Publishing is a business, or at least, that's always been the theme of this blog. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to self publish that don't involve a profit motive, but you don't need my advice on how to write a check. This post comes as the result of some recent news items and articles, not my usual fodder, so we'll dispose of them as quickly as possible. But let's start with new video about growing your website:
First, I read an article in one of the publishing newsletters that an organization sends me for free (I assume they print extra) advising readers to beware of online experts. That's an old subject with me, how he stretched it for a magazine article I'm unsure, but the ironic thing is I had no idea who the writer was or what he had done to make him an expert on online experts. Perhaps the only segment of the U.S. manufacturing industry to show stellar growth in recent decades is the manufacturing of experts, and I'm personally in favor of exporting the ones I don't agree with to help with the balance of trade.
Second, I read an article about the value of different types of web traffic in one of the glossy publisher magazines. The author posited that the best traffic to get is direct traffic (bookmarks, people remembering your website name and typing it in the browser), followed by referrals from other sites (links) with visitors from search coming in last. I believe that author had plenty of experience, but I also believe he is exactly wrong when it comes to publisher websites.
There are several problems with direct traffic, not the least of which is the number of false positives if you go by server statistics packages, but the primary problem being that direct traffic amounts to regular visitors to your site. If you're running a newspaper, maybe that's what you're after, but if you're selling books, how many times do you think you can sell the same person the same book? You can go nuts building visitor loyalty with all sorts of services and gimmicks, but for my money, you're buying friends rather than converting strangers.
Traffic from referral links remains the middle ground with us both. Links can bring in high quality visitors, and some of them stay on my site quite a while. But it can also bring visitors who just like clicking on links and cruising around the web, as opposed to people seeking something specific. While search delivers all sorts of people, many whom have been misaddressed and punch out instantly, search also delivers the highest proportion of people who are looking for an answer to a question. Some sites are 100% focused on trying to sell answers, my own philosophy has always been to give away as many answers as I can for free and hope that interests visitors in a book that may answers to questions they haven't thought of asking yet. I'm not claiming that my soft sell is the most efficient way to run a publishing website, but it works for me.
The final news item was a Friday story in the WSJ announcing that Microsoft had purchased Greenfield Online for just under $500 million. The value of Greenfield is a comparison shopping site they own in Europe that attracts 26.5 million visitors a month, though it isn't entirely clear if that's unique visitors or includes return visits. It comes to $18.34 per visitor per month, and if I used that math to value the equity in my FonerBooks website, it would be worth several million dollars. I'm waiting for offers:-)
The point being, even if millions aren't within your grasp or mine, a popular website can build serious equity value over time, probably more than the backlist for a small or medium sized publisher. And you would think that websites created by publishing experts would build great equity for their owners over time. So why do you regularly see publishing pundits closing down or abandoning their blogs and moving on with their lives? I think there are two reasons: the failure to build website equity and the passing of missionary zeal. Giving myself and fellow bloggers the benefit of the doubt, I think the passing of missionary zeal is the larger motivation in the shuttering of top publishing blogs and websites. For better or for worse, I'm not entirely out of zeal yet, though I'm going to try to stick with my reduced posting frequency going forward.
But I think the failure to build website equity is real reason for many, in terms of both long term value and monetization through book sales or advertising. Now replace the word "equity" with "traffic" and you'll reach the crux of the matter. Publishing blogs and publisher self-help sites just don't get much traffic. I spent a half hour or so looking at Quantcast estimates of traffic to various publishing blogs and websites (try it, it's fun), and realized that none of the sites I considered great successes had a lot of traffic. Some of the slickest blogs, with professional artwork and multiple bloggers barely had enough visitors to even show up on the radar of Quantcast, Google Trends (Websites tab) or the improved Alexa, and had very limited subscription bases as well. I'm not naming any of them here because they may prefer not to have the harsh realities of math messing up their good feelings about their work. My own feelings were inured a long time ago when I realized that my last couple years of blogging about self publishing haven't done much of anything to add to my daily visitor count, simply spread them out a little more thinly.
Interestingly enough, the publishing related websites that do get a lot of traffic are the ones that sell author services. Some of that traffic is from paid advertising, but a lot of it is from their forums, as they have tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their own authors signed up. And a lot of that traffic (their best kind) comes from the fact that most writers aren't searching for advice, they're searching for a way to get their book in print quickly. I've never spent time on any of those forums, but it would be hilarious to find an author services company monetizing their forums by selling advertising for other author services companies.
So my advice to new publishers today is to avoid blogging about the publishing process at all costs! No, I'm not worried about the competition, I get plenty of that from my own blog posts of prior years. It's a question of focusing your efforts where you can expect the greatest return. If you're publishing books about publishing, go ahead and blog about it or build a publishing oriented website, but if you're publishing books about anything else, focus your efforts on the subject and not the process of publishing the books. Do your homework with Google Trends (phrases) as to how people really use search engines before you make any final decisions about the focus of your web publishing efforts. And don't let your final decision be the last nail in your website's coffin, a new direction is only a click away.