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 second in a three-part series on book blogging. The first post on the real value of book bloggers for authors is here.

News alert: we are in the midst of an information glut. Most people, myself included, can access far more potentially paradigm-shattering information and entertainment than we could possibly consume. Please, please don’t add to the clutter of the literary marketplace. Before you send your book to a book blogger, first be sure your book makes a genuine contribution to the literary marketplace.

In other words, make sure your book is professionally published, not vanity published. Definitions vary, but I consider a vanity-published book to be just what it sounds like: a book published primarily to build up an author’s vanity and not primarily to share something of value with readers. Self-serving rather than other-serving. For example, if it’s always been your dream to be a published author, and you’re finding traditional publishers’ doors consistently closed to your manuscript, you may decide to self-publish. Shocked at how expensive it is to produce a book, you’ve skimped on editing and design to save money for the printer. Unfortunately what you now have in your hands is a vanity-published book that may delight your friends and family, but is simply not suitable for the general public. If your primary motivation is simply to wear the badge of “published author,” however precariously, then I’m afraid you’ll be publishing your book in vain. Literally. Readers’ time is too tight, and the literary marketplace too glutted, for you to successfully market an amateur book. Having a beautiful cover on poorly written content is just going to make time-starved readers angry.

Yet discerning a book’s quality is a complicated business. For example, the same could be said about another global creative endeavor: the world’s population. Experts tell us the world is overpopulated, yet we still continue to have babies. Genetic tests even give us the option of “editing out” imperfections. But few of us are even tempted by that option – we continue to have baby after imperfect baby. Why? Because the life principle is simply that strong. If your book truly lives within you, needing to be born, then no matter how overpopulated the literary marketplace may seem, there is room for your book. Again, why? Because if it’s alive, and it’s yours, you’re likely to have the internal motivation necessary to care for it. (This is not always true, but it is true very, very often.) You’ll be able to hear the hard truth about its imperfections, develop your craft, and stick with your manuscript until it’s truly ready to meet your readers. Just like parenting your child – you’ll want to know when things are going wrong because you love your child and want to do what it takes to help him or her thrive and eventually become independent.

And as hard as it is to tell these days when our kids are ready to leave the nest, how can we possibly know when our book’s ready? As an editor, I know when a book’s ready when it instantly transports me to another world, without the distraction of typos, uneven margins, or incomplete plot lines. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to have an independent life of its own.

Fortunately this quality isn’t genetically determined. There is a process (that traditional publishers have followed for years, by the way) that helps ensure our books are mature enough to leave the nest of our personal computers and make a living out in the world. So if you have your published book in your hands and are now nervously wondering whether your manuscript is professionally published or published in vain, here are the crucial developmental steps of professional book publishing:

  1. Write, revise, rest, rewrite, and complete the manuscript in community with other writers. As a developmental editor and writing coach (and sometimes author therapist!), I know several writers who have made a breakthrough in their writing even after they thought their book proposal was complete. It’s worth leaving time for breakthroughs. Throw the calendar or self-created deadlines out the window. Just like there’s no rushing the birth of a child, there’s no rushing the birth of a book. It will come when it’s ready, but you have to provide the right supportive environment and be ready to catch it when it comes.
  2. Manuscript review. Once your manuscript is absolutely complete, get a manuscript review by a well-recommended and professional editor, ideally with a specialty in your field, to make sure you’re on target. (If you’re not sure where to find a trustworthy editor, check out the Editorial Freelancers Association at www.the-efa.org, a very reputable source where you can do a tailored search for a wide variety of editorial, design, and publishing consulting services.) Manuscript reviews should provide a list of general strengths and weaknesses, as well as a detailed list of writing recommendations with examples. Some even include a market analysis, so you know who your target audience is, what your competition is, and, most importantly, whether your book is different enough from what’s out there to be worth buying and reading. In my opinion, it is usually not cost effective to pay an editor to do extensive line-by-line editing for you, unless you are a bona fide publisher with upfront capital who believes so strongly in the concept of the book that it’s worth paying for extra editing to clean up poor writing. (Few trade publishers can even afford to do this anymore.) But if you don’t have the money, you’ve got to put forth the time in improving your craft if you’re going to reach your reader. There are already a lot of transformative, good books out there. Yours should be one of them!
  3. Copyediting. After you’ve incorporated any writing recommendations into your manuscript and you’ve again read it over and believe it is as good as it can possibly get, now it’s time to hire that professional fine-tooth comb: the copyeditor. Best to get an expert in Chicago Manual of Style, the trade publisher’s usual basic style guide. A good copyeditor will do at least two passes, leaving time for queries (questions to the author) and incorporating your responses.
  4. Professional book design. If you have a print version, hiring a professional typesetter with expertise in the industry standard for print publications (currently Adobe InDesign) is absolutely crucial. If you’re publishing online with a pdf (as long as it won’t be printed!), you can convert your Word document to a pdf free and instantly. If you hire a company to convert your manuscript to an e-book (whether for a flat fee or percentage of sales), make sure they allow time for you to review the final e-version with a full proofread and make corrections if needed.
  5. Proofreading. This can be done as another pass by your copyeditor after typesetting and before printing, or after final conversion if electronic. In my opinion, if you trust the editor’s quality, it’s wonderful if you can get the same person to do the copyediting and proofreading, because this person will already be familiar with your manuscript. But whether it’s your copyeditor or a separate proofreader, your manuscript needs one more careful read to get all the errors that everyone missed the first or second time, once it’s in its final form. New errors are often introduced in the book design phase – whether through document conversion errors or the designer’s misunderstanding of your intent.
  6. Review copies. Have a professionally formatted e-book version and the final print-ready pdf available to send out for review. Print copies usually aren’t necessary, but you want your electronic copy to look exactly as the print version would look. Sending review copies out too early, before those last typos or formatting issues are dealt with, can create a less-than-receptive first impression, even if your story is world-changing. If you’re self-publishing, there’s no need to put more obstacles in front of your reader than self-publishing inherently entails. (There are more armchair editors than you think who will become quickly frustrated at even a few obvious errors.)
  7. Printing. It’s very frustrating to go through all these steps meticulously and then find your printer has been sloppy – or doesn’t send a sample copy before the print run or the POD option goes live. Vet your printer as meticulously as your editor or designer.

Only if your book can compare equally well on all levels with a professionally published book should you send it to a book blogger. I don’t say this to discourage any author, but to encourage you: your book is worth your best investment, whether it’s time or money or both. Be absolutely sure this is the best work you can produce, and that you’ve hired a professional consultant at some stage of the process (ideally all) who can reassure you that the story comes through clearly and without distraction. Marketing even an excellent book takes a lot of time and effort – only if you know your book is truly transformative for your readers and is in its best form will you have the long-term stamina for intuitive and effective marketing. Readers know when an author is offering their book out of confidence and deep passion, or out of insecurity or desperation.

But here’s some more encouragement: even though writing and producing a professional book may feel like birthing a child for you, the reader’s investment is much, much less. Economically speaking, buying a book is not like buying a house, or even an airplane ticket – it’s just not a terribly high investment, and most book lovers are willing to take a chance for $10. (My bookshelves are filled with many such chances I’ve taken over the years.) So try not to let perfectionism paralyze you. No parent’s child will ever be perfect – yet we love them and invest in them no less (for little compensation, I might add). The fact is that they are alive, and they spark life in the world around them. That’s their value. So you don’t have to produce a bestseller or the newest installation in the English canon. You just want to know deep down that you’re sharing something of value that’s truly alive, that it’s been priced appropriately, and that it’s ready to stand on its own in the marketplace.

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.