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JamseedJamseed is the first official “coolest thing I’ve seen all year” for 2009.

 

I found out about it via this short essay on the Harvard Business blog by Soft Skull’s Richard Nash.

For most of human existence the output of art could never keep up with the demand. I believe that is now changing, and that’s why we’re seeing the great intermediaries in this process–record labels, movies studios, book publishing companies Borders, etc.–start to shrink, or even fail. They relied on demand being so pent-up they didn’t really need ot work very hard ot match tastes, to connect artist and audience. But now that demand can in fact be sated, their lack of connection to either artist or audience may doom them.

So given that the great intermediaries can’t match-make, what’s an artist to do? For the last decade, many artists have used the web, and subsets of the web like MySpace, to connect with their fans. But the more intimate a connection, the more powerful a connection can be forged. Intimacy is a quality that was lost in the drive towards ever lower marginal costs of reproduction and distribution, but now that the price reductions are close to over, since the marginal costs are reaching zero, reaching back to the past for the personalized, individually-crafted art object is what can distinguish one artists from another, or rather one artist-fan relationship from another.

Oh hell yes!

So then I trundled over to Jamseed. What is it? An easy and effective web platform to help musicians reward fans with personalised stuff.  Now my brain is busting out with ideas for how this could assist authors. Hooyah.

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Recently the friendly-looking team at HarperStudio asked a question on their blog, The 26th Story, about whether to invest in a full-featured website or keep up the blog. Since they invited input, I weighed in with an oft-quoted phrase in the industry: “The author is the brand”.

The general idea (which someone else much smarter than I had a long time ago) is that customers don’t walk into a bookstore and ask for the latest HarperCollins or Macmillan. They seek out their favourite authors and genres. Readers want to buy the next Alexander McCall Smith or Stephen King or the latest crime thriller or epic fantasy.

In this context, there doesn’t seem much point in investing a lot of money in a publisher website with a lot of bells and whistles, unless you can master the challenges of searchability in order to drive attention to your authors and titles. Instead it makes more sense to invest in communities of interest around topics or genres, such as the Spinebreakers or tor.com sites, or individual author brands.

But then I had a quick look through the HarperStudio blog and static pages and was pretty charmed, actually. When was the last time you saw a publishing company website with candid photos of the publishers? Open, humorous bios with real human details? There aren’t a heap of publisher blogs that are more than publicity channels for the books they’re putting out. The Penguin blog is funky and well written with a diversity of voices, but these are still disembodied voices emanating from an opaque corporate behemoth. The 26th Story is one of the few blogs where I feel like I’m actually engaging in a conversation with the real people behind the enterprise, instead of being fed marketing copy. 

Perhaps that will change as HarperStudio signs more authors and has more titles to manage and promote. Perhaps it will change when they create their new site – although I note they’ve decided to stick with a blog platform for now, using WordPress (good decision!) – but for now I like the small team feel of the blog, the sense (however idealistic) that I could take an elevator to the 26th floor of the HarperCollins digs and find Bob & co sitting around the table much the same as they are in their photo.

And all this got me thinking… is the author the only brand? Isn’t it possible, however unlikely, that some publishers could create an identity so strong and a community so vibrant that audiences seek out their books because they trust and like the people producing them? It’s hard to imagine of the multinationals, but not so hard to imagine of the quirky independents who have well-known identities associated with them, such as McSweeney’s (Dave Eggars) or Small Beer Press (Kelly Link).

Of course, even a wildly successful publisher blog is unlikely to generate the kind of audience that would shift books in the quantities required to make the ROI worth it. Then again, when you look at blogs like Boing Boing it’s quite clear the awesome power of conversation and community. The publisher as brand may not be something to write off just yet. Perhaps publishers just haven’t worked out how to do it well in the new paradigm.

I’ve got some thoughts about author sites and branding too, but this is getting to be an awfully long post already so I’ll hold that over for next time.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s worth publishers spending the time and resources on their own brand identity?

P.S. Keep up the cello practice, Bob. It is the most sublime of stringed instruments.

I was sure that I wrote a blog post about Penguin UK’s Spinebreakers website when it was launched, but a quick search of the archives reveals I only dreamed I did. Nevertheless, I’ve been meaning to write another (first) post for a while. The site has been operating for more than a year now and it has really grown into the lively online space for young readers that it always promised to be.

Here’s what I love and admire about Spinebreakers:

  • it’s an online book community for teenagers… run by teenagers. The editorial team is aged between 13 and 18 years and clearly changes and refreshes regularly. I’ve seen at least one call out for new contributors and editors since I’ve been following the site.
  • Spinebreakers welcomes your content, instead of just talking at you about books. The site is chock full of opportunities to contribute content, whether it be writing book reviews, submitting video poems, making book trailers,  or writing an alternative chapter for your favourite book.
  • The editorial team are fantastic curators. This not a my Space-style social network. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we have plenty of them already!) The Spinebreakers Crew of more than 30 teenagers keep up a constant stream of quality author interviews, writing tips, book info, short stories and, yes, commentary. I have the RSS feed in Google Reader and would probably get more than a dozen items a day from Spinebreakers. It’s fresh.
  • Spinebeakers is an experience not just a website. The best part of all (except for me living in Australia) is that Spinebreakers have branched out into live events such as author talks and writing workshops. The first Spinebreakers Live, on July 25th, was a muster of more than 50 teenagers who worked with mentors on film creation, music production and creative writing. (As I so often do these days, I found myself whingeing “they didn’t have anything that cool when I was a teenager!”)

I wrote a while back about deep niches and the potential for publisher-driven sites to realise the value of vertical channels. Spinebreakers, along with the new Tor.com website, are examples of exciting initiatives in this direction. Of course, I can’t know if or how Spinebreakers has impacted on Penguin’s book sales of YA fiction but I do know they have attracted a loyal and active audience, including me!

Amazon has been flexing its muscles in both good and bad ways in recent weeks. A few publishers, namely Hachette Livre, have been making a show of defiance in the face of Amazon’s demands for a bigger discount from publishers. Bookseller.com reported the ongoing dispute had prompted Amazon to remove the “Buy Now” button from several titles by big-name authors, including Stephen King and James Patterson.

Hachette, quite reasonably I think, points out that Amazon already gets a very generous discount, up to 60%. That’s a huge step up from what bricks and mortar booksellers command. Publishers work on pretty slim margins for books, it’s one of the reasons why they have to publish so many titles to make the general trade publishing business model work. Any additional price discount to Amazon gouges the profitability of what, for many titles, is already a marginal proposition.

The industry is watching closely. Authors may well be worried if their titles are not on sale during the dispute. They’ll be even more unhappy when it comes time to negotiate their next contract, however, if publishers offer less because they can’t make the P&L stack up.

But here’s why everyone’s so nervous about it, and why it’s so important to find a solution to “the problem of Amazon”. Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon turned a literary novel by a first-time author into a 90,000 sales sensation. In one week.

The Web retailer chose the book as one of the best books of June and aggressively hyped it, including by posting a long and enthusiastic blurb from best-selling author Stephen King. The same blurb was printed inside “early reader” copies sent to reviewers, bloggers and booksellers.

Amazon also kept “Edgar Sawtelle” on its home page for two weeks at a 40% discount before the book hit stores, and posted an essay written by the author at Amazon’s request. “We also had a preorder banner in May, which is something we do for books that we think will have significant interest for our customers,” says Tammy Hovey, an Amazon spokeswoman.

The advance word — by a site thought to account for 15% of U.S. book sales — had significant impact. Ecco initially printed 26,000 copies but went back to press three times before the book hit stores, adding another 12,000 copies.

With this kind of power over a book’s impact in the marketplace, it’s no wonder everyone gets nervous when Amazon withholds its “Buy Now” button. It’s why Hachette’s insistence on standing up to a company that is increasingly behaving like a marketplace bully is so admirable.

And while you’re thinking about your book trailer, watch this trailer (which made me squirt milk out my nose) Thanks to PersonaNonData for the heads up!

Over at Quillo:Torque, the talented Jeremy Gordon is hosting a discussion about the merits of book trailers for authors.

Creators of book trailers need to be careful to evoke the mood and themes of the literary work, without hamstringing the reader’s visual associations by defining the look of each character. Who needs imagination when the word-image connections have already been set?

It’s an interesting topic and one I’ve pondered as a tool for author promotion. Jeremy’s right to point out the high costs of production. Not only that, but in the rather crowded channel of online videos how does one stand out or attract page views? If you attract views will it boost sales of the book or, like quirky tv ads, will it become more notable for the popularity of the trailer than the product it’s promoting?

For my mind, it’s about finding interesting ways to tell a story. (That’s what is most likely to make an impression and create that sought-after viral distribution.) This might be achieved through a short video, but it might just as easily be achieved through cheaper and ultimately more effective means. For example, check out Miranda July’s clever HTML presentation to promote her short story collection No one belongs here more than you. This little site was linked to all over the blogosphere and helped July achieve real momentum behind her book. She has even been able to update it, presumably for as little investment as she made to create the first one. One wonders if she’d spent $3000 on a book trailer if she would have achieved a similar result?

//noonebelongsheremorethanyou.com/

I’ve had lots of conversations recently with emerging authors about promotion and marketing and how important it is to start building your platform within your communities of interest. Kassia Krozser over at  Booksquare says it much more eloquently than I could.

Here’s a quote:

All roles in entertainment media are changing, and authors, particularly, need to switch from a book-oriented focus to a career-oriented focus. This involves little things like updating your website betweenbooks (please, please, please don’t have two-year old content on your home page!). Blogging, if you’re so inclined. Writing articles that are read by your existing and future fan base. Using social media for good (as opposed to evil). Keeping your name in the game even when you’re not actively selling something, except your backlist.

This is the author as a business, as opposed to the writer as a creative being. Note the distinction. You’re wearing two hats. One might fit uncomfortably until you realize that marketing is your job. Marketing might be a distraction for a writer, but it’s essential if you’re an author.

Starting a blog is just a first step, and really if you’re not going to be committed to actually blogging, then there’s not much point in even doing that. What it’s really all about is immersing yourself in the overlapping social networks that swirl around your genre or chosen content or field of expertise. Thanks to the rise of online social media like Facebook, MySpace, wikis or, heck, even just ye olde message boards, this is both easy and cheap to do. What it requires is your time and interest in engaging with the people that are or will be your audience.

HogeTown is deflecting criticism for saying that it’s not a smart idea to have a book launch and not tell punters where and when it is. He mentions my post on author platform:

Also, I’m surprised to see one launch being promoted as a mystery, where we have to keep an eye out for clues as to when/where it will be.  Sometimes there are reasons these things aren’t known a week out from the con. Often they’re out of the control of the publisher. It happens. But if that’s the case tell us and let us know when we can find out. Otherwise it’s just as likely we won’t come because we won’t know when the bloody launch is on! As Kate would say on Electric Alphabet, it’s not good ‘platform.’

I thought I would make a few points here. Firstly, this is not quite what I meant when I talked about author platform. The book launch in question is for 2012, a small press anthology edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne from Twelfth Planet Press.

Arguably, Alisa has excellent ‘platform’. She is deeply embedded in the Australian speculative fiction blogosphere. Her online review site, ASif!, attracts healthy patronage. She is a prolific publisher, critic and blog journalist. All these things add to her platform, that nebulous term which describes a combination of profile, reach or influence to particular audiences. Attempting to exploit that platform in order to promote her new publication is smart, and exactly what I hope more Australian authors will do, firstly by paying attention to how they can improve their platform, and then thinking about ways to use it to connect with readers and book buyers.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s a smart promotional strategy keeping the basic details of the launch (time, place etc) a secret, not for a small press book launch at a science fiction convention. This is a function of the kind of event a fan convention is. At any one time there are several program items competing for punters’ attention, not to mention the social pull of the bar, the traders room etc. It’s a content free-for-all. Being subtle and clever in this context doesn’t make sense. If you want people at your launch, you need to tell them where and when and give them compelling reasons to be there otherwise they’ll plan to be somewhere else. I understand that Alisa is trying something different and new, trying to get away from the boring old formula for book launches by using vague clues to create curiosity, buzz and anticipation. That’s to be applauded, and without that experimentation, we won’t know if a different approach could be more successful. But it needs to be coupled with clear information about how the mystery will be solved, what the pay off is, how tension will be resolved for the punter. This is not, after all, an episode of Lost. There’s a clear end game: to sell books.

I’m reminded of the time we were in Edinburgh during the Fringe and the basic method of promoting the dozens of shows going on across the city every night was for people from those shows to walk the Royal Mile with flyers and signs and comic performances to attract attention. This isn’t as chaotic and random as it may seem. The performances were designed to engage tourists and create desire to attend the show, much like Alisa’s mystery clues. But there was still a tangible item – the flyer, the sign – which said where to go, what time, how much.

At a convention, like a festival, there many things competing for attendees’ attention day and night. Why risk those people being distracted or captivated by something else before you can deliver the most important information – how to attend the launch, how to buy the book. And at the end of the day, number of people who showed up and number of books sold are going to be the measures of success.

Speaking of viral platforms for promoting and selling books, at the expensive end of the scale HarperCollins is going all out on a promotional campagin for Prince Caspian in a “Read the book before you see the movie” push. Tools of Change for Publishing blog notes:

The Facebook and widget components are notable because they represent a clear effort to engage the target audience (kids) on familiar ground (social networks, blogs, etc.). Back in the day, a program like this would have been relegated to a microsite and maybe a few text ads. Now, the openness of Web 2.0 creates all sorts of new engagement opportunities — both for companies and the audiences they seek.

Given the extent of Alisa’s ‘platform’ which I mentioned above, and which is largely based in online social media, I wonder if a well-constructed social network campaign wouldn’t give a better payoff for her time and energy in promoting 2012. I’m not talking having someone program her own widgets of course, but as this Guy Kawasaki article notes, you don’t necessarily need the bells and whistles to make word-of-mouth networks work harder for you.

Richard Herley, in his first post on Teleread, is discussing why savvy literary agents will have new opportunities in the e-publishing market. It’s a fantastic post and you should read it and think about what he says.

However, one little aside he made caught my eye:

Let me digress a little. The reason that hardback houses hold such sway in the publishing world is that they largely control—or did control—the entry to the market. Of course, they also promote the books they publish, but, as any publisher will privately admit, even a big promotion budget is wasted on a third-rate book. Books succeed only if readers like them. Once readers know of its existence, a book is promoted principally by word of mouth.

One of the things I’m often telling emerging writers is to moderate their expectations of how many marketing dollars are invested by publishers in their books. New authors often have unrealistic ideas about how much promotional support they will receive, especially for a debut. They have visions of national publicity tours, signings, launches, displays and printed collateral. In reality, it’s more likely to be distribution of review copies, some targeted media releases and inclusion in the catalogue. Don’t get me wrong – done well, a thoughtful publicity campaign will yield just as much exposure for far smaller spend than a lavish marketing program.

But Richard’s observation has me wondering whether, secretly, one of the reasons publishers don’t bother to spend much on the marketing of (most) books is, not that they don’t have budget for it, but that they know it doesn’t really matter. In the end, reviews, interviews and ads don’t really prompt people to buy books and read them. People do. Friends and peers do. Social networks do.

Of course, if that were the case, I’d expect to see more effort (in Australia) in doing the things that might impact on word of mouth, rather than traditional above the line publicity and advertising? I’d expect to see every publisher pooling their marketing spend into building vibrant online communities. Some are – I think the social media components of HarperCollins Voyager Online have attract a really strong, if small, community. I guess I’m surprised not to see more of it, in a whole range of genres.

And since we were talking last week about authors promoting themselves better on the internet I was all geekgrrl delight when ReadWriteWeb alerted me to Traackr.

The nutshell version: Traackr is a service that enables you to keep track your content on the web and measure its popularity and influence. The platform gathers together your content living in other social media accounts including MySpace, Flickr, Last.fm, YouTube and more. It then provides graphs and stats about your content such as number of view, comments and ratings. It also has a Campaign tool which enables you to bundle up your content in different configurations.

I absolutely love this. My early professional experience was actually in marketing and I have a bit of an obsession with being able to track and measure campaign success. Since authors are distributing more and more content on the web, often not in a planned way, it would be an invaluable tool to be able to assess how it’s being received and used.

Imagine an author who has a new book out – the Campaign tool would be an invaluable way to package together content about the book and assess how web users are responding to it. Several authors I know, such as Ian Irvine and Marianne de Pierres are experimenting with their own book trailers, distributing them via YouTube. Traackr could give them a more complete picture about how the book trailer has been distributed and consumed, instead of only knowing how many views it has received on YouTube.

Traackr is still in beta version and has a few kinks to be ironed out. I haven’t finished playing with it yet, but I look forward to its evolution and more services just like it.