HarperCollins’ Holiday Pop-Up Bookstore: An ‘Innovation-Driven Environment’

iStockphoto/Vohah
iStockphoto/Vohah

Lean, Light, And Timely

On New Year’s Eve, it will be history. The Holiday Pop-Up Store closes at midnight Eastern on December 31.

But it will have been another of the tests that HarperCollins (HC) has launched, as it sifts through various avenues of D2C potential — direct to consumer.

You still can access the store through the end of the month. Snowflakes drift down the page, over signed editions, limited-quantity offers, several “sold out” notices. The offering comprises fewer than 50 items.

The signed edition of Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, for example, has gone fast. So has its companion, Allegiant, along with Amy Poehler’s Yes PleaseA collector’s edition of Roth’s Divergent still is in stock, however.

If you’re flashing across a lot of Christmas gift sites, the HarperCollins Holiday Pop-Up Store might strike you as interesting and spacious, but not unusual. In publishing, however, this represents a digitally-driven development and we probably can expect to see more such instances in the coming year as major houses look for ways to cultivate a relatively new direct relationship: with readers.

Angela Tribelli
Angela Tribelli

In fact, it might be a mistake to think of the HC Pop-Up Store as a sales initiative. Angela Tribelli, chief marketing officer, tells me otherwise:

The pop-up store – the items we feature, how we present and merchandise them – is as much a form of marketing as it is a form of commerce. During the busy holiday season, we need to create urgency and draw consumers’ attention to our products, and the pop-up succeeded in doing that.

One of the key elements here is focus. On its own site, HarperCollins doesn’t have to negotiate with a bookstore or major chain of stores to position some of its more singular offerings on a front table. The publisher has control in this digital space.

And there’s a secondary but maybe equally important advantage here: “the rest of the store” is gone. By that I mean that if HC can get you to its store’s URL, what would be the surrounding visual “noise” of other publishers’ books and products in a physical store have dropped away. Competition is fiendish going in, yes, but if the publisher can get you to stop at the site for a moment, its attractive, uncluttered layout and colorful book covers in this curated selection might just have a better chance of snagging your interest.

In general, having our own commerce-enabled site allows us to spotlight our books and authors, as well as to test new products. Transactions can take place with us or other retailers but, overall, everybody benefits from the increased consumer exposure.

That note of teamwork — “everybody benefits” — is important to any publisher testing the D2C waters, of course. Partnerships, alliances are everywhere in publishing, which is, in fact, part of the reason that for decades publishers weren’t in direct sales contact with readers but with distributors and stores’ book buyers.

Today, few players in publishing don’t understand that publishers simply must cultivate reader relationships with all the creativity they can muster. One of the chief Amazonian advantages is its deep penetration into the consumer psyche as the go-to spot for browsing and purchases, after all. Publishing’s responses to such online inroads need to offer their own attractions, hence the specialty approach we see here.

“The only way this can work is in a highly-collaborative, innovation-driven environment…we’re seeing some really nice wins as a result.”
Angela Tribelli, HarperCollins Chief Marketing Officer

But few publishing executives are better than Tribelli — who will be speaking again this year at the Digital Book World conference, January 13-15, #DBW15 — at clarifying the fact that her own company’s efforts in consumer outreach are never meant to exclude the existing, friendly channels of commerce already in place.

When I ask her if other retailers might not have had access to the Pop-Up Store items, Tribelli tells me that no, exclusivity was not a factor here:

The goal of the pop-up store was to use our direct-to-consumer capabilities to test consumer interest in signed editions and other book-related merchandise as limited-time or limited-quantity offers, not to restrict retailer access to those items. In fact, we participated in a signed-edition holiday programs with Barnes & Noble and the ABA [the American Booksellers Association].

Shaking It Up

Among the Big Five, HarperCollins is seen by some industry observers, both in New York and in London, as being the likeliest to innovate first.

HarperCollins' Holiday Pop-Up Store: traditional graphics, unusual approach.
HarperCollins’ Holiday Pop-Up Store: traditional graphics, unusual approach.

As The Bookseller’s Philip Jones put together a list of publishing innovations at The FutureBook, 10 Things Publishers Have Been Doing We Should Celebrate, his mentions of HarperCollins’ activity included an online romance festival; The Chatsfield immersive storytelling venture from Harlequin Mills & Boon (which HarperCollins has acquired); participation in June’s FutureBook Hack project in London, and more. He would go on, in Harper puts blue sky between it and the rest, to register HarperCollins’ deal last month with JetBlue to offer ebook samples to passengers in flight. As Jones wrote:

We are now becoming used to seeing HarperCollins spring first out of the traps when it comes to innovative new business models, with deals in place with subscription services such as Scribd, and Oyster; bundler BitLit; and the launch of its direct-to-consumer platform. We should not under-estimate the ground-work that needs to be done before such initiatives are signed and launched.

One of my own interests, which Jones mentioned, has been in the pilot program that HarperCollins has conducted with Vancouver’s BitLit start-up, working with Peter Hudson there to try offering readers who own selected print books from HarperCollins a chance to get ebook editions of those books — bundling, as it’s called, and in an after-market format. Here’s more from my July write-up of that program at The FutureBook.

Indeed, Tribelli speaks highly of the BitLit venture, saying, “We are always interested in testing innovative ideas with partners, and being among the first to do so — as we were with BitLit. Having our own store gives us a proprietary platform to pilot new opportunities with a variety of strategic partners.”

She goes on to clarify that a key element of HC reasoning in innovative ventures is the centricity of the reader-consumer:

Our goal is to be innovative in how we get books in front of readers, both on behalf of our authors and our retail partners. We would only tie our store to start-up efforts where it makes sense for the reader – if we don’t succeed in creating a terrific experience for consumers, we’ve served no one well.

And the seasonal Pop-Up Store, she tells me, has been a useful entry in the publisher’s tests:

The pop-up store performed very well for us. Marketing was limited to HarperCollins’ social channels, our own consumer database, and a targeted subscriber promotion with the Wall Street Journal. The result was an eight-fold lift in conversion – a great result for a quick-to-market pilot. Overall, our direct-to-consumer performance to date has been very much in line with expectations.

Speaking A New Language

When it comes to attractive products, few doubt a Big Five publisher’s ability to produce.

Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities. Image: Holiday.HarperCollins.com
Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities. Image: Holiday.HarperCollins.com

And perhaps the most striking element of the HarperCollins Holiday Pop-Up Store offerings is the $397.50 Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: Limited Edition.

The del Toro book — based on the writer-director’s own research for Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, and other work —  is an item in the store, as well. But the cabinet presentation of the material is as elaborate as the imagination it reflects, coming with a rosary based on a significant prop in Hellboy, art prints, and more.

The pop-up store’s selections are all singular in some way. They include John Maloof’s monograph on the photographer Vivian Maier, for example, and a signed edition of Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays.

However, speed is not a concept many critics of the publishing establishment associate with its work.

But Tribelli is talking just that. She tells me that, in fact, speed was a key in its decision to create the Holiday Pop-Up Store:

The time constraint of getting the pop-up store up and running for the holidays proved to be a good thing, because it forced us to make quick decisions, learn fast, and adjust along the way.

In terms of moving efficiently, we aim to focus on the two or three things we absolutely want to accomplish in any given project, and then identify the minimum viable technology we need to get there.

While such concepts as “agile” iteration of innovative efforts are usually associated with small start-up companies, HarperCollins is, Tribelli says, operating in that context: “It’s the lean start-up approach,” she tells me, “which as it happens, works particularly well when you don’t have limitless time or budget.”

The irony is that as closely as many of us may think of “lean” efforts being the province of small, nimble companies, Tribelli credits some of the success of these moves to HarperCollins’ size: it has ready professionals on staff to engage in these events:

I think this critical – the only way this can work is in a highly-collaborative, innovation-driven environment. The pop-up shop was one of many ideas recently brainstormed by a cross-functional team from our marketing, sales and digital groups. On any given day, I know I can pull HC’s head of sales and our CDO into a quick huddle and ask, “How does this sound? Should we try this? And how can we make it happen?” It’s a terrific way to work, and one that has to be fostered from the top – and we’re seeing some really nice wins as a result.

Look for more such efforts from HarperCollins’ team and from other publishers in 2015, as the majors gain traction in digital directions. While a slow response may have embarrassed the industry early on in the digital dynamic’s incursion into publishing, the Bigs — judging from what Tribelli says today — have got the message and aren’t holding still:

Our approach to all innovation – whether it’s the pop-up shop or anything else – is simple: try something new. TC mark

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