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It is a sad and lonesome scholarly press that lacks a Web site; it is worse to have a weak one. Scholarly presses ought to be smart enough to take advantage of Web design, links, and search capability lest their quick-witted clientele click quickly elsewhere. And they are smart enough. They have made their Web sites distinctive, innovative, and sometimes beautiful.
As usual there are leaders and laggards and large differences between them, but few of the differences between Web sites are due to cost. Significant differences are solely matters of wit, good sense, and attention. By way of demonstration, this study does four things:
First, it surveys current uses of scholarly press Web sites. Details change daily, but an overview is overdue. (The following data and observations were current as of July 12, 1998.)
Second, it identifies scholarly press Web sites that are especially noteworthy.
Third, it describes the standards that have emerged.
The final section offers a checklist of the features foresightful presses already include to maximize their Web sites.
What Did You Do this Summer?
I visited 125 scholarly press Web sites, then revisited and delved into them. Of those, 98 are included on the Web site for the catalog of Association of American University Presses (hereafter AAUP). The 98 sites include the sites of 83 U.S. and Canadian university presses, eight overseas university presses, and seven scholarly presses affiliated with the AAUP. I also visited the University of Pennsylvania Press (it is an AAUP member, but is not yet linked to the AAUP catalog). I checked out the Charles University Press in Prague and the University of Western Australia Press down under. I browsed the Web sites of selected non-scholarly commercial presses and a few of their corporate owners to compare their wares and wherefores. Some sites led to booksellers and scholarly organizations.
"A Web site can do many things, but if it does nothing else it should sell books"
Scholarly presses have much in common with their commercial kin. Their home pages make first impressions about what kind of press they are or what they aspire to be: sharp and clean or enormous and busy. Their site structures hint how the presses think.
Most presses show images of jackets, often on home pages. A beautiful jacket makes a beautiful illustration; the cost scarcely exceeds the price of a scanner and the enhancement makes the most of jacket investment. It is usual to treat jacket images as links to book descriptions, and usual to link descriptions to ordering instructions.
Shrewd presses have a search bar or search button on their home pages. They are shrewd because they recognize that the best current applications of a Web site are best managed by marketing departments. A Web site can do many things, but if it does nothing else it should sell books. A home page search bar or button allows a short jump to a sale.
Sound and motion are rarely used. The home pages of Penguin-Putnam and the Presses Universitaires de France exhibit a rectangle in which jackets of new books appear, one by one, in rotation. The display is expensive, it takes time to load, but it is eye-catching, more appealing than sites that jam jackets into the screen, and likely to satisfy more authors and agents.
Random House and W. W. Norton offer guides for reading groups. The value of such an offering requires much work off line: Currently, reading groups are an emerging marketing niche only giants like these can reach. They bear watching. The supporting Web site informs reading-group readers. It enables reading-group non-readers to cheat. It gives the press a golden opportunity to push books by the author and other related titles.
The Random House site accommodates the personal needs of its users with a horoscope, crossword puzzle clues, and a word for the day.
The AAUP Catalog
The centerpiece of university press Web sites is the AAUP catalog, maintained by the University of Chicago Press. Originally conceived and promoted by Michael Jensen (then at the University of Nebraska Press) in 1991, it was expanded and developed by Bruce Barton, information services manager at the University of Chicago Press, and Chuck Creesy, director of computer and publishing technologies at Princeton University Press. It went on line in 1995.[Editor's note: The AAUP Online Catalog closed its doors on April 2, 2001, so links to it were removed.]
"At six sites I found no books more recent than 1997"
The catalog's home page includes 12 links, plus four search modes, a mirror site, and a shopping cart — a customer-friendly means for selling two or more books with a single transaction. One link leads to an alphabetized list of the 98 participating presses, with each press linked to its own home page. The "Browse" button produces an alphabetized list of presses, each linked to an alphabetized list of its titles. This feature assists press Webmeisters to keep track of what the catalog includes and to see what other presses are doing.
The catalog's strength is its critical mass and its impressive search engine, the GAIS software written by Sun Wu. The catalog is currently managed by Bruce Barton. New programming is written by Roy Bixler, Senior Programmer/Analyst at the University of Chicago Press.
The catalog is composed of digital data provided by each press, and thus is only as up to date as the separate presses allow. At six sites I found no books more recent than 1997, and two presses, the University of Manitoba Press and Lehigh University Press, no longer exist. Two sites, the University of Georgia Press and Northwestern University Press, are under construction. The catalog itself is updated every two weeks.
The catalog performs five services for its member presses.
- It accentuates their common purposes.
- It connects them to their national organization, the Association of American University Presses.
- It includes books from presses that do not yet have linked Web sites, e.g., the University Press of Kansas.
- It has a shopping cart; 59 university press Web sites do not.
- Most important, the AAUP catalog has a better search engine than forty-eight of its member presses have for their own Web sites. Twenty-six presses have search engines that lead only to alphabetized lists of titles and authors; 22 presses have no search engine at all.
Financial and staffing restraints prevent some presses from being current or ambitious. Usually the press's Web site is managed by the press's marketing department, and in most cases the person responsible for the site is also performing some other significant marketing job. The AAUP catalog is a boon for small and frugal presses unable to invest much in their own Web sites.
"The AAP home page lacks a link to the list of member presses"
Bruce Barton foresees another advantage. "The AAUP Online catalog is becoming a clearing house for bibliographic data. Online retailers like Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Chapters Ltd. [formerly http://www.ChaptersGlobe.com/], as well as traditional customers like Baker & Taylor are pressing publishers to supply them with bibliographic data in a variety of incompatible electronic formats. Having built tools to munch the data we receive from presses, we can with a little more effort build tools to write data into the formats required by our customers. Moreover, by standing together AAUP presses are in a position to adopt or perhaps even to negotiate a standard bibliographic data exchange format that would be acceptable to many if not all of our customers."
Press recognition of the catalog is widespread. The number of presses cited in points 3, 4, and 5 above should incline the majority of member presses to link their Web sites to the catalog, but only 35 do, and only three in a conspicuous location.
Two's a Crowd
Commercial publishers are less clubby. Very seldom do they link to their national organization, the Association of American Publishers, perhaps because the site is so ho-hum. The AAP home page lacks a link to the list of member presses and the list doesn't link to half the presses' own sites, though almost all have them. The home page has a search bar, however, which absolves many sins.
Multiple imprints are a problem the conglomerates either resolve or ignore. Mighty Pearson is too big to note on its home page that it owns imprints like Penguin-Putnam or Addison Wesley Longman. The imprints, however, link to Pearson. The Thomson Corporation home page includes a linked list to 31 of its publishers and imprints, but inexplicably excludes Routledge. Simon & Schuster links to Viacom. Springer Verlag vaunts a map of the world; it shows the sites of its subsidiaries by city, each city linked to a subsidiary's Web site. (Editor's note: as of 1/15/01, the site no longer has a map.)
Most scholarly presses are already keenly aware that a Web site can be useful for acquisitions, marketing, and ordering. Larger presses, for example, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and W. W. Norton, also have links to pages for job seekers.
An attractive, accurate, and up-to-date Web site is now an invaluable recruiting tool for acquisitions editors. Most scholarly presses have "Staff," "Directory," or "Contact Us" buttons on their home pages that permit prospective authors to contact an appropriate acquisitions editor. Page after page of the academic division of HarperCollins link to submission guidelines. Web addresses now also appear on copyright pages of some presses' books and journals.
"The vast majority of presses, large and small, neglect to inform users about rights and permissions"
Twenty-five university presses draw attention to award-winning books, but only a few presses have an "Awards" link as a prominent feature. Very few awards are important enough to merit space on commercial-press web sites.
The primary use of a Web site is marketing. Web addresses routinely appear on catalogs, space ads, and fliers. The best Web sites include book descriptions, prices, ISBNs, review excerpts, images of jackets, and an immediate link for ordering the book. Twelve university presses include excerpts from books, with or without tables of contents; St. Martin's gives first chapter previews. A number of sites show images of seasonal catalog covers, for reasons that elude me.
Most press Web sites now permit ordering by e-mail; many provide order forms that can be downloaded or printed for FAX or mail; direct ordering via the Web will soon be standard. Eight university presses provide links to bookstores; seven have links to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com or both. One university press has the Amazon link blazoned on its home page. A few scholarly presses and the AAUP catalog have links to Bookwire.
Surprisingly, the vast majority of presses, large and small, neglect to inform users about rights and permissions. Only 13 university presses give the name of the contact person for these tasks, and in most of these the user must scroll through the site's staff directory. Commercial presses are no better; typically the user must find the staff directory in order to locate rights and permissions.
The Indiana University Press, like many other presses, has a "General Information" button on its home page that leads to a staff directory, press policies, submission guidelines, mission statement, or other information that requires explanation.
True to its principles, Beacon Press links to the Unitarian Universalist Association. But university press Web sites often lack a link to the parent university: Forty-four of the 83 university presses in the AAUP catalog lack any link to their universities, and only a handful have the link on their home pages. An apparent trifle, a link to the university's home page is the best argument a press can make that the university should reciprocate, as prominently as possible. It is a long and sorry search to find a university that includes a link to its press on its home page.
Some press Web sites serve as the home pages for client or associated presses. The W. W. Norton home page has a pull-down menu for the presses it distributes. St. Martins lists other imprints on its home page and the Texas A & M Consortium home page prudently lists the ten members of the consortium, each with a link to its own home page. The search button on the home page of the academic division of HarperCollins leads to a page that searches seven of its imprints. The National Academy Press presents all four of its members on its home page. The University Press of New England names its six member colleges and universities on its home page, but provides no means for the user to sort by imprint.
"A Webmeister should choose between two styles — maximum elegance or maximum content"
Imaginative uses of links help characterize the press. The New York University Press is not the only university press in the boroughs, but it has organized its site to make it the press for New York City. Its links lead to Web sites all over the city, including city guides.
With its attractive TELA site, Scholars Press provides the membership directories of academic societies to which its books especially appeal. This service enhances the prestige of Scholars Press and connects it to its core clientele more frequently. (Author's note: Scholars Press dissolved in December 1999 and no longer maintains the TELA site. 01/04/2001)
Look at These
A Webmeister should choose between two styles — maximum elegance or maximum content — then proceed without waffling.
The MIT site is a gorgeous example of the maximum elegance. It relies on a few master links, confines the home page to the opening screen (no scrolling is necessary), and its image changes monthly. The links lead to an unusual feature: a page giving credit to the Web designer and managers.
The University of Chicago Press site is an example of maximized content. Its home page scrolls at length, but the opening screen displays a search bar and presents an immediate link to the AAUP catalog. The home page has more than thirty links, many of which lead to other pages similarly enriched.
The Stanford University Press site is superbly designed. The home page has four main headings, each with a pull-down menu. That allows quick access to 18 fields, and a link to the home page is always on view. Yankee Book Peddler uses Yankee simplicity: better buttons than scrolls. The Web sites of the University of Arizona Press, the University of Nebraska Press, and Routledge are other examples of screen elegance.
The Web sites of many scholarly presses, especially the largest, have a search bar or search button on their home pages. This is the greatest single convenience a press can provide for a user. Reproductions of book jackets are now standard. Almost all commercial scholarly presses and 63 university presses have at least some jackets reproduced, usually of new books and best-sellers. Some presses plug jacket images onto home pages with the ugly abandon of broadsides plastered on a wall. Most Webmeisters usually remember to make a jacket image serve as a link to a book description (when, for instance, the jacket appears among other jackets on a home page, an awards page, or other assembly), but many do not.
Most presses permit users some means of making an easy return to the site's home page, a feature appreciated by any user who has mis-clicked, spaced out, or wandered. A feature of increasing appeal is the appearance of the press's logo as a link to the Web site's home page. The use is not universal, however; in numerous cases the logo goes nowhere.
When a press produces electronic publications it usually provides a distinct button for them on its home page. Naturally, a press with electronic publications is much more likely to offer Web site samplings.
A few presses like Princeton University Press retain the main menu on all screens, with no need for scrolling. This, too, is a great advantage for the user.
Having separate pages for key titles is savvy. The University of California Press, for example, has a site for its books by and about playwright Preston Sturges. Harvard University Press has a separate site for the Loeb Library. Johns Hopkins University Press has established individual sites for each of its journals, and its book division has separate pages to promote lead titles. These pages are labor intensive, but they offer two key advantages: They give the press a better opportunity to assert its identity and they greatly increase the likelihood that the book or journal will be picked up by a visitor to the site.
- Users would rather click than scroll. It is preferable for a Web site's home page to appear whole with minimal need to scroll.
- If the Press has a search engine capable of searching by keyword, put the search bar on the home page. If this disrupts the design of the home page, the home page should have a button that allows a use to search as soon as possible. Currently 19 university press Web sites require a user to pass through three or more screens to commence a search.
- A user should never be more than a click away from the home page.
- A user should never be more than a click away from initiating an order. Make it easy. Whenever a book description of any kind is displayed, the screen should have a button that immediately directs the user to an 800 number, e-mail address, shopping cart, or other way of obtaining the book.
- A press's logo should be a link to the home page as well as an ornament.
- The "Back" button should lead back to the previous screen, not to the home page.
- Illegibility remains a problem. One press has its text in vermillion on a purple background, as discouraging a match as I've seen anywhere. Often jackets are reproduced at a scale so small that they are mere splashes of color; the books' titles are illegible and the authors' names a jumble of pixels; this is of dubious value.
- All AAUP press Web sites should have a link to the AAUP catalog. Presses with no search engine, or a modest one, should consider putting a link to the AAUP catalog in an especially conspicuous location.
- Proofread and beta test. One press has three "Seach" buttons; another has a button for "Reccommended" books. Several have buttons that don't work or that lead to defunct URLs.
- Update content on a regular basis and at least every six months.
- Provide easy identification of the person or persons who handle rights and permissions. If permissions are handled by another press, the Copyright Clearance Center, or other agency, say so.
- Be generous with links and links to links. Link-rich sites are most likely to be kept as bookmarks.
- If the press has a university behind it, it should include a link to that university's home page.
- Include pages that answer fundamental questions: how to submit a manuscript, how to get to the press, who does what, whether the press publishes fiction, cookbooks, or poetry.
- Consider separate sites for especially important books, series, or journals. A separate site is more likely to be identified by a search engine and come to the attention of a potential customer.
Other possibilities arise as fast as the creative people managing Web sites find time to imagine and improve them. Standards have risen, too, and will continue to rise. Scholarly presses are entitled to take pride in leading the way.
Willis Regier was director of the University of Nebraska Press from 1987 to 1995 and director of the Johns Hopkins University Press from 1995 to 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.