviewed for a BISG project that examined the use of metadata across the book industry supply chain.

The people I interviewed explained how metadata that identified comparable and related works helps sell books. They also expressed some frustration that the people most able to identify comparable titles – publishers – typically refer to their own lists and no others.

Readers value transparency, and they often hesitate to buy when they feel they don’t have all the options figured out. In adopting a “closed set” approach to comparable and related works, publishers have forced distributors and retailers to create their own connections.

Several steps removed from the publishing decision, retailers are less likely to fully understand comparable titles or related works. Publishers may feel grateful: “Less competition for us!” But it’s a brief respite.

Certainly, a search with limited access to related works sometimes results in a purchase. Other times, it ends the way my search for a book about the Whole Earth Catalog has: on hold. I still want the book, but I haven’t yet found enough data about the options made available to me.

I understand the way publishers feel. It’s a leap of faith, sending someone to a book published by another press, when there’s no guarantee they would do the same. But retailers say that opaqueness costs sales.

To change this dynamic, I offer a modest idea. Most books are signed after an editor (or an editor’s assistant) has compiled an assessment of the competitive landscape. Let’s try including that information as metadata and measure the sales.

While we’re at it, let’s also tweak marketing copy and make it less a breathless boost and more a helpful explanation of why a given book is different, better or more relevant. As it happens, I’m going to find those other books, or I’m not going to buy. Make your case.

Finally, remember that we’re still not offering deeply tagged, contextually rich, searchable content. We’re just talking about refining the use of title-level metadata. Until Laura Dawson figures out publishing’s equivalent of the God Particle, that’s the best set of tools we have to play with.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.