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.