Publishers want to be the only ones allowed to make digital copies of books, and what does the reading public get for it? Widgets. These self-contained online readers are meant to provide an anywhere-on-the-Web presence for books, especially on blogs and even, god forbid, on MySpace. But before we get to the merits of this initiative, lets look at what we’re working with.
Earlier this week, HarperCollins unveiled its “Browse Inside” widget, and Random House followed soon after with its “Browse & Search” widget (announcing it to the world with a somewhat breathless “Breaking News” email alert). Both widgets have two components, a smaller interface that, when clicked, launches a larger digital reader. Here’s an example of HarperCollins’ widget (click it to launch the reader). And here’s Random House’s (It’s at the right. Once again, click on the widget to launch the reader.) Right now, Random House has more than 5,000 books in the program while HarperCollins has nearly 2,000, though both publishers intend to make more titles available by widget. At a glance, the Random House offering is much nicer to look at, faster to load pages, and offers additional functions like search. So, if you want to know who winds the first round of the “Widget Wars,” Random House does.
But who cares. Publishers have exerted a tremendous amount of effort to wrest control of their books from third-party digitizers like Google, and the apparent goal of this effort is to spawn viral campaigns for their books and little more. While somewhat nifty to look at, these widgets offer little more in terms of functionality than the Amazon “Look Inside” feature. The only real innovation is the ability to place these readers on any Web pages. Frankly, however, I fail to see how this serves anyone but the publishers looking to “virally” spread the word about their books.
As a book blogger, I am presumably an ideal candidate to place these widgets all over my Web site, but I have other, better ways to point people to info about books. A link to Amazon (or Powell’s) makes it easy for my readers to find out most anything they might want to know about a book, from its physical dimensions, to reviews from critics and readers, to, in many cases, a peek inside the book. It’s also important to note that both Amazon and Powell’s actually provide an incentive for linking to them, offering a small commission, should site owners decide to take it, for sales that result from click-throughs to their sites. These online bookstores also let the site owner control the interaction, so that appearance of the links and images add to, rather than distract from the content of the site they are on.
These widgets, on the other hand, are akin to putting a big billboard on the side of your house and getting nothing in return.
At the same time, from the perspective of readers, I fail to see usefulness of these widgets. Offering a dozen or so pages is fine. Readers can get a taste of a book if they want, but in this context the widgets again serve as little more than ads. we are meant to stumble across them on blogs or at MySpace and be enticed to make an impulse buy. They do not, however, harness the power of the Web to approximate any sort of useful experience. There’s a reason why you don’t see any bookstores selling only Random House books or only HarperCollins books. People want access to a bigger chunk of the universe of books when they are researching, browsing, or buying. This is why third parties (book stores) handle the selling, and, they more I think about it, this is why third parties should handle the online experience as well. And right now, Google Book Search does this the best. They have a widget, too, and as you may have realized I’m not a fan of widgets, but at least Google’s widget points to a useful service, where readers can discover (and if they want to, buy) books that interest them.
Regardless of what I think, though, the age of the widget is here. Plenty of companies want a piece of our blogs and MySpace pages, and publishers are just jumping on the bandwagon.
Update: I should add that Random House’s broader offering, “Insight,” is open to other publishers who want to sign on (for a fee, I’m guessing), and extends beyond the widget to potentially partnering with online retailers and making the contents of books accessible to search engines.
Also, as Bookblog.net points out, I missed that Random House lets people allows you to customize the “Buy” button to point to your preferred online bookstore and supports affiliate links. Based on this new info, I think Random House has actually put together a pretty compelling tool. (Though I still won’t be likely to use it since I’d rather just point people off my site if they want to peek inside a book.)