Some publishers are still waiting for the web to reach adulthood, call it Web 21.0, before they commit serious resources. Other publishers drool for book readers to become ensnared on their sticky websites so they can paralyze them and extract all of their dollars. I've tried to steer the middle path of growing a web presence that meets the objective of my typical visitor (getting free information), along with my objective of making a living. I'd estimate my direct conversion rate of visitors to book or eBook customers is now down in the area of 0.1% (one in a thousand), so I must be doing something right:-)
I attended a BookBusiness webinar a week ago in which HarperCollins presented one possible vision for the future – smartphone users scanning a special code on book covers that loads the book’s web page in their phone browser. I don’t get the point of stuff like that, or why I would want to hold a book cover in front of a web cam and see a 3-D image on my computer screen, but I guess I’m not the target audience.
Predicting the future is a tough business, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. In 2007 I wrote that Internet publishing was turning into a zero sum game, but since that time, my visitor count has risen 20% a year, and my video views have gone from zero to over a half million. It's easier to look backwards, so I'm going to report a couple interesting trends and let you decide what they mean for your publishing business.
The most startling change around here is that my new e-mail correspondence, people I haven't heard from before, has fallen by well over 30% in the last couple years and by over 50% from the start of the decade. If you take into account that traffic to this website has at least quintupled during that period, it means that on a per visitor basis, the correspondence rate has dropped over 90%. There are plenty of days now that I get more notifications of eBook purchases than questions from new visitors. I’m not complaining, but it shows a fundamental shift away from person-to-person communication in favor of person-to-network communication. I think that the people who would have sent me a question years ago now prefer to bounce it off a hundred “friends” or post it on a blog where it may draw multiple responses and get some public notice. I think it also expresses a trend of treating business activity as a social activity, which I believe is a wrong path.
The search phrases that people use are getting longer. This may drive more spam generation, since it’s easier for spammers to rank in results for long tail phrases. But it also means that publishers who put a great deal of content online can expect to get some search visitors, even if their websites don't have quality incoming links. At the same time, publisher website transparency is improving (finding out what other publisher websites are doing), especially with the recent Alexa improvements which do a half decent reporting some of the top search phrases driving readers to a particular publisher website.
The number of media inquiries I received in 2009 is way down, and it's the first year in a while that I didn't get a single e-mail from a NYT or WSJ reporter looking for backstory on this or that publishing news. At the same time, the number of requests from university students to advise or provide a quote for their class projects about the publishing business is way up - maybe instructors now give assignments with guidelines that include getting feedback from a blogger. I've also seen an uptick in other bloggers asking me for interviews to post on their websites. I usually turn these down because they really seem to be looking for a blog enthusiast fellow travelers. I've also noticed an increase in the number bloggers who make contact by way of an underling, which is a total turn-off.
Another development is false traffic from search engines. In the past, most false traffic came from spiders and you could take search engine traffic legitimacy for granted. Today, it seems some people are using BotNets (slave computers taken over by viruses) to make phony search engine queries and then to generate clicks through a script. I assume the idea is to send a lot of apparently real visitors to their own websites to make them appear like valuable property for advertising, but sometimes the scripts go haywire and they send traffic to other sites. If you see an extra thousand visitors from a search engine, all coming from different IP addresses, all for the same phrase, you know there's something fishy going on or the search engine has lost its marbles.
I actually came across a spider in my room the other day who was searching for web 21.0, or any web it could find. By the size of it, I think it escaped from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. In any case, I wrote it this little ditty:
The eensy weensy spider climbed up the bedroom wall,
Down came the shoe and made the spider fall
Out came the paper and wiped up the remains
And the eensy weensy spider has shifted astral planes