I admit it — I’m a bit skeptical about the new “Browse Inside” feature being rolled out by HarperCollins, even as I am very enthusiastic about a book publisher is actually trying something new and exciting. Similar to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, the HC model allows readers to digitally browse a book before buying. The service is powered by software developed by LibreDigital, and it’s, well, certainly slick…but is it going to get the job done?
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. When accessed from the HC website, the interface is easy to use. It works with Firefox on a Mac. This is important because if it works there, it’s gonna work most places, or so I like to think. The controls are simple, the text quality is good, and things move fast.
These are not small considerations. The harder it is to use the feature, the less likely it is that, well, people will use it. The goal, I believe, is to get website owners to add the “Browse Inside” widget to their sites. This is what you’ll see if you do:
I’m having my “ouch” moment about now. The embedded widget is clunky, both in placement and usability. The placement, I presume, is solvable with some code tweaking. If I had the skills and were willing to do some hand-coding, I suspect I could make the image look like it’s a natural part of the site.
The usability is a little more problematic. Rather than making it easy to browse from the site you’re at, you, the user, will be subjected to a pop-up (or second tab or window, depending on your browser and configuration). While I agree that this approach best serves the content, it also pushes people away from one website to another. If said user is lucky, they actually accomplish their goal on the first try…
If they click on the wrong link, they’re taken to the book information page (adding another step to the process). The bottom link text is a bit misleading this way. While it tells people to “get this” for their sites, the final destination is actually the main page for the book; getting the code to add the widget is merely one item on that page. Or, if you click on the border of image, you’ll get pushed to the main “Browse Inside” page (adding two steps to the process).
Buying the actual book, by the way, takes the user another couple of layers as HC, clearly loathe to anger booksellers, displays a page of links to major booksellers around the country. Once someone makes the decision to purchase the book, they are taken to a third destination where they can commence the e-commerce process. Remember what I said: easier is better.
HarperCollins is facing two key challenges with this feature. In order for this experiment to work, users must associate books and authors with the publisher. When I think “Michael Crichton”, I don’t automatically think “HarperCollins”. Until now, but that’s only because I’m working on this post and, knowing me, I’ll likely forget this information within a day or two. I think I’m like most people in that I’ll hear a piece of information and will proceed with what little knowledge I have. Somehow, the publisher needs to make itself a prime, regular destination for the reading public, for the book-buying public.
Success in this type of branding will rely upon the goodwill of the blogosphere and other literary-leaning online ventures. The web has been built on a notion of quid pro quo, though some might think me crass to mention it. You link to me, I’ll link to you. You place my ad on your site, I’ll pay you. So much of what embodies the success of what we’re calling Web 2.0 (and HC is certainly trying to embrace that label) is dependent upon community. Good community requires a sense of giving back in some manner. This “Browse Inside” feature has a very one-way feeling to it.
While the HC concept is clearly built upon the YouTube model, it stops short of the community-based ethos. The embedded video feature pioneered by YouTube allows site owners to post links to content while keeping their audience. There is a big difference between linking to other sites — where there is anticipation of reciprocity — and advertising someone’s product for free. In this experiment, HarperCollins is counting on the goodwill of the book community in this venture, and I, for one, will be curious to see how said community responds.
The perception of one-way benefits is disquieting (as is the inclusion of Google ads on the HC website). I am not sure how bloggers, especially, are going to embrace the notion of adding a free HC commercial to their websites, and that, my dear friends, is what the “Browse Inside” feature is. There is no real upside for those who add the HC code to their websites. HarperCollins will need to consider how they can do better by the community they’re trying to use.