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.

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.

If you, like me, are weighing the pros and cons of the various e-readers out there, you may be wondering if the iPad might be the cost-effective choice (despite its $750 price tag for 3G). Every year brings a new development in web functionality and digital publishing, and no one has quite figured out yet which combination of features works best on which size gadget. Most of us have figured out that the smartphone is just too small for meaningful computing, yet the laptop, at times, is just too big. Many of us are thinking the tablet is the answer. But is now the right time to buy? If the e-reader function is at the top of your must-have list, I believe the answer is no – or at least, not yet.

I bought my Kindle several years ago – it’s not the latest generation, but it’s not the oldest either. But now that real industry standards for epub 3 are out, last week I bought the iPad 2, which supports epub 3 and thus enhanced e-books – something the Kindle can’t do. So far three authors have asked me to integrate enhanced features in their manuscripts and proposals, and since I also do book design, the iPad is unquestionably a game-changer. So the decision to buy was a simple business decision: required product research. But I was also personally interested in the iPad’s functionality as a multi-purpose computing tool – could it replace my laptop too? If it was a good e-reader, and it could let me edit on the run, it would be a considerable bargain.

Here are the pros and cons of each, as one avid cloud-computer and e-reader sees it:

Kindle

Pros:

  • Lightweight (easy to hold in one hand, just like a book)
  • Digital ink is easy on the eyes for long periods of reading
  • Page-turning is easy on the eyes (screen just refreshes instead of sliding, blurry, to the next page like the iPad)
  • Convenient one-hand reading (“next page” button is right where your hand is when holding it – no need to touch the screen)
  • Affordable price for an e-reader ($139 for wi-fi, or $114 if you don’t mind advertisements). More than pays for itself if you consider the saved space on your bookshelves, saved time in ordering, and saved money in e-versions. I buy a LOT of books.
  • Wi-fi vs. 3G: I like my 3G, but there was no wi-fi option when I bought mine. My husband has the wi-fi version, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down. Since Kindle is an exclusive e-reader, it’s not a huge inconvenience (for U.S. users, at least) to make sure to download books when you’re in range. You don’t need to be connected to read your books. So the even more affordable wi-fi version seems adequate.
  • Overall – a reader’s e-reader, great for reading standard books and curling up on the couch

Cons:

  • Does not have full Internet browser. So it can’t double as a phone (via skype), a computer, etc. This means it’s another gadget to carry that may duplicate perfectly adequate e-reading technology in your phone or laptop.
  • Does not have enhanced e-book capabilities. Epub 3 has just been released, so almost all publishers are working to take full advantage of its design capabilities. Video, enlarged graphics, and multiple links will be seamlessly integrated with the text, which means reading these books absolutely requires constant connection to the web. A touchscreen will almost certainly be the primary way to interface best with these books – or whatever they will be called. (“Enhanced e-book” is just too long a term to be used for much longer. This is definitely a new animal, but no one’s named it yet – we’re still just describing it, because it’s still being made.) Enter – the iPad.

iPad

Pros:

  • Enhanced e-book capabilities (for significance, see above)
  • Full Internet browser. This is the multifunctional gadget extraordinaire: if you save docs in the cloud it can double as a laptop (as long as you’re just primarily reading them); it syncs to iTunes so it doubles as an iPod, and if you need more screen space it can also double as a second monitor. For some it could function as both a laptop and a more convenient e-reader. The larger screen makes it much more user-friendly than a smartphone – but like a smartphone, it’s still primarily for e-mail, document viewing, and entertainment – until Office and Adobe CS go fully into the cloud.
  • Wi-fi vs. 3G – iPad has both versions, just like the Kindle does, but since there’s no point in buying the iPad if you don’t want to take advantage of its internet browser, the 3G is far more valuable to the iPad than the Kindle, which makes the price differential even greater (see below).
  • Overall, a convenient e-reader for early adopters – for those who prefer their e-reader as a side dish rather than the main course, and who were primarily looking for a larger smartphone screen. The iPad’s main course is convenient Internet access everywhere, taking full advantage of all the web has to offer (which is a lot). But it’s not everything:

Cons:

  • The PRICE – for 3G, which I think you would absolutely need if you depended on its internet features away from home, it runs upward of $750, compared to $139 or less for a Kindle wi-fi.
  • The weight – too heavy to hold for reading in one hand.
  • Backlit screen and motion-sickness-inducing page sliding is harder on the eyes (sliding applies to epub 2 designed books – which, granted, is the past industry standard, but most e-books available now are in this format). Disclaimer: few may be bothered by the blurring of the page when swiping to turn pages, but I read pretty quickly and very often, so this swiping adds up for me.

If you haven’t already deduced, after using the iPad for a little while, I still much prefer my Kindle for reading books. The iPad is just too heavy to hold like a book, and the touchscreen (although it allows for cool design features in epub 3 books like translucent pages that really look like they’re turning) means you have to keep moving your hand to turn the page. (The Kindle has a button right where your hand is when you’re holding the book, so you don’t even have to move your hand. Very easy one-hand reading.) As an e-reader, Kindle is just easier for me to use. I look at a backlit screen all day, so the digital ink is a relief.

Even though it’s beautifully designed, as an e-reader the iPad is too much like a computer, yet as a laptop, it’s too much like a smartphone – it’s too small (even with the add-on keyboard, which is awkwardly small). I need the full features of Microsoft Word to do my work, which isn’t available on the cloud yet. So I can’t say I’d personally recommend it, based on what I need a portable gadget to do.

Bottom line: an iPad is great for people who have limited e-reader needs and limited computing needs, and want the latest and greatest multifunctional gadget that can combine an e-reader and full internet access, where the Internet functionality is the main course and the e-reader’s an added bonus. It’s also a must-have for publishing professionals and designers, as it’s a game-changer right now. But if you’re a heavy e-reader user or a heavy laptop user, it isn’t quite good enough on either count. Also, the price is very high right now, while Kindle’s is pretty low – the differential is about $600. You can get away with the wi-fi Kindle if you’re careful to buy books when you’re in range, if it isn’t too inconvenient. Everyone’s investing in tablet technology right now, and even though Apple’s is the most impressive tablet to date, I don’t think the iPad has got it quite right yet – I’d wait until more workhorse computer programs have a fully functional cloud version for the general public (like Office and Adobe CS) so internet access is enough to do a full day’s work, or until more books are using the epub3 format (there are only a handful right now, and they’re not that helpful yet) – and you decide that’s a good thing. Amazon is working on its own tablet, which may just add features to its Kindle, or be a whole new animal. There was only a year-and-a-half between the first iPad and the iPad 2, so in a couple years, maybe a tablet will be the thing to buy.

But if you’re primarily looking for an e-reader for text-based books and you still need a full laptop, I’d say the iPad isn’t cost effective…yet. Stick with the Kindle for both affordability and functionality.

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.