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Turning the Pages Online

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Who hasn’t at one time or another observed the book-consumer in the throes of the core “decision-to-buy” experience, browsing through books and flipping through the pages before the purchase? It’s always interesting to see readers hunched in a distant section of a bookstore, having marked their own personal territory with a stack of books they’ve pulled from the shelves for possible purchase. Publishers (content providers) and booksellers (content “enablers”) know that when a consumer takes the time to hold the book and sample several pages of illustrations and then finds an attractive passage or two, the consumer is hooked, and a sale is likely.

Publishers crave the passionate consumer response to the beautifully designed interior, the elegant and smoothly laid out cookbook recipe, the fabulous photographs, the story well-told-passion consummated only when a reader connects with such visual feasts.

This time-honored tradition of having consumers sample books at the point of sale in bookstores or libraries is in no danger of disappearing. There’s no substitute for the sensations consumers want, whether it’s smelling the aroma of bakery-fresh bread, trying on the dress, or “kicking the tires” of that new book. But book consumers have now migrated to the Internet in substantial numbers. And if we know one thing about the Internet-perhaps it’s the only thing about it that we can be sure of-it’s that people love to use it to select the books they will read. But right now the Web obviously limits or completely eliminates the “visual feast” experience of viewing books the way they were meant to be viewed-i.e., in their natural two-page-spread, page-turning format.

Libraries Like to Look Too

Publishers celebrate when they get a library sale for any of their books, since once a title has been chosen for such an acquisition there are virtually no returns. Publishers are also acutely aware of the process by which library systems select books for acquisition; a great review in Library Journal or Kirkus often seals the deal. But not all books appropriate for libraries are guaranteed a review in those publications. And for highly illustrated books, especially children’s books, selective and discerning librarians want to see the book itself-their own version of “kicking the tires.”

Publishers are left with few choices for marketing their books to the library community; mailings of “F&G’s” (folded and gathered book spreads) or review copies are neither trackable nor cost-effective.

Further Hassles/New Options

Sales of illustrated (or otherwise graphically rich) books on the Web lag behind others simply because the buyer-whether a regular consumer or someone making purchases for a library-wants to see, well, the illustrations! As it stands now, content providers (publishers) do a good job selecting illustrated material and sample chapters. But the editing and selection process publishers use to make samples available on their own and affiliated Web sites is somewhat limited and requires “re-inventing the wheel.” That is, someone has to de-construct the finished product, choosing the various appealing facets of the book (which illustration? what compelling passage?) that made the finished book so interesting in the first place. Furthermore, access to the samples can require time-consuming downloading of files and/or awkward scrolling. (When reading the Chapter One excerpt the publisher has made available, do you ever have a sense of where you are on the “page” or of when you’ve finished a page of text?) It’s often not even clear how many clicks will be necessary to get to useful information. Finally, the sensation of holding and browsing-turning the pages of the book-is lacking.

Technology is now available (through my company) that allows publishers and e-tailers to leap over the awkward process described above. Sampling the books by simply turning the pages online gives readers exactly what the author/packager/creator/editor imagined and intended for them to see, in the most intuitively graspable form imaginable-the actual book itself. Maintaining the traditional and most popular way of sampling books-turning the pages and browsing-is now possible for the Web consumer and library professional.

The technology consists of converting PDF or Quark files of the actual books themselves into applets that allow for quick page-turning and viewer sampling, even on a 56k modem. Whenever the viewer clicks on the jacket image, a window appears with the sample of the book itself. The page-turning applets are hosted and maintained on servers separate from the publisher’s or e-tailers.

Security concerns have been addressed, since the online samples cannot be copied, downloaded, or printed out. Furthermore, viewing times can be adjusted, depending on the book, to ensure that viewers aren’t able to read the entire book online. Publishers can provide all or part of the book, as desired. Publishers also have access to information on the number of viewings for each title, so they can know who is looking at their books and for how long.

Just as CD sales on the Web were sparked and are now fed by the consumer’s ability to sample the tracks of CDs in sound clips, we think display copies and advance-reading copies using our technology will spur book sales-for the $75 coffee table book on Michelangelo to the $3.99 children’s illustrated board-book. A demo of online book sampling is available at www.realread.com.


John Conti is Vice President of Sales at RealRead, Inc., in New York. You can reach Conti by phone at 212/554-4137.

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