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Every now and then I use Google Reader’s recommend function to find me a list of blogs I might add to my feeds. My list of regular feeds changes over time so it’s good to reach out for new content based on what I’ve been reading lately. When I did that today, Google Reader recommended the Puffin Blog.

I hadn’t come across this one before but, despite my interest in young adult fiction, I will not be adding the Puffin Blog to my feeds. This is an example of the all-too common “blog as marketing channel”. Most companies fail dismally at this, and publishers are no exception.

You can spot a “blog as marketing channel” a mile away. Firstly, there are no comments.  A blog is a social media platform. You know it’s achieving its purpose when you can see evidence of social behaviour, of conversation, of engagement. Regardless of how many people may be subscribed to your RSS feed, if you’ve got zero comments your readers don’t care enough to engage with your content or with you. That’s bad news for a company hoping to use a blog to reach out to customers. It’s also a waste of time and resources.

Another telling feature of the blog as marketing channel is the ubiquityof product mentions. On publisher blogs, this means almost every post is a book plug. Sometimes this is dressed up with witty banter or disguised within a personal anecdote by a company executive. Sometimes, in an attempt to show that the organisation is staffed by real, flesh and blood humans, you’ll see a variety of employees posting, everyone from the book designer to the receptionist. You’ll rarely see real analysis or opinion, or a sense of the company’s understanding of its place within a community of customers, readers, authors, and industry players. The result is pervasive sense of PR fluff and lightweight content.

It used to be common wisdom that content is king. But the popularity of social media has demonstrated that what internet users are really seeking is connection. A blog may be a cheap and easy way of publishing web content but its biggest strength is that it is a platform for conversation.

Are there publisher blogs that get it? Over at the 26th Story, I think HarperStudio has understood the opportunity and challenge of a company blog very well. There is real opinion, meaningful engagement with issues relevant to the HarperStudio brand and active encouragement of community discussion. The same is true of Soft Skull News and Abbeville Manual of Style.

These are blogs that still manage to showcase their authors and upcoming titles, but also maintain a place in a lively community of readers and other bloggers. Most importantly, these bloggers realise that conversation is taking place everywhere simultaneously. There’s no way to control it, only to participate in it.  I don’t need to take a sneaky-peek at these blogs’ Google Analytics results to know they’re more effective than a “blog as marketing channel” promo site.

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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.