Mammoth Mammonistic Snippets

By Tom Peters | Just when we thought it was safe... Just when we thought it was safe to return to the snippet-infested digital content pool, HarperCollins came along and launched today its own snippet-dangling service that tries to lure readers, especially "young-adult readers" (is that phrase becoming an oxymoron?) to buy more books (primarily) and read more (coincidentally).

Because Amazon has already staked a claim to the phrase "Search Inside," HarperCollins is calling its new service "Browse Inside." I give them points for that, because I have long thought that browsing through an information-object-filled environment has been under-understood and under-appreciated by librarians as a vital form of human information seeking.

Thursday's New York Times (free subscription required) contains a fascinating article about Browse Inside. It's fascinating not because it is particularly hard-hitting or insightful journalism, but because it encapsulates—in an apparently insouciant manner that borders on unconsciousness—many of the central hopes and fears of the publishing industry vis-à-vis digital books.

Thus, we have Brian Murray, the group president of HarperCollins, quoted as saying, "The younger generations are consuming information in a different way." Well, shiver me timbers, that's a revelation. Murray is also quoted as saying that the publishing industry has lagged behind the music and motion-picture industries in providing preview snippets to potential purchasers. That should shiver Michael Gorman's timbers.

Murray hopes Browse Inside will help reduce risk for a customer and will lead to increased sales. I've never thought of risk management as part of the book-browsing and -buying experience, but perhaps it is.

All of this could be classified as mammonism once removed or mammonism by slight of hand, because HarperCollins will not actually offer direct, online purchases. It will merely refer potential customers to other online and bricks-and-mortar retailers. Browse Inside is part of the overall process of turning authors into niche celebrities, via author blogs, Web sites, online book chats, and more traditional means, such as author tours.

The Times article even has a quote from an author about the now decade-old debate about whether providing free online access to parts or all of a book actually increases print sales or not. Paulo Coelho is quoted as saying, "I don't think that people reading the book on the screen of a computer is going to keep them away from buying these books."

These are mammoth mammonistic snippets of the available titles. For example, when I browsed inside Michael Crichton's State of Fear, I was able to browse through the cover art and all the front and back material, including—or especially—the verso page, plus several pages of each chapter.

The Browse Inside FAQ is worth a look. Here's my favorite question-answer sequence:
  • Q: Can I print the pages?
  • A: No.
Frankly, I don't see these silo snippet caches standing much chance against the larger, long-tail category-wide snippetization efforts of Google, Yahoo, MSN, Amazon, and others. The careful nurturing of authors, their works, and their rights is a laudable characteristic of publishing houses in most instances, but in this case is just too precious and circumscribed.
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