HarperCollins snippetI love the use of snippets and videos and similar attention-grabbers to promote books.

HarperCollins and others have it right. The trick is to avoid inflicting videos and the rest on the unappreciative, whether they be readers or retailers. HarperCollins is making the snippets available and letting retail partners do as they choose. That’s just plain smart. While Amazon will be able use the content, so will some smaller retailers and, yes, authors, too.


So I’m a little baffled to read Tom Peters, one of my favorite librarians, attacking the snippet concept. The irony is that Peters’ Complaint happened in the ultimate stronghold of snippetry, the blogosphere. Granted, Tom was writing “Mammoth Mammonistic Snippets” for an ALA blog, but in so doing he’s made himself fodder for snippeting.

Unlike snippet critics, I don’t mind HarperCollins offering up the snippets without having a store through which you can actually buy books. You still get hyperlinks to retail partners. The message sent is, “Rather than hogging the whole show, we’ll encourage our retail partners to do the rest.” Participating retailers will be the aggregators. Like Tom, I want aggregation, which, in terms of searching for books, can spare me much aggravation. HarperCollins, far from discouraging aggregation, is making it easier for others to pull off. I doubt that HarperCollins is expecting consumers to linger forever at its site and confine purchases to HC books.

Opps for the resourceful

My big worry would be that smaller publishers won’t have the resources to compete. But then again, extras such as video snippets can cost a lot less than, say, big ads in the New York Times book review section. In fact, truly resourceful small publishers will retaliate with their own text and video snippets. What’s more, I hope that libraries will join the snippet wars and use the technology to promote good Long Tail books that haven’t yet found their audiences. In fact, a video service tells me that libraries are indeed showing interest.

What I would like from HarperCollins: At least the entire first chapters of all the snippeted books. I know. Good marketing is teasing. But it’s a cruel tease to cut off a first chapter ahead of time.

What I don’t mind from snippeters: Repros of back covers and others glitz. I don’t care if they’re pitches–they still tell me something about the actual books. Perhaps libraries shouldn’t go in as much for the glitz, but it’s certainly appropriate in a retail context.

A legitimate concern for readers: Will big publishers use snippets to exercise greater control over distribution–favoring the outlets that are less aggressive with discounts? If nothing else, what about the copyright implications?

Snippets and the issue of synchronous vs. asynchronous promotion of books: Snippets can be a great way to draw people not just to books but to discussions of them. They are asynchronous, A Good Thing since readers like to absorb content when it’s convenient to them–not when, say, an online discussion is taking place. In promoting book chats via the TeleBlog, I’ve discovered that it’s an uphill battle. People might like to participate, but their schedules get in the way, and even I have a problem–in that I find myself driven to the books that I want to read now.

Yes, I’ll continue talking up the chats. But I’d also like to see asynchronous approaches used—for example, ongoing forums, where readers can drop in and out at their own convenience and offer thoughtful remarks when they are ready to do so. The problem with interactive synchronous book “events” is that if you haven’t had time to digest the book, you feel as if you failed to do your homework.

Detail: The “Buy this book” icon in the screen shot will lead to a list of partner sites, not an actual shopping cart.

Additional thought, added August 5: Not only can multimedia snippets make library and retail sites more interesting to the general population, they can also be especially valuable for people with certain disabilities such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Of course, helping one group with special needs can come at the expense of another. A site reliant on Flash, for example, will ideally offer fallbacks for the sight-impaired.

Related: New York Times article on HarperCollins’ efforts.


  1. Actually, my thoughts about snippets, mass snippetization, and snippet silos, continue to evolve. I would describe them currently as ambivalent. In addition to this week’s post about the HarperCollins Browse Inside service, I wrote the following in a June 6 ALA TechSource blog post about “Wreading”: “I must admit that the snippetization of published works, which has created fear and loathing in a wide variety of literate adults—including Michael Gorman and John Updike (you can listen to an audio recording of Updike’s recent BookExpo America speech at bookexpocast.com/?p=12, where snippets are mentioned approximately ten minutes into his speech, as well as late)—really does not cause me much concern.” I don’t think that sentence puts me squarely in the “snippet critic” camp. Also, in my November 2, 2005 ALA TechSource blog post about “Lemony Snippets” I think I was actually mildly defending mass snippetization efforts by attempting to place them in the historical context of all the ways people try to find and make sense of books prior to actually obtaining (through purchase or loan–or theft) a copy of the book and reading it. If HarperCollins really makes an effort to make its snippet service available to authors, aggregators, mashuppers (or whatever we are going to call people who create mashups), and others, then it will be a good thing.

  2. Many thanks, Tom, for your further thoughts and open-mindedness. Here’s hoping that snippets will be used to help all kinds of books and authors–and sites!

    “If HarperCollins really makes an effort to make its snippet service available to authors, aggregators, mashuppers (or whatever we are going to call people who create mashups), and others, then it will be a good thing.”

    Yes, I agree with your sentiments here. As I wrote: “Will big publishers use snippets to exercise greater control over distribution–favoring the outlets that are less aggressive with discounts?” And extending those concerns, I’d hope that HarperCollins would be liberal with permission for snippets to be used in a number of places. In addition, HarperCollins ideally won’t mind the use of its graphics, etc., as any site’s pointers to its stuff. The other issue is the freeing of the actual snippets in full. Since copyrighted content is involved, that could be tricky. But maybe it can at least happen on an author-by-author basis, with permission sought–as opposed to HarperCollins flatly saying: “Oh, no, nothing can be done with any books.” Creative Commons arrangements for snippets, anyone? It hasn’t exactly hurt Lessig and Doctorow, who actually, of course, have gone further and extended those terms to their actual books.

    That said, I think the HarperCollins program is a step in the right direction, and I hope that further refinements in line with your wishes and mine will follow.


  3. I’m beginning to see two stages to this argument. The first: whether or not a person thinks snippets are, in balance, a good thing. As far as I can tell, the main argument against snippets is that they further erode our collective ability to engage in sustained reading and thought. Snippets, by their very nature, take a sentence, paragraph, or page of a book out of context and present it to the reader. The main argument in favor of snippets, I think, is that they will help people peer into (or dabble in) a book before they actually read it. Of course, some people will abuse snippets. For example, a high school student writing a paper could use a snippet search service to make it appear as if he or she had done extensive research. Heck, if I were back in high school, I’d be thinking: Why use an indexing and abstracting service when full-text searching and snippet search engines are at my disposal? My hunch, however, is that overall snippets will be a good thing for the reading public, if the emerging snippetsphere is open and level.

    The second stage of the argument: If a person thinks, believes, or just hopes that snippets will be in balance a good thing, the question becomes: How to populate the snippetsphere? My half-formed thought in yesterday’s ALA’s TechSource blog post was that mass snippetization efforts by Amazon, Google, and others are more likely to result in an open, level, expansive snippetsphere than multiple smaller efforts by HarperCollins, the other major publishers, and all the other publishers. I could be wrong, and perhaps we will find that mass snippetization efforts are merely the lesser of two evils.

    So the primary questions seem to be: Should we go there? If so, what’s the best way to get there? My current “stance”–always subject, of course, to further thought, lively debate, and solid argument–is that we should develop the snippetsphere, and that mass snippetization efforts that try to cover a high percentage of the universe of books, probably are the best way to proceed.

  4. Hi, Tom. It’s clear we now see eye to eye on the first of the two stages. I don’t think it’s the job of indexes to dumb themselves down to make certain that students do their homework. Let the teachers come up with better ways of ascertaining this. Same for evaluation of Net-based research.

    As for the second stage, I favor a mix of approaches. I like the idea of mass aggregation efforts by Amazon and Google. But at the same time I want to leave room for individual companies such as HarperCollins to tend lovingly to aggregation of their own content. (1) This mixed approach will mean more content and better content, since the publishers, besides doing the usual puffery, may also come up with some first-rate material. They literally have an investment in the content. (2) A mixed approach will help balance out the power of Google and Amazon. I don’t want anyone–publishers and writers included–to have all the power.

    For similar reasons, I like the idea of publishers setting up their own archives of books and other items. Keep in mind that publishers are content-oriented. Amazon and Google have other priorities, too, such as the use of content to sell ads or even merchandise.

    Greatly appreciate the additional nuances you’re supplying. This is an example of the way blogs can actually help develop thought. When it comes to a blog, readers should consider comments, not just the initial posts (which themselves may be mere snippets or pointers intended to encourage further exploration of topics).

    In short, the intelligent use of blogs can help us deal with the snippet culture. And, no, I won’t give up on the sustained approach of books. What better way to synthesize ideas from the blogosophere and carry them through to their logical conclusions–well, conclusions for the moment? You already know how I feel about interactive books 😉


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