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.

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.

Now that my safari into social media has evolved into daily forays, I’ve found the hardest part for those of us who are writers and deep experiencers/thinkers is limiting our time here – and naming what this tool called “social media” is for. I (and many others) have said this before, but social media’s greatest strength for me has been in furthering business contacts (especially as someone who works solo at home), and expanding my list of acquaintances & long-lost friends. I’ve loved being out here connecting with people I wouldn’t have met any other way. But it’s not proven to be a good tool for furthering sustaining (and sustainable) friendships in general, has it? Unfortunately for those of us with limited time (that would be all of us), it’s been easy to use up all my time using this particular tool for interaction to the exclusion of others: face-to-face time, phone calls, even writing letters, for those who like them. For poets & artists & anyone else whose quality of life depends upon deep, lingering experiences, we have to be so careful about not spending all our precious & limited time networking or facebooking, but being intentional about scheduling time to fully be in our environment, investing in our bodily relationships, etc. Scheduling balance, in other words.

Would love to hear what kind of balance between the virtual and tangible people have found in their own daily lives. If life is lived in moments, then moment-by-moment seems a good place to start setting up this sustainable balance (instead of having to have a philosophy or strategy before trying things out). Because I’ve found that unless I’m rooted in and fully experiencing the real, I have very little of substance to say in the virtual. And I certainly don’t want to waste others’ precious time reading random words anyone else could have written with as little thought!