In my work with nonfiction authors (and in my experience as a reader), I’m noticing that the function of nonfiction books is changing. From the perspective of a reader looking for expertise in solving a problem or in just gaining knowledge, there are so many information options out there now that – for me, at least – the nonfiction how-to book is beginning to take on a more discrete role than just an emblem of expertise.

Entrepreneurism is exploding right now. Many experts are not just writing books, but building businesses around their expertise, with full-service interactive websites, seminars, webinars, workbooks, and coaching opportunities. Experts/authors and readers have more direct contact with each other than ever before. Which is fantastic. But it also means the book is a relatively distant and static way for readers and authors to communicate. So what are readers looking for in a book?

Put simply, when a reader reads your book, it’s their first, small investment in establishing a relationship with you. I’ll put it personally: when I buy a how-to nonfiction book, it means I’ve seen it recommended by someone I trust (this could be an impersonal, trusted curation source or a personal friend). It means I’ve been to your website and I see that you really do have a depth of experience in the topic – and – this is key – you have a number of deeper-access offerings by which I can get more of your expertise. You have other, more personal ways to interact with you and keep the conversation and the learning going. The book is not the end (establishing your expertise) but the beginning (establishing a relationship). (It may seem ironic that we’re all craving relationships more and more now that our relationships are becoming more digitized, but it’s a very logical result. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Even more, I believe what readers want from books is some way of knowing that the author cares about them and about solving their real problems. And alth0ugh the book does function as a way for authors to build trust with their readers, the real proof of trustworthiness is accessibility.

The takeaway from this is that readers aren’t necessarily looking for the author/expert with the most impressive expertise, but simply expertise that meets certain standards of excellence. And perhaps the most important standard of excellence they’re looking for – the one that has the most weight – is service. Not just robotic or same-for-everyone service, but personal service. In other words, a relationship.

The book is often the first tangible investment in a business relationship a reader/prospect can make. Authors who understand this and have a clear path of accessibility and continuing the conversation beyond the book would certainly be more appealing to me than someone who has the highest awards in the field but remains aloof and self-satisfied in her own expertise.

Readers don’t just want the book anymore. They want the author.

This post is first in a three-part series on book blogging’s value not just for authors’ marketing strategies, but the industry at large.

Most of us have noticed that the number of book reviews blogs (or book bloggers) has increased over the past several years. At first it seemed that these were just like any other bloggers – their pastime just happened to be reading, instead of surfing or cooking or parenting. But when they have their own convention at BEA, it’s official: book blogging is no longer merely a personal pastime. More than that, book blogging goes beyond any new hyped-up personalized marketing tool. It should be an important part of any thoughtful, authentic book marketing campaign because of three important dynamics that aren’t going away anytime soon:

  1. Dramatic increase in online buying. Once upon a time, when we wanted to find something new to read, we’d drive or bike to the local bookstore. We’d browse the displays and the shelves. We’d read book covers and page through books. And then we’d make a mental list of which books we’d like to read. If we were committed enough (or flush with cash), we’d buy it right then. If we were trying to save money, we’d go to the library and possibly put our name on their waiting list if it was a new, popular book. Or we’d ask to borrow it from a friend. Sound quaint? It doesn’t to me, either. It sounds downright luxurious – but virtually impossible (no pun intended). I desperately wish I had time to buy books that way, but most of us don’t. With the ease of online “Buy Now” buttons, all hyperlinked to instant reviews and other books by the author and other things “I might like,” it’s just too easy to get online and buy our books based on the information available there. And with the popularity of e-readers soaring, you can have a sample instantly in hand – for free. For $9.95 or less, you can have the whole book instantly delivered to your reader. No wonder many of us are more likely to look online for our next read – and are particularly influenced by online reviews linked to that book and instantly available.
  2. Social networking has become the primary filter for marketing. We’ve always gotten book recommendations from friends. But our definition of “friends” has changed significantly with social networking. Almost everyone can list a handful of “friends” whom they enjoy interacting with online but have never met face-to-face. And now that everyone has an online opinion about almost any topic, the most effective marketing has a personalized social filter, whether we’re buying clothes or hiring an accountant. Books are no different: we get book recommendations from our Facebook friends, our LinkedIn connections’ Reading Lists, and our Goodreads connections. Personal connections are key to our commerce at every level.
  3. For independently published books in particular, recommendations from trusted sources are crucial. In addition to their recommendations from friends, readers have also always had trusted (if subjective) recommendations regarding the book’s overall quality, such as the New York Times bestseller list and professional book reviews. Because social networking is the preferred method of marketing these days, it makes sense that readers are looking more to favorite bloggers for personalized recommendations. But where book bloggers’ recommendations are nice to have for traditionally published books, they are absolutely crucial for independently published books. Independent authors can’t afford to underestimate the immense investment in quality control that the traditional publishing houses provide – from their manuscript acceptance process, to their triple-layer of professional editing, to their professional, full-time designers and marketers. If you’re an independently published author, you’ve determined that you can do a better job at developing and producing your book than a traditional publishing house. Whether you’re doing all those steps of book development, editing, and design yourself, or serving as the “independent contractor” for building your book, readers need to see that a trusted source has assessed the quality of your work and can recommend it. Someone reputable has to sign off on it. And book bloggers, people who love books and love sharing great books with their friends, are beginning to step into this huge void of quality control for independently published books as one possible trusted source.

Who are these book bloggers and why should I trust them?

First of all, in the recent past, reputable surveys on customer trust have shown that people trust their peers the most – people most like them. But with the proliferation of online personal opinions, that’s beginning to change. Trust in peers is going down, and trust in experts is going up – apparently we’ve finally realized that quality control and expertise are not as overrated as we thought. So readers will not just be looking for book bloggers demographically “like them,” but book bloggers who have some demonstrable expertise that readers will trust. Authors should be looking for the same.

But book bloggers also prove their trustworthiness in the same way most other bloggers do. They’re passionate enough and committed enough to their topic to share their knowledge online freely. Even if their site includes paid advertisements, their rewards are primarily non-monetary: satisfaction at helping others with similar passions, building social connections with like-minded writers and readers, or just plain service to authors and the industry.

The bottom line? If you’re a traditionally published author, book bloggers are the new trend in personalized marketing, and researching which ones are trusted sources for your audience is well worth your time. But if you’re an independently published author, connecting with reputable book bloggers – or some other trusted source for reader recommendations – will be crucial to your book’s success.

Next post in the series: Quality control: why the first step in marketing with book bloggers has nothing to do with marketing.

The Bloom Group, a top-tier thought leadership marketing firm, came up with a deceptively simple tool that will likely replace the white paper very soon: the topic microsite. Topic microsites are simple, single-page websites centered around a particular topic, with a place for an in-depth article, video, a curated newsstand of relevant links and blogs, polls, and community comments. (Here’s a visual.) Essentially, this is dynamic, up-to-the-moment, html content vs. static, print/pdf content.  A multimedia long-term gathering place instead of…well, a white paper.

Even though topic microsites were developed primarily for businesses to showcase their expertise, they seem to be particularly useful for author marketing – as an additional page for your website or a strategic part of your larger marketing plan. Here are some of the particular benefits I see:

  1. They focus on the topic and not on you. Let’s say you’re a nutritionist and you’ve written a book on how to naturally increase your heart health. You could use a topic microsite to laser-focus on (and keep a conversation going about) a topic that incites hot debate, like prescription medications. (A fiction writer could do the same, focusing on a personal passion or the interests of your main characters.)When readers click on the video introduction, they’ll see and hear directly from you why you think this topic is important – maybe even a personal testimonial. They can scroll down a list of in-depth articles about the signs of needing prescription medication for heart health. They can see other blogs and online sources listed in a sidebar. And they can read others’ comments about prescription medications and heart health. Nowhere will the name of your book or its Amazon link be mentioned. You’re the gracious conversation host, focused on the topic at hand, furthering knowledge and truly valuing others’ input. Just including others’ web content as a regular feature in the first place proves you value collaboration and want to help people more than grow your own ego.
  2. They provide targeted stability in making connections and strengthening your platform. By providing a trusted content filter and a gathering place where people will want to return, again and again, for updated content on a very precise topic, topic microsites can help you find like-minded contacts and potential readers perhaps more effectively than a single, ephemeral blog post (even with links and video). People will get to know you over time – your passions, your personality, and your ability to filter out the best web content to best further the conversation. Remember, this is not just about putting forth good ideas, but establishing an energetic and perhaps unusual gathering place for your readers.
  3. They’re a collaborative way to keep abreast of developments in your field. Not only will you be scanning the web for good links to put in your sidebar, your readers will also be sharing their knowledge as well. You’ll be researching slowly over time, and by being tapped in to the knowledge base and true needs of those you want to serve, you’ll know even before you start that your next book idea will be relevant, timely, and truly meet the needs of your readers.
  4. You’ll have fun meeting people who are interested in your topic as you are. Most writers are overfocused, obsessive people (aren’t we?) – with a topic microsite, you’ll encounter folks who are as obsessed about Greek mythology or the Paleolithic diet as you are. Which will inspire you to keep writing and keep diving deep.
  5. They can provide a potential income stream. Once you’ve proven yourself a hospitable host, and your microsite has become a truly valuable resource, you can allow companies that provide relevant services or products to advertise here (if you think it wouldn’t ruin the ambiance), or introduce a monthly subscription rate for full access. If known experts are guest posting articles, if you’re providing true insider information, and/or if this is an extremely cutting-edge topic, many would find a small monthly access fee well worth it.

Perhaps more than anything, topic microsites can make marketing more authentic. Nothing turns me off more than someone who is constantly mentioning their business or talking about their book, and I imagine the same is true for you. When I need information about a topic, and my search leads me to a place where the host really seems to know what he’s talking about and cares about helping his readers personally, I’ll want to learn all I can about what resources this person offers and likely spend some money. Not just because he’s knowledgeable (many others are too), but because I’ll trust him. Topic microsites are a simple tool to help authors “be their best selves,” as my son’s kindergarten teacher used to say – showing transparent passion and expertise in a humble and inviting way.

It’s happened: I finally got a Twitter account. And I’ve gotten my feet wet enough to publicly link my real persona to it: @splitseedmedia. (Yes, there’s a rebranding effort underway – more on that later.) I’m still trying to figure out how to use it well, so if I inadvertently break etiquette rules (particularly about following), I apologize – I’ll get it, I promise.

The first thing I noticed about Twitter was that it seems to draw people with lots of energy and passion about topics. Which is fantastic for independent publishing and authors connecting with readers. It also seems to encourage cross-contamination across industries, which is equally fantastic for innovation. Before really participating in Twitter, the huge amount of retweeting kind of turned me off – seemed like just another unnecessary duplication of content. Basically a duplication of RSS. But now that I’ve experienced it, even if retweeting is like RSS, I certainly prefer Twitter’s way. It’s social RSS – mostly internet content filtered through an interesting person – and it’s a lot more fun. I admit that I use RSS with good intention – and I’m even the one who added the RSS feed – but I somehow never get around to checking Google Reader often enough. In comparison, I want to check Twitter all the time – it’s that personal, real-time social filter. Another blogger noted this as well – I’ll get that link up as soon as I find it.

This makes me think that in the very near future, just like Twitter is beating out RSS, the best content delivery mechanisms are going to need some kind of social filter. Amazon will have a social filter so you only see recommendations by people in your network. Or Google search will only show links used by people in your network. Of course, ever since Facebook, people have been predicting this. It’s only now that I can really see how this is preferable – and more fun.

Using Twitter has also reminded me that even very interesting people are way overproducing Internet content – far more than can be properly digested. Until we can all tone it down a bit, we’re going to need a filter so we don’t miss what we really want to hear. And it’s a good reminder that in this medium, the conversation is every bit as important as the content.

Two updates on the pursuit of sustainable communication through digital tools:

1. The folks at The Wealthy Freelancer did a fantastic job linking together freelancers from all over the world – at the same time – for the first annual International Freelancers’ Day. (Their eponymous book is equally fantastic – highly practical, energetic, and encouraging – and I strongly recommend it for any solo professional. Order it through their site and you get some great freebies.) Despite some technical difficulties at the beginning, Ed Gandia, Steve Slaunwhite, Pete Savage, and their team provided valuable free practical advice on developing and growing your solo business (i.e., the Freemium model that has been successful in media lately) and established themselves as the go-to advisors for freelancers, in my mind. Their content was mainly delivered by separate podcasts, scheduled at certain times (but archived so participants could access them for up to a month afterwards), which I thought was an ideal venue, particularly if presenters shuffled in their power point slides within the podcast. A great example of virtual communication at its best – professionals who persevered through technical difficulties (the tools don’t always work perfectly, no matter how far in advance we test them out), who provided several places for attendees to network in real-time (chat, Facebook page, blog) and stayed personally connected, and who provided lots of lasting resources for entrepreneurial empowerment. Bravo!

2. On the opposite end is the publishing industry’s current frenetic focus on the tool (e-readers, enhanced e-books, etc.) and not the content delivered. We’ve all been enamored with the cool new smart phones, iPads, and e-readers as different ways to receive our information and read our books. Yes, I still differentiate between the two experiences – reading books is still a particular, immersive experience for me, one that I can replicate on my Kindle but not so far on my Droid. [This has more to do with the length of books rather than the act of reading per se - I just need to settle in differently when the ideas presented are complicated enough to unfold slowly. Common sense, really.] 

Our friends at Digital Book World have been pointing this out, particularly through Guy LeCharles’ post On Digital Natives, Analog Marketing, and Branding. That said, I also have lots of patience for our friends in production – they need to master these tools, and they don’t need us breathing down their necks while they do so. More important, this current, frenetic focus on the surface tool in the publishing industry shouldn’t distract those of us who “produce content” (formerly known as writers and editors) – valuable content that lasts can only be produced by people who deeply experience tangible life, take lots of time to listen to and dwell deep in ideas, take risks to learn, and aren’t shy about speaking their mind, even when it’s not popular. That’s sustainable communication – words that last, ideas that live. If we don’t produce it, who will?

Now that my safari into social media has evolved into daily forays, I’ve found the hardest part for those of us who are writers and deep experiencers/thinkers is limiting our time here – and naming what this tool called “social media” is for. I (and many others) have said this before, but social media’s greatest strength for me has been in furthering business contacts (especially as someone who works solo at home), and expanding my list of acquaintances & long-lost friends. I’ve loved being out here connecting with people I wouldn’t have met any other way. But it’s not proven to be a good tool for furthering sustaining (and sustainable) friendships in general, has it? Unfortunately for those of us with limited time (that would be all of us), it’s been easy to use up all my time using this particular tool for interaction to the exclusion of others: face-to-face time, phone calls, even writing letters, for those who like them. For poets & artists & anyone else whose quality of life depends upon deep, lingering experiences, we have to be so careful about not spending all our precious & limited time networking or facebooking, but being intentional about scheduling time to fully be in our environment, investing in our bodily relationships, etc. Scheduling balance, in other words.

Would love to hear what kind of balance between the virtual and tangible people have found in their own daily lives. If life is lived in moments, then moment-by-moment seems a good place to start setting up this sustainable balance (instead of having to have a philosophy or strategy before trying things out). Because I’ve found that unless I’m rooted in and fully experiencing the real, I have very little of substance to say in the virtual. And I certainly don’t want to waste others’ precious time reading random words anyone else could have written with as little thought!

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