Thursday, January 27, 2005

We need a digital Previews... 

I was just reading Steven Bates' latest "I I Think I Can Manage" column. He talks about some of his issues with Previews in terms of retailer information: too many big flashy ads that cause more confusion than help, copy text that is more hype than informational, and different formatting among the different major publishers. He mentions a system he had come up with called T.A.P.S., which is a simple listing of Title (including volume/issue #), Author, Price, and Story.

That is all good stuff and sensible but then this quote jumped out at me:
What's the answer? I'm not sure. I don't expect Diamond to publish two separate catalogs, one for retailers and another for consumers. It'd be nice ... but I don't think it's financially feasible.

Why would that jump out? Well, it got me to thinking about WHY it wouldn't be feasible. The main problem is that Previews is this big hulking paper publication. That makes sense along with all of the flash and wizard-lite elements because of the number of normal readers that use it as an ordering guide. But in the same way that the requirements are different for retailers, it seems to me like the medium very well could be (and should be) different as well.

After all, what is TAPS but the definition of database? And Diamond must have all of this data in some sort of database to begin with, so transforming it into some form where page layout isn't a big concern should be relatively easy. Also, isn't the price and ads in Previews mostly to offset the cost of the printing itself? That they make their actual money from distributing?

So my question is why isn't there some sort of digital catalog? This could be a website or even a cd-rom (the former better because of no shipping issues and up-to-the-minute changes, the latter nice because you have all the data without having to wait for things to load). Even a simple website could be TAPS-ish like some of the entries that are already on Diamond's site. Look at this listing for OJO for instance. That is a pretty clear layout right there. I mean they have a text order form on the site which already includes a title and price, which has to be generated in some way.

But even that is thinking too small. Why should this be some static list that retailers have to pore over? The real advantage of technology in terms of databases is how easy it is to manipulate them. It'd be trivial to let you sort or search by any attribute. Why can't you do something as simple as search for the author of CLAMP and come up with all of their titles, regardless of which company is publishing them? Why can't you list all the marvel titles that go for $2.99?

Even that doesn't seem like it is enough. Diamond wants people to order stuff, so they should make things as easy as possible. Why do people have to put codes into a form? When you join up with Diamond, you could get an account. You log into that and have a shopping cart type system. If you see something interesting while you're browsing, just add it to the cart and keep going. You could see your total and tweak it until the ordering deadline. They may not want to get too far into inventory management (since I'd guess most retailers already have their own system), but it probably wouldn't hurt to have something in place to make it easier to re-order new issues of ongoing series, be alerted when a delayed title you wanted is coming out, etc.

If they had some sort of external API for retreiving catalogue information and sending orders to their account, it could even be integrated into existing inventory management systems. Imagine browsing the titles in your system that you've ordered and then be able to immediately pull up what new issues are coming out along with their description and image, then decide how many copies they want and it'd send it to diamond as well as put it into their own system to compare with the actual shipment that arrives.

To me, that seems WAY more effecient than waiting for this big magazine to get shipped to you, wade through ads and different layouts, copy down the codes, fill out an order form, and then mail it out.

Obviously my wishlist gets more ambitious near the end (though even the API isn't so bad, really.. all kinds of companies have web services these days), but the first step of just putting all the info online in a non-searchable/sortable format is about as trivial as it gets. Even if they didn't want any automation with their own database, they should be able to export some comma-separated file and run it through a script to make it html and upload it once a month. They have to be doing something already to make those order forms. Someone has rocks in their heads if those files are being made by hand each time...

The only reason I can think of for this sort of thing not already being done is either laziness, fear of the unknown, or that they really are making big profits on selling Previews and don't want to detract from that. It certainly isn't from any useability concerns. I really hope that I'm wrong and there is SOME sort of electronic version of the Diamond's information, or at the least some way to do orders without printing out and mailing a form, but I have a sinking feeling...

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