Friday, August 12, 2005

Marketing Books on the Internet

Being a supposed internet-marketing "expert" at a publishing house, I often get (what is now a classic) web-weary look of desperation from colleagues wanting to know the basics: Can you save my books? Is there hope? What can we do? I'm beginning to feel an affinity with the crew of the Titanic.

The web is a fickle tool. It's so seemingly easy, and yet so utterly frustrating in its rates of success. Why does it work for some and not for others? And in this age of new media, where does really old media (i.e. a book) fit in? Recently, I've seen two different websites/authors/books answer these questions in strikingly different ways, which when compared offer some valuable insight into all of this mess.

The first is a rather obvious choice, and also one the begets a question of whether it was the chicken or the egg. Clearly Freakonomics has become a phreakomenon (oooh, sorry about that!) by several means other than it's website (which should be taken as a point that the internet cannot be your only answer), but part of its continued success - and more importantly RELEVANCE - has come from it's dynamic website.

Yes, it has all the usual features we've come to expect from a website for a book: the reviews, the links, where you can buy it (go figure!), and of course the obligatory excerpt, but this website also has something that's entirely vital to the whole concept of the book: a blog.

Freakonomics is a book of ideas, and the book itself is simply the starting point for a long conversation the authors have begun with the world. The book is, in a sense, our ticket for admission to the conversation. What the authors started with the book, continues every day through their blog and through the comments left by readers. What they started was a community, a conversation that makes its participants feel connected and important. How does your book make it's readers feel connected and important?

Now granted, Freakonomics is an easy choice - it was probably destined to be a bestseller whether it had a website or not - but this is no reason to dismiss what the website does so successfully. For one, the website and the books authors understand their audience. It's an information audience, they gravitate to current information sources (like the internet), they want the Freakonomic perspective on issues that go beyond the book, and they want to participate at their leisure and anonymously if possible. A blog is the perfect solution to that set of criteria and so it fits the audience well. People can access it and participate as often or as infrequently as they like, there's a regular stream of new information directly from the source of interest (i.e. the authors), and the medium is as fresh and current as the ideas in the book. It just makes sense.

This is not the case for every book. Authors of histories and memoirs may find that they're wasting their time with a blog. The same might be said for novelists, though I think that depends on personality as well. So what if you haven't written the next Freakonomics, or you are writing in different genre, for a different audience, on another planet? Well, who's your audience?

The second author website I noticed recently that seemed to be doing all the right things was Chris Bohjalian's website. Chris's audience skews more towards the middle-aged mother from middle-America. He writes novels about families and the difficult social and moral dilemmas they face by virtue of being human. It's not my personal preference, but it doesn't have to be to see that Chris Bohjalian has done an awesome job with his website, one that really connects with his audience.

Again, Chris has all of the essentials: info about all of his books, his bio, an extensive list of his events and speaking engagements. He even has a guestbook, which is a personal touch his audience might appreciate - it's Chris's way of saying "welcome to the site," and "I'd be delighted to know you stopped by."

What you won't find on his site is a blog. Nor will you find daily updates from Chris regarding his thoughts on current issues, or even weekly, monthly! And why should you? Chris's core audience is not surfing the web everyday, looking for new content from familiar sources. What you will find on his site though is something far more pertinent: Chris Bohjalian.

The essential thing that Chris provides through his website is access. He makes himself available. Whether it's in the "Discussion Board" section, where he seems to answer every question posted (usually right away and always with a very thoughtful, personal, and useful response), or in the area dedicated to "Reading Groups." And it's with the focus on reading groups that Chris truly differentiates himself from other authors. On his site, you can fill out a form to set up a 30-minute conference by speakerphone with Chris for your reading group. He explains why he does it on the site, saying:
Imagine: A small kinship of readers who celebrate the excitement of books, and the way that passion grows when it is shared. This is, in essence, what a reading group offers, and one of the reasons why more and more people are giving themselves license to revel, once again, in a book.
But the only reason necessary (in my book) is because that's where his audience is: gathered around a dinner table in Ohio, chatting among friends, gossiping, and eating food. Chris's point of entry to this crowd is simply like a phone call from a friend. And that's precisely why his website works - it formulates community in a different (yet appropriate) way. It's knows its audience and makes them feel connected and special by the means through which they understand.

And that is really the key thing these two very different websites have in common. They know their audience, they know how to connect to them, and they know how to reward them with what they are really seeking. So when I get those three questions: Can you save my book? Is there hope? What can we do? I have three questions of my own: Who's the audience? Where are they? And what do they want?


Blogger Patry Francis said...

It might be helpful if we writers start asking ourselves those last three questions BEFORE we start the book, rather than when we are in a fit of desperation over poor sales.

10:46 PM  
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