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.

My apologies – I just discovered comments were turned off for the previous post. Completely unintentional and mysterious, but it’s fixed now.

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.

I have always loved stories. In my childhood, they came in the forms of books, ghost stories told late at night during slumber parties and campouts, movies, and TV shows. That felt like a gracious plenty in terms of venues available. The VCR, which appears in my home in the fourth grade, was a revelation – now we could watch our favorite movies over and over again! No longer did we have to wait, hearts longing, for the yearly broadcast of the Wizard of Oz – we could tape it on cable (another new development) and watch it at will. We developed a taste for Bob Hope movies – anything that broadcast on the brand-new Disney channel – and we would bring those movies with us to play over and over again on the portable video player in our family’s conversion van, during our long trips from Texas to Pennsylvania each summer. We loved the multiplicity of stories available through this new, personalized, just-in-time media called cable and the VCR, and my parents didn’t seem too worried about limiting our exposure – the content was child-appropriate, and I’m sure it just seemed like more of a good thing. It certainly kept us quiet during those endless car trips.

That story probably dated me to the year, and I’m too young to wax nostalgic, but remembering my childhood has helped me in parenting – particularly in terms of the power of story and the imagination. Parents who have had their first children in the last decade or so have been bombarded with information that has empowered, yes, but has also overwhelmed those of us who tend to be perfectionists. We wonder how much media is too much: the current wisdom says children should have no more than two hours of screen time each day. Yet I feel pretty powerless to uphold that limit when my bread and butter comes from sitting in front of a computer (or smartphone) at least seven hours each day. Plus, there are so many media developments, and great ideas from smart people, freely broadcast every moment. Although I do wonder how long we can all keep this up without deciding it’s just easier to plug our brains into our machines so we don’t have to take the time to type or even speak our thoughts into the computer…but wait, someone’s already made a lot of money exploring that idea. The power of story…again.

We all know we’re physical beings that live by growing organically – just like the natural world does. So logic says that we need a healthy amount of time connecting to the physical world and physical relationships to live well – I can’t say how much that is. And surely the best stories and thoughts come from human beings who spend real time in the real world, connected to what actually sustains us. But I have to say, remembering the power of story from my our childhood, that I’m not surprised I’m having trouble keeping my sons from actively exploring all the media forms available to them. I’m doing it right alongside them. (With tightly controlled content, of course. I’m still a stickler about that – at work and at home.)

Bottom line: this is an exciting time to be in the media business. I really don’t want to unplug right now – and my kids are the kind of people who would be excited about it too. Screen time is not the only important parental metric, is it? My boys are smart and quick and extremely creative problem solvers (just like your kids probably are) – skills that will serve them well as digital natives. If limiting their screen time means limiting their imagination, I’m just wired to err on the side of growing the imagination. Not because that’s the objective ideal, but because that’s who I am, and I can only change my natural design so much. I have beat myself up plenty because I would rather play a computer game or read a book with my kids than run around outside with them. (That’s what their friends are for, I tell myself. And I was always the kid with my nose in a book, anyway.) I have viewed that aspect of myself as a terrible, fatal flaw in my motherhood. But we parents have the hardest job in world – raising digital natives who still have a body. We can probably stand to cut ourselves some slack while we figure this out. If it’s possible, I’d rather enjoy this exciting flurry of digital creativity instead of feeling guilty about it.

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.

Mike Shatzkin, very trusted source on how new media is affecting old publishing, just alerted us to one zinger of a headline: full-time novelist Barry Eisler has turned down a $500,000 contract from a traditional publisher in order to self-publish. It now makes transparent economic sense for (some) writers to develop their own publishing capacity (see the lengthy but crucial conversation between Eisler and noted self-publishing author Joe Konrath here). As most of us have already known, this development also makes clear that those who produce content (ideas and stories), not those who polish the delivery mechanism, own the true value.

This is all the more true for thought-leading businesses – now is the time to develop your own publishing capacity. The business model of publishing as a separate industry just doesn’t make economic sense for large businesses who have already developed their own niche market through their services and their web presence. The more directly accessible your content is to your tribe, the more they will buy it. (Smaller and/or less known individuals and businesses still benefit greatly from traditional publishing’s reach and expertise because they don’t have it themselves. But with even small effort applied to leveraging new media, this will change sooner than we think.) Very soon there won’t be a large divide between blog posts and books – it will just be one flowing continuum, where people will click on their choice of media – digital or print – to read your content of varying lengths. Those who have their own media arm are well on the way – adding book publishing capacity will only get easier and easier. Why not own that capacity yourself?

The recent virtual communication advances have enabled so many threshold moments, but one very important one is the transformation of publishing from industry to capacity. Because it just doesn’t take as much machinery and capital and labor to produce and disseminate content, publishing is now much like accounting, or marketing, or IT, or graphic design – a streamlined capacity that still requires expertise, but in a lithe and loose way – so that publishing experts will need to connect to another industry besides “publishing.” Even though this will require some scary reshuffling, I think this is tremendously exciting, because business needs publishing much more than it realizes to meet the goal primary to most businesses today: establishing trust. And the new publishing technologies available today have the capacity to further trust far more than mass media publishing ever could.

A few nights ago, I finally watched Guns, Germs, and Steel, a National Geographic docmentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Jared Diamond. I was already familiar with the specific content of his proposal, which had disseminated far and wide in the last 15 years or so since the book had been written – that the people groups who controlled guns, germs, and steel went on to rule the world. But I didn’t realize that this documentary was also really about return on investment, and how efficiency begets innovation which begets further efficiency. People groups living in geographies where they could spend less energy on survival (food was more nutritious and/or more easily stored and prepared, for example) had more time and energy to spend on developing innovative technologies, such as agriculture, steel, medicines, and so on. A greater return on investment from energy spent on survival, continually invested, yields compounding interest.

A straightforward concept, and one I couldn’t help but apply to what’s happening in the publishing industry. With the communication technologies now available, we get a much better ROI on energy spent producing and disseminating content, which means publishing can now be a mobile capacity for an industry rather than a whole industry itself. It just doesn’t require that much mechanical effort anymore. This leaves us all more energy not only to invest in the quality of our ideas (i.e., have time to think & talk about our ideas to yield greater insight), but also in what the ancient Greeks called rhetoric. Both are vital for businesses who value establishing trust with their customers.

The study of rhetoric flourished before the printing press – when communication was mostly oral and immediate. Today rhetoric usually implies empty words, a connotation probably likely even in ancient times, as rhetoric has nothing to do with the truth of the content, but how well it’s expressed. Assuming that we have something truly valuable to express to our audience (why else would you go to all this effort?), the classic rhetorical triangle provides for much richer impact than much of what passes for even transformative communication today, which is usually just the quickening pulse of insight. The three vital aspects of communication, according to classical rhetorical studies, consist of logos (logical expression), pathos (connection with your audience), and ethos (the communicator’s character).

So although more energy can be invested in the quality of composition (and it likely should), the words you use are only one third of the equation of effective communication. What communication technologies have done is return the possibilities of both pathos and ethos to written communication – qualities previously only possible with oral communication. With print media, a huge, impenetrable layer of machinery stood between the audience’s ability to discern an author’s ethos (character), as well as the author’s capacity for true pathos (connection with his audience), effectively removing both from the rhetorical equation. The remaining leg of logos limped along for a while, but the author’s inability to connect directly with her audience inevitably led to a split between those who produced content and those who consumed it – and the dehumanization of both.

Here’s my layperson’s view, of two communication vehicles: marketing and publishing. Twentieth-century marketing experts tended to view “the public” en masse as pavlovian consumers, whose base desires could be easily molded by the right message and thus exploited to profit the business – which in turn dehumanized the marketers as they viewed people as merely means to monetary profit. (Viewing people as less than human always dehumanizes – the public only would have been dehumanized insofar as they held a similar view of themselves or the marketers, which may have also been true.) In publishing, the same split between producers and consumers of content created a literary elite, quick to differentiate from and demean the mass public, as if writers are always smarter than readers.

Now that anyone can produce content as well as consume it, that false division has been obliterated – for the better. I admit I have a lot of patience for the flurry of social media today – writers and readers, businesses and customers, have been blindly dependent on each other and had never even met. (Customers discovered businesses were not a bunch of nameless men in suits, but real people with likes and dislikes, some of whom actually loved what they did for a living.) Now we can talk to each other anytime and anyplace – of course we’re a little manic right now. That will settle. But when it does, the capacity for constant connection will remain – and we’ll discover who each other really is. And whether we really want to maintain the relationship.

Which is why businesses desperately need the capacity of publishing – not the mass print, hobbling leg of logos alone, but people who know how important pathos and ethos are to rich, transformative, relationship-building communication that will yield yet another layer of compounding return on investment – best embodied currently in the concept of co-creation. Books and blogs and studies and conversations are popping up everywhere about how crowds are smarter than even the smartest individuals – and these social communication technologies are enabling like-minded crowds to find each other and talk about common passions and ideas that are bigger than anyone’s ego or career or reputation.

Developing your business’s publishing capacity – really, your business’s rhetorical capacity – will be how your business will establish authentic trust with your customers – if your business really is trustworthy and honestly cares about worthwhile, valuable pursuits (more than just a profit, and more than just chasing customer whims). Social communication tools don’t create ethos or pathos – they just reveal what’s already there. Just like rhetoric doesn’t create valuable insight. So this is the time for a deep examination of our value propositions – do we really produce something good for real people? Or are we still doing business in the mass media age? Can we express that value proposition in terms of a concept or pursuit larger than ourselves or even our customers? If your business is centered around creating value beyond the financial, and you’re able to communicate that value and leverage like-minded collaborators in that pursuit, you were made for this moment.