How can publishers survive? By connecting with communities

I’m interested in the idea of creating communities, whether it is virtual or physical and a recent article by Stephen S. Power got my attention. In the article Power suggests 3 ways that book publishers can avoid extinction: publish the e-book first, create communities, and engage more with libraries.

The publishing success of Fifty Shades, which originally appeared as an e-book, supports Power’s first suggestion. Now, I know not every e-book goes on to become a blockbuster, but I’m sure we’ll see other examples in the future of mainstream publishers picking up self published e-books, editing them and turning them into viable hardcopy best sellers. In fact, a recent Guardian article details the acquisition of Author Solutions, a grassroots e-book publisher, by Pearson, the owners of Penguin Books. So publishers may as well compete head-to-head with self-publishers and publish their own titles as e-books before waiting for the long production cycle of hardcopy to hit the shelves.

Then there’s the phenomenon of blogs leaping off the screen to become real-life books, Julie & Julia probably being the best know example, which also managed to cut a film deal. These days, there are even step-by-step guides on how to blog a book and become a self-published author with a (somewhat hopeful) view to being discovered by mainstream publishers.

An online self-publishing community I’ve been watching is Wattpad. I can’t speak to the success of content from this site being picked up by mainstream publishers, but I can say it’s potential exponentially increased recently. Why? Because Booker Prize winning author Margaret Atwood has jumped on board, taking the Twittersphere along with her. A prolific tweeter, Atwood posts regular references to the site. Given she has over 330,000 followers, that’s a pretty good plug for Wattpad. She even has her own poetry competition running on the site, creating more social media buzz.

This leads to Power’s second suggestion for publishers to avoid extinction – create communities. He points out that authors are household names while publishers aren’t but says this need not be the case in the future. To his point, publishers could learn a lot from – guess who – Margaret Atwood. The author has just run a successful crowd-funding campaign to launch Fanado, a mobile app which allows artists and fans to interact and for the author to sign paper books, e-books, etc over the internet. While it’s hard to imagine a publisher having the same pulling power as a star author, they do have 2 very tangible assets – books and market/sales data. If they can’t find a way to build community by translating their sales data into customer insights in the social media space and leverage off their products, which have a high emotional connection to the consumer, then they’re not trying hard enough.

Speaking of community, this brings us to Power’s third suggestion – engaging more with public libraries. It wasn’t that long ago that pundits were heralding the death of libraries, but they are now successfully recreating themselves as community and cultural hubs, with events, exhibitions, bookshops (handy for publishers!) and cafes. Importantly, many are now also doing a great job of engaging with their communities via social media and are working towards being digital hubs. Did I mention e-books before?

Power’s tips for publishers include more library outreach, sponsorship, collection development advice, and marketing collateral. These tips are reasonable and most likely already happen to varying degrees, but they focus on the products – books. A more innovative approach for publishers would be to try to tap into the community which libraries foster – physical and digital. Books need not be central to this approach, but an author’s pulling power could be.

How about virtual book-signings, creative writing classes and readings featuring well-loved authors hosted in the library, sponsored by the publisher, and using technology like Fanado, with the opportunity for interaction and participation from the community? Or publishers as guest-bloggers/ tweeters on the library’s social media spaces, giving self-publishing advice to aspiring writers? That’s got to earn the publishers some street cred with punters.

I’m sure there are many more creative and innovative possibilities for how publishers can connect with communities, but there’s a starting point and some food for thought…

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