The Social Publisher
Reading a book is a solitary activity, not a social one. There are exceptions, like reading aloud to a child or a shut-in, but for the most part, reading is something you do by yourself.
On the other hand, talking about books is a group activity—one that thrives in the context of actual personal contact. It can be two friends in a break room, a group of neighbors at a home book club or a class at college. The book itself can be of secondary importance—just an excuse to be with someone else and talk.
Today's social phenomenon is supposedly a virtual, digital extension of what humans have done since we learned to talk: connect with each other. Making a book, a solitary experience, the subject of a virtual group connection would seem to make sense. However, many authors and publishers have found it to be a real challenge. Social, in other words, is not just another advertising or marketing channel.
Social Media and Social Networking
Book marketing consultant Fauzia Burke (www.fsbassociates.com) makes some important distinctions about the terms social media and social networking. "Many people think the terms are interchangeable; however they are two different things. Social media includes things such as newsletters, blogs and articles, webinars. etc. Social networking includes platforms such as Facebook. The role of social media is to entertain, educate and delight your readers. The role of social networking is to find and engage with your audience and fans."
To Burke, social is all about connection, not promotion. "Neither social media nor social networking should be used as advertisement," she says. There are many examples of misguided authors and publishers using social for relentless self-promotion—often with few positives and a lot of negatives. "Many times authors invest a lot of time and money to creating profiles for their book launch and then ditch them," Burke says. Others harbor false expectations. "One time an author said to me, 'I've been tweeting for a week and I haven't seen any book sales.'This is a long term investment.”
Besides the connection aspect, another distinction of social is the cost factor—not in terms of time required (more on that later), but the fact that no one directly pays money to read or view social content. Traditional media are directly supported by subscription or advertising revenue. Most publishers and book publicists are equipped to deal with this setup, which favors the famous and the well-heeled. However, social media is still very new, unstructured and volatile. It is certainly challenging and often overwhelming to many.
Choosing the Right Venue
Of the different social media platforms named by Burke, blogs are arguably the most effective way for authors to engage with current and potential readers. Whether or not the author directly engages with reader comments, a blog can offer insights into the author's writing struggles, his perspectives on tangential topics or foreshadowing of the eventual book. Presumably, if an author can tell a good story, then he or she should be able to create an engaging blog. The rewards of doing so include more readers and—in theory—more books sold. The cost of course is time spent blogging rather than writing the actual book.
Noting the diversity of social networking options, Burke says, "It's difficult to pin down which are most useful because that really depends on the book and the audience the author is trying to reach. In general I would start with Facebook and Twitter. You might say LinkedIn would be a network better reserved for business authors." Burke recently advocated authors' use of Pinterest in a recent Huffington Post article.
The Publisher's Role
Tanya Hall, CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, notes that a smart author should always take direct responsibility for creating and maintaining his or her own social platform. "An author's platform development is mission critical … the more involved he or she is with social media, the more authentic the communication and the stronger the brand." However, she also notes that the publisher has an important support role. "At Greenleaf Book Group, we'll do a very thorough social media strategy document to give an author a primer on using social media along with specific recommendations to help them manage and build social media engagement." Results have been mixed, with some authors building a substantial following and others dropping off the radar after the book launch.
Book-specific social sites—specifically Goodreads—represent significant value to publishers. According to Hall, "[They] allow authors and publishers to directly engage with niches of precious 'voracious' readers that are otherwise difficult to reach. They also are extremely powerful for generating reader reviews, which are becoming more and more important for discoverability." She speaks highly of Goodreads giveaways, which in one typical case resulted in 785 reader entries, 8 reviews and the book being added to 50 "to-read" shelves.
Regarding the Amazon acquisition of Goodreads, Hall says, "Amazon is a data company, so ultimately (and optimistically), I hope it results in stronger automated book recommendations for Amazon users."
Hall notes that both cost savings and personal connection had to be considered. "Social networks [are] a great way to cut down on the costs related to a book tour and to essentially 'scale' an author by multiplying their ability to appear before more groups without travel. I don't think the personal connection is as strong in virtual meetings..., so when it makes logistical and financial sense, in person is more compelling."
Larger Publishers' Perspectives
Meredith McGinnis is director of marketing for Crown Archetype, Harmony Books, Crown Forum and Three Rivers Press (Random House). She agrees that the author and his or her team should be responsible for maintaining their social platform. "However, a publisher's publicity and marketing teams should be working closely with their authors to advise on social media strategy for their books, providing content, setting up and fulfilling social media contests and promotions."
Crown does provide a considerable array of digital support for its authors, including excerpts on Scribd (with opportunities to buy from Amazon or Barnes & Noble), event listing pages, contests and giveaways, audio clips and more. Random House also holds monthly webinars to teach authors best practices for social media as part of their Author Portal service.
McGinnis advises authors to prioritize their social channels according to subject matter and audience characteristics. "An author and publisher first need to pinpoint the consumer they are looking to target, then see where those consumers are gathering and start in that social media space. The goal is not just to gain followers but to engage with others in the space and establish themselves as a credible voice and resource in that space."
Like her fellow publishers, McGinnis points out the fundamental difference between social and promotional media. "I think if a publisher is using social media as an advertisement, that is getting the whole point of social media wrong. Social media is a way for authors to engage with a community, not a path to direct sales. In some cases, the fans do purchase but the overall goal of social media is to connect, create a community and establish credibility."
Social Media and Sales
Mark Ferguson, associate online marketing director at Harper Books/HarperCollins, agrees that authors are best suited to express their own voice on social platforms and should manage their own accounts. However, he also asserts the importance of the publisher's role. "Most publishers, Harper included, are spending a lot of time and energy to help guide authors toward the right social media strategy," he says. "Strategy varies depending on the genre and the author's particular expertise and level of interest."
Ferguson describes one debut novelist whose Facebook fan page reached over 10,000 likes before the book went on sale. The book went on to become a bestseller as the result of Harper's combined digital/traditional marketing efforts. He also says that established authors like Bernard Cornwell have been able to increase pre-orders and sustain sales due to consistent social media outreach. "Other times, results are not as obvious," he says. "Not all of an author's followers will buy a specific book, but the ability to reach prospective readers is the obvious first step toward encouraging a purchase."
He agrees that certain platforms are better suited to certain types of authors and their content but cautions against oversimplification. "Any author can find her readers on almost any platform, and these rules of thumb have so many exceptions that they are best thought of as a starting point rather than a firm recommendation."
Ferguson's recommendations to authors are twofold: "How much time does an author have in a given day or week to devote to… social media?" and "What does the author actually enjoy doing?" Authors who start with three platforms but don't enjoy two of them should probably focus on the one they like—regardless of the platforms' strengths. "Anyone spending time on social media grudgingly is bound to do it wrong," he says.
The connection between social and measurable success is a tenuous one. "There are too many variables, says Ferguson. "Every author is different. Different segments of readers are active to different degrees on different platforms. The definition of success varies widely as a result." Although the data are problematic, he maintains that the overall impact of social is a positive one for the bottom line. "We've seen strong indications that 'traditional' marketing and publicity opportunities can arise from a strong online presence. An increased fan base makes an author more attractive to buyers at brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. Some publicity outlets look at social media as an indicator of whether or not they should cover an author or book.”
Ferguson advises authors to “be yourself” on social platforms. He also lists a few important caveats: “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in a room full of people. Link to more than one retailer whenever possible. Don’t be mean to your readers, other authors, booksellers or reviewers.”
A New Skill Set
Although some publishers are supportive of their authors' social media efforts, they clearly assign the primary responsibility for engaging readers with the person creating the original content. However, few authors have the aptitude (or time) for writing the kind of engaging short-form content best suited to social media and social networking. When that content includes video and multimedia, that number drops even lower. To be sure, they have to attempt it, but at the cost of their own art, and possibly more. Even wealthy, successful authors can have difficulty finding and hiring the talent needed to satisfy the public's appetite for insightful social content.
The publishers' response should be one of facilitation, giving each author as much support and strategic advice as possible, and to set expectations based on the author's skills and available time. However, for many authors, completing the actual book may preclude the optimum use of blogging and social networks.
Perhaps what is needed is a new type of writer—not to replace the author, but to augment his or her work, to tell the backstory, craft the "extras" and maintain meaningful engagement with thousands (millions?) of curious social participants. Such a writer would be a digital Boswell to an aspiring Johnson—not replacing him, but shedding new light on his work, cultivating the kinds of discussions to which books have aspired. He might even help sell a few more books.
John Parsons (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent writer, researcher and analyst in the publishing and printing industries. He writes and advises on a variety of technology and business topics, including ebooks, digital magazines, online video, premedia workflow, color management and on-demand print. He is the co-author of BISG's Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading, and the former Editorial Director of The Seybold Report.