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Jeff Yamaguchi, patron of the popular “project-making” Weblog 52projects.com, recently parlayed the success of his site into a spin-off book: “52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity.”

The volume was published in November. In the intervening three months, it sold several thousand copies and drove new traffic to his site. That, in turn, has fueled audience growth and given birth to an online community that shares his interest in the creative life of the mind.

“If it hadn’t been for my site and reaching out to the creative community online, my book would not have sold at all,” Yamaguchi said.

Yamaguchi’s interest in the book’s Web-driven success goes beyond his own writerly ambitions. When he’s not indulging his crafty side, Yamaguchi also happens to be online marketing manager for HarperCollins, a role in which he’s observed several big changes in how books are conceived and marketed.

Much of that change is driven by digital media. Book promotion has always been a word-of-mouth game, so it stands to reason the ever more-connected Web should change the rules.

How exactly is that happening?

Author Empowerment

Depending on whom you ask, the Web is responsible for anywhere between 10 and 20 percent of all direct book sales in the U.S. Despite the enormous influence of Amazon.com and its competitors, shelf distribution and prominent bookstore display remain the critical success factors for most new titles.

Publishers and authors never had a direct conduit to readers, even after the advent of the Web. They continued to rely on tiny ad budgets and sometimes unreliable distribution channels to promote new titles.

With the advent of blogging, podcasting and other accessible content creation technologies, writers began to reach out and promote their books directly, fueling both interest and word-of-mouth sales. They’ve begun to use these newfound tools in large numbers.

The list of authors and publishers using blogs, MySpace profiles and other CGM tools to build audience online is already long, and growing longer. Amazon.com recently launched Amazon Direct to connect authors with their audience directly on the site via blogs and community building tools. Dozens have already enrolled in the program.

Writers as disparate as novelist Bret Easton Ellis and Kathy Cano Murillo, author of five books on crafts, have used these channels to fuel buzz around upcoming titles.

Despite his repute as a fiction writer, Ellis maintains a MySpace profile himself. Murillo has a profile on that site as well, plus a podcast and a Flickr page

“Once I get [an author] interested in the idea of getting a site set up, that means all kinds of things,” said Yamaguchi. “Whether it’s getting on MySpace, setting up a Flickr account, setting up a podcast, it just happens naturally. They’re looking for ways to expand their presence online.”

Authors needn’t do all the work themselves, of course. Once a publisher gets behind a book, the possibilities increase. Meg Cabot, whose book, “The Princess Diaries” is published by HarperCollins, has a site that gets 50,000 unique visitors a month. It includes a blog and animated clips about the author, and Cabot’s mostly pre-teen fans can opt in to receive text messages from her. Those bells and whistles wouldn’t be possible without the infrastructure a publisher can provide to its best-selling novelists.

Random House imprints Knopf and Pantheon have created numerous viral sites and social media plays for their authors and books. Farah Miller, manager of new media for Knopf and Pantheon, recently used MySpace to rally sales of a book about the New Orleans rap and hip-hop scene. “Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap” was supposed to publish this coming spring, but the release was moved up after Hurricane Katrina hit. She hoped a call-to-action among MySpace’s rap and hip-hop fans would boost sales, and she believes that is happening.

“The author has produced a CD of the rappers he talks about and we own the rights to this music,” Miller said. “With MySpace, I was able to put up a page with four of the tracks in less than an hour.”

You must consider the appropriate communities to target, Miller notes. “With MySpace, the question is how much of that is going to translate into book sales. At a place like Knopf, where we publish a lot of really heavy-hitting biographies, $25 and $26 books, you can’t afford them when you’re that age.”

Helping WOM Along

It’s a testament to the central role word-of-mouth plays in book promotion that buzz marketing company BzzAgent has an entire division focused only on its publisher clients.

Approximately 30,000 of the company’s agents are self-identified as avid readers and are included in the company’s various book-focused programs. These individuals engage in various word of mouth activities, including hosting gatherings where friends are invited to read and discuss new books.

One of the less frequently discussed benefits of BzzAgent’s model is the ability to gather feedback on a product that can then be used to tweak the marketing. With book publishing, this can actually be quite useful.

“What we’re able to give publishers is some really valuable market research,” said Michelle Hanson, senior account director of BzzAgent’s publishing practice. “[We] were able to take all that information [gathered from agents] and drop it into trend buckets. One of the valuable services we offer publishers is the market feedback for a particular book. If we’re doing a campaign for a hardcover it’ll help us promote the paperback edition.”

BzzAgent clients have included Penguin Group, HarperCollins, Free Press, Doubleday, Chronicle Books and Rodale. Penguin, one of the stronger publishing brands, even has its own BzzAgent channel focusing its own brand. Historically, publishers haven’t done much of that, chosing instead to promote individual authors.

That’s changing as well.

In poetry, for example, HarperCollins maintains a blog at CruelestMonth.com to highlight its stable of poets. Knopf has a popular poem-a-day email and a podcast with readings by some of its most popular authors, including John Updike, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison and Julian Barnes.

“Traditional wisdom in publishing is that it’s not that important for a publisher to have a brand,” said Hanson. “More and more, I think they’re realizing there’s a great opportunity to market directly to consumers.”

Playing with the Form

In addition to their impact on how books are promoted, digital technologies have wrought some changes in the nature of what a book can be.

Celebrated authors such as marketing guru Seth Godin and BoingBoing blogger and sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow have had success with the free, downloadable e-books as a conduit to physical book sales. For the moment, the approach remains an avenue for already-popular writers.

Some new books are exploring multimedia add-ons and alternative distribution — without entirely abandoning the dead trees. An upcoming business book from Bryan and Jeff Eisenberg, “Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?,” will come with a DVD that contains a PDF copy of the book and video Q&A with the authors.

“I am confident that as the publishing industry starts to reflect the emerging media market that currently exists, [it’s] going to find new and unique ways to sell content,” said Mike Drew, the Eisenbergs’ book publicist. “I think we’ll see a proliferation of e-books, white papers and other approaches.

A more common innovation is the Web’s effect on books’ idea generation process as emerging online writers and media creators roll their best digital concepts into print.

Examples include Yamaguchi’s “52 Projects,” the Ana Marie Cox (a.k.a The Wonkette) novel “Dog Days”; several of Seth Godin’s books; and online viral hit PostSecret.com, just published in book form. The Web turns out to be a great test bed for ideas, especially for bloggers, who can hand-pick thoughts that resonate with readers for deeper treatment in book form. Loyal online audiences quickly become a book’s first buyers, then spread the word.

“The Web is opening up incredible opportunities for authors and publishers to reach out and grow an audience,” said Yamaguchi. “If an author puts out a book and has a Web site and does a lot of online promotion, then boom! Right there for the second book they’ve got this built-in machinery.”

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