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The Importance of Viewing the World as Readers Do

In the rush to experiment and innovate with technology for printing, selling, writing, and marketing books, there have been some recent and relevant calls to take pains to remember the reader in all of this.

For a publisher (and in particular an editor and especially an author), energy and effort is understandably often directed at the book itself. But echoing a point made during this conversation between Kathy Sierra and Tim O’Reilly, customers don’t really care about you or your products — they care about what they’re trying to accomplish, and successful product marketers remember that.

At Friday’s BISG Making Information Pay event, Michael Cader drove the point home nicely using the Alex Rider series of books as an example. "I want to buy my son the third book in the series, and he wants to read it." But just looking at the books on the shelf, "I can’t figure out which one is the third one." These are books that are competing just fine with the Wii and MySpace and World of Warcraft, yet (at least according to Michael — I should acknowledge I’m unfamiliar with the books) they don’t include an easy way for novices to navigate from one book to the next.

Michael also made a great point about book-browsing widgets, something many publishers are adopting as a way to engage readers. Here’s a typical one (If you’re reading this via RSS, you may need to click through to the original post to see the widget):

The problem? As Michael put it, "Cover. Blank. Title. Blank. Half-title. Blank. Copyright. Blank. What does this do for readers?" And he’s right — there’s no real reason why the bulk of a book’s frontmatter (most of which most readers skip anyway) should be included in one of these widget views. Michael continued: "I think we’ve been sending readers a message for a long time — not that we don’t care about them, but that we don’t see the world the way they do." [emphasis added]

Harper’s Carolyn Pittis echoed Michael’s point during one of the morning’s panels: "We’ve been so busy keeping authors and retailers happy that we haven’t in some cases visualized what’s going to be important for future readers."

So who is "thinking like a reader?" According to Cader, the 800-pound gorilla — Amazon.

While recent gorilla behavior should concern any publisher, it is true that Amazon succeeded where others didn’t by turning all that complex buyer data they collected into something extremely useful for readers. Amazon has long understood that successful Web companies use their technology to build systems that become more useful to customers the more that customers use them:

Contrast, however, the position of Amazon.com. Like competitors such as Barnesandnoble.com, its original database came from ISBN registry provider R.R. Bowker. But unlike MapQuest, Amazon relentlessly enhanced the data, adding publisher-supplied data such as cover images, table of contents, index, and sample material. Even more importantly, they harnessed their users to annotate the data, such that after ten years, Amazon, not Bowker, is the primary source for bibliographic data on books, a reference source for scholars and librarians as well as consumers. Amazon also introduced their own proprietary identifier, the ASIN, which corresponds to the ISBN where one is present, and creates an equivalent namespace for products without one. Effectively, Amazon "embraced and extended" their data suppliers.

Google is another company that understands this point — perhaps better than any other — and it’s not a stretch as an exercise to think about what Google would do if they had the kind of information publishers already have (in fact, that kind of thinking is even the subject of — what else — a forthcoming book from TOC 2008 panelist Jeff Jarvis).

I’m not suggesting that publishers don’t consider readers — successful publishers by definition excel at satisfying an audience. But as publishers expand their efforts on the Web, they will soon have much, much more data to deal with as reading becomes more digital and more social, and the publishers who see the world the way readers do and turn that data into something readers find truly useful stand a much better chance of success.

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