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.

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Most of us remember the oft-quoted Edelman Trust Barometer’s 2006 finding that people trust “a person like me” the most. As a result, many businesses and marketers quickly began trying to act less like institutions and more like their customers’ friends or peers, particularly through social networking. Communicating more often and more casually became the goal. Businesses wanted their customers to see them as people like them, in order to trust them, and eventually to buy from them.

But I haven’t seen many implications drawn from this year‘s Edelman Trust Barometer finding that people now trust “an academic or expert” the most. Why the change? My guess, purely based on personal experience and discussions with friends, is that after several years of constant social networking, we’re talking to our online peers way too much about minutiae. With multiple Facebook updates, texts, and tweets daily from people we truly care about and have personal relationships with, we’re in fact drowning in a barrage of minutiae. And this is just from our real friends. To survive, we have to automatically delete all the “relevant” offers and content marketing from even the businesses we’ve opted in to, because we just don’t have time to sift through them.

In 2006, we were just discovering social networking and were craving personal connection – we trusted our peers more than anyone at that point, and certainly more than any faceless institution. But now in 2011, we seem to be craving the curation and discernment of experts, because after experiencing how little of import our peers actually have to say (if they’re talking constantly and we’re listening constantly), maybe experts aren’t as overrated as we thought.  Also, in my humble opinion, this current trend of tsunami-like e-mail marketing has taken advantage of customers’ trust. We opt-in to a mailing list of a business we’ve trusted in the past, and now this business fills our inboxes with multiple “relevant” offers or content per week – sometimes even per day. Even once a week is too often for businesses who offer products or services that I wouldn’t consider buying more than once per quarter. Trust erodes quickly in this kind of environment, because it indicates businesses either don’t know or don’t care about electronic information overload. They just shout louder or more often.

Here’s what I’d like to see happen: I’d like to see businesses act like the experts they are, instead of trying to “talk” to me multiple times a week through Facebook or Twitter or e-mail. What if a real person did this to you in order to be your friend? (Last year, unsolicited email became spam. But now even e-mail marketing lists we opt in to have become spam, because there are just too many. You may be thinking about your business all day every day, but your customers aren’t.) Being a credible, professional expert first is the only way we can develop the trust needed to become friends, and for me to trust more frequent communication from you. But it’s really OK if we only ever stay business partners and never become friends. Those relationships are valuable too.

Most people trying to find a trustworthy product or service provider go to the Internet to search for credible experts – when they need it. And these credible experts usually prove their credibility by putting their expertise front and center as professionals. Content marketing is right on the money if it’s organized by customer need and downloadable online, when customers need it and thus search for it. (I’d even pay for it, if it was from a trusted source and had discernible value in helping me make a good purchasing decision in an objective way. If businesses’ truly put their expertise in terms of customer needs, they could even become quite credible publishers. But that’s another post.) But if businesses’ expertise is split up into a myriad surface bits and sent to my inbox several times a week, it just becomes noise.

Businesses who behave like the calm professional experts that they are, allowing me to find them through search and a recommendation by a trusted and credible source, will get my business every time. And it might even be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This post is third in a series on book blogging. See the other posts here and here.

Now that you’ve taken your manuscript through all the developmental stages of publishing, you’re reasonably confident your manuscript is the best it can be and that it will change your readers’ lives for the better. If only they could find out about it! Here’s where book bloggers come in.

Book bloggers, like all bloggers, have a variety of interests and reasons for setting up their book review sites. And if you’re researching book bloggers as part of your book’s marketing strategy, you’ve probably heard the most about how important blog traffic is. Of course, you must do the number crunching and research a site’s blog traffic. You can get the straight-up marketing perspective, number crunching and all, from a variety of other sources (for example, see this blog post from Digital Book World). But I’m not going to discuss the number crunching here – not only because others can do that far better than I can, but because I actually believe the quality of the review – and its personal appeal to your target audience – is just as important as traffic, if not more so. (Do you really want a ton of people reading a quickly rattled-off review that completely missed the point of your book?) As a reader who also has a book review site, traffic numbers have little to do with why I review books, and they certainly doesn’t influence how I choose what to read next. I have no problem being the lone voice in the wilderness if I believe it’s for a good cause.

Quality not only includes the general craft of the review, but the care with which he or she read your book in the first place. Choosing which book to read next is a very personal pursuit – which readers know very well, but promotional experts too focused on a market mentality tend to forget. Because you’re trying to reach readers who will feel personally drawn to your book, you’ll want it to appear on sites where reviews are as authentic and personal as possible, written by someone naturally drawn to the kind of work you do. I happen to be a bit turned off by review sites too focused on the bestsellers, or on doing anything possible to get traffic, or on churning out as many reviews as possible. But I am drawn toward ones that feel like I’m getting an honest review from a trusted friend with similar likes and dislikes. As you’re researching book bloggers, you’ll likely discern this quality immediately upon viewing the site – and verify it as you do some poking around.

This approach is strategic, not just emotional – a book blogger’s positive review will speak most powerfully to others like him or her, which is likely to yield more sales if the blogger is speaking to your target audience. One caveat: Remember from the first post in this series that most people trust experts more than peers right now? This means your best bet will be someone not only with the same interests as your target audience, but with some level of writing or publishing expertise. That’s not to say there’s a direct relationship between professional status and quality book reviews. Ironically, objective predictors of quality book reviews have always been hard to define, just as they have been for good writing in any form. The most influential have had to prove themselves through the quality of their writing, just like the rest of us. Their reviews, rather than their professional title, will prove their clout over the long haul. And the beauty of blogging is that the “nobodies” are much easier to find and evaluate, which makes finding the right reviewer for even obscure niches all the more possible.   

This also means that if you can imagine a number of different kinds of readers enjoying your book, you’ll want to find a representative of each of those groups. And yes, that does involve checking out blog traffic, as long as you don’t make that your only criteria. You can always clip an excellent but little-known review and broadcast it far and wide yourself.

Bottom line: book bloggers are your readers, too. Don’t view them as marketing machines – interact with them individually as potential friends and resources for valuable feedback.