Webcasts: A Hot Marketing Tool
The June release of British writer Ian McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach” was accompanied by screenings of a 28-minute film profiling the author at dozens of bookstores in the United States. According to producer Powell’s Books, the film aimed to go beyond the traditional author reading to inspire “spirited discussion about great new books and their impact on readers’ lives.”
This was, perhaps, an innovative and effective tool for promoting McEwan. But if proponents of the emerging tool of webcasting are proven right, the logistical challenges accompanying such an operation (and those inherent in luring a finite set of audience members to bookstores to watch an author’s video) will, in the near future, seem a bit old-fashioned. New technologies and online habits point to online video, virtual forums and Web links as important new ways to build excitement among book lovers, albeit treading on the sacred province of the in-person author reading and book signing, of which movie screenings represent a mere tentative foray.
“Books are about engagement,” says Brad Inman, founder and CEO of TurnHere, which launched a book-centric Internet channel in partnership with Simon & Schuster in June. “In publishing, we already know it’s very successful for book authors to go to book signings and lectures. Readers like to interact not only with the book, but with the author.”
The new channel offers book lovers a chance to do just that, Inman says, with an array of social networking options framing in-depth author profiles. “This is about relevant, usable, searchable information,” he says. “If you engage people emotionally with the author, then, guess what—they may buy more books.”
The channel, BookVideos.TV, was launched alongside a branded YouTube platform (YouTube.com/BooksVideosTV). Video also will appear on the publisher’s Web site, SimonSays.com. According to Simon & Schuster Vice President of Online and Consumer Marketing Sue Fleming, the effort represents an extension of what book publishers have always tried to do.
“You traditionally have watched television or listened to the radio or read a newspaper to find out interesting information about an author that you’re a fan of,” she says. “In this case, you’re getting a back story, something that’s a unique personality profile of an author, told by them. We think we’re going to create lots of fans who will just want to get more and more [information] all the time.”
The growth possibilities are staggering, according to Joel Smernoff, president and CEO of Paltalk, a video “socialcasting” site that recently has begun offering live author webcasts as part of its weekly schedule of shows, which accompany a lively and diverse array of video chat sites.
“What our platform allows [users] to do is set up a chat room on a topic that they’re passionate about and invite up to 5,000 of their friends and others into this showroom, clubhouse, chat room, whatever you want to call it,” he says. Paltalk recently hosted author and columnist Arianna Huffington in a live interview from her living room, Smernoff reports, which saw “several thousand people coming through asking her questions in real time.”
“They can see her, she can see them …. It’s really quite a dynamic experience,” he says.
As with radio talk shows, a producer can be standing by to moderate and queue questioners when they raise a virtual “hand” by clicking a button on the Web site.
“The other piece of this is the author can use this platform to help move their wares,” Smernoff adds. The platform allows for putting in text ads and providing a link to Amazon.com, enabling “neat ways to actually wrap e-commerce” into this virtual world, says Smernoff.
For Eric Schaeffer, author of “I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single,” Paltalk offers “the opportunity to come out as the person behind the book.”
“I’m a performer as well as a writer,” the filmmaker and writer/director of TV’s “Starved” says. “I know a lot of people don’t like to be on camera, but I really enjoy the format.”
The Makings of a Successful
In Schaeffer’s view, to succeed in the world of webcasts, personality is critical—an idea echoed by the Philadelphia-based American Law Institute-American Bar Association (ALI-ABA), which publishes books by and for lawyers.
After the recent release of the book “Anatomy for Litigators,” the organization decided to produce live webcasts of talks by the book’s author, Samuel Hodge, on human anatomy for trial lawyers in medical malpractice suits.
In addition to being an author, Hodge teaches trial practice and anatomy at Temple University Beasley School of Law and for continuing legal education organizations. “So he’s not just a writer, he also is a lecturer,” notes Mark Carroll, director of ALI-ABA’s electronic and print publications. Hodge’s strength in public speaking played a big role in the decision to try the webcast format with this title, Carroll says, as did the fact that this book, unlike most of its ilk, has a strong graphical component.
“There are some books that do fairly well, but I would not propose the author as a presenter for a two- or three-hour webcast because either they’re not very articulate when they’re speaking on their feet or they tend to go off in tangents,” he adds. “It really has to be the right marriage of the talent of the writer and the content of what’s presented.”
Or, in the case of HarperCollins’ “The Average American Male,” the talent of a good producer and director. Leading up to the book’s March release, executives at Harper Perennial “kind of got the feeling that no one would pay attention to it,” according to Carrie Kania, senior vice president and publisher. The book, she says, was sure to offend some with its satirical examination of the mind of the young male.
“We needed to create buzz, but felt the media would not touch it,” Kania recalls. The tactic that was proposed: three short (less than one-minute) commercials posted on YouTube.
“What happened is what is supposed to happen in an ideal world. They became viral,” she says.
From the YouTube exposure, the videos quickly migrated to other sites popular with the 18- to 29-year-old male set, including MySpace, Break.com and Heavy.com.
“They kind of spread like wildfire, sort of overnight. It was a lot of fun for us here in the office to watch it happen. The hits went from 1,000 to 10,000 and suddenly 100,000, and now, we are upwards of
4 million,” says Kania.
From an initial printing of 18,000 copies, the book has gone on to sell more than 40,000 copies. “The primary marketing campaign for the book was these videos,” Kania notes. Eventually, “the campaign became the news,” providing media coverage the book would not have otherwise gotten.
“They’re exactly what videos are supposed to be,” Kania says. “Something you want to show somebody, something you want to pass on.”
For Kania, as for other webcast users interviewed, the content of the video matters more than the content of the book itself; still, “you have to pick the right book to do it. You can’t do this type of marketing on every book,” she says.
“You really want to pick the right book with the right tone for who the audience is,” she continues. “We knew the ‘Average American Male’ audience was guys between the ages of 18 and 29, but we had to go to where they are. They’re not in the bookstore. You have to think outside the bookstore and market to where people are.”
The book’s success has inspired a sequel, “The Average American Female,” whose marketing will feature—what else—online video, probably spoofing the commercials for the male version.
Online video needs to be short, engaging and “e-mailable,” notes Simon & Schuster’s Fleming. She quotes TurnHere’s Inman as citing a rule of thumb: “what you can get away with watching before your boss catches you.”
For Schuster’s authors, the “quick dip” into who they are inspires the viral marketing component, aided by strategic cross-marketing, syndication and search engines. For those who visit the BookVideos.TV site, cutting-edge interactivity will keep them there, including opportunities to comment, join discussion groups, blog—both with text and video (via Web 2.0 applications)—essentially, as Inman puts it, “using the latest Web tools to create a conversation.”
In the end, the cutting-edge approach really represents a new wrinkle in a very old book-marketing strategy.
“It’s word-of-mouth in general, and I think that’s how movies succeed, and music and books,” Kania says. “It’s going back to what made books successful in the first place, and that’s peer-to-peer recognition.” BB
James Sturdivant is an award-winning freelance writer based in Philadelphia, Pa.