More on Joining the Conversation

June 16th, 2009 · 15 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

The first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto is “markets are conversations”. Stretch, twist, transform, voila!: books are conversations.

I was reminded of this last week as fragments of a Twitter discussion caught my eye: a reader and bookseller (both located in different states) engaged in a conversation about buying from local booksellers. The reader noted that while romance readers buy a lot of books, independent booksellers are not always romance-friendly; thus these book buyers go elsewhere. The bookseller said (and I paraphrase), “Hmm. Maybe we could do a better job of attracting these readers.”

Both parties have, for years, articulated their positions. Both sides have valid points. And it’s possible both have sat down at a table and talked. There simply hasn’t been a lot of movement on either side. Think about it: why would a customer seeking a particular object shop at a store that doesn’t stock that object? Put another way, supporting your local bookstore requires that your local bookstore support you.

Via Twitter again (seeing a pattern emerge?), a reader notes a bizarre price discrepancy. With much fanfare, Simon & Schuster announced it would make books available on Scribd. Great experiment, but possibly doomed to failure. A book that retails for $7.50 in print format (same price for the Kindle edition) is selling for $13.60 (discounted from list price of $17.00) on Scribd.

There is a lot of customer grumbling going on these days. After this year’s BEA, the (big) idea that emerged was the need for more direct conversation between publishers and readers. The Simon & Schuster example highlights this. Look at what Comcast does: if a customer has an issue, Comcast has someone on Twitter, ready to respond. It’s not that all problems can be solved in 140 characters or less (would that this were so!); it’s that the company hears what is being said and is working to address the problem.

If you don’t engage with your customers, you leave them with a negative impression. Publishers, particularly, need to remember the customer has changed and remained the same. Nobody blames Scribd for the pricing issue. When Simon & Schuster chooses to ignore reader comments (and these aren’t the first), they risk losing those readers.

For me, Twitter flows by like a stream. Sometimes I wade in, sometimes I just watch it move. Either way, I see a lot of bookish conversation. It’s exciting because there are so many great minds and ideas out there. As I put together my Profiles in Publishing guide, I considered the conversation and how it impacts views of various publishing professionals. Those who get it — really get it — are making the conversation part of their world.

It can be as simple as a publisher tweeting tweeting information about a title to an engaged audience (ahem, birthday coming up, ahem). Or as simple as publicizing an author signing. Maybe it’s a bookstore saying to a customer, “Hey, I have that book and I can hold it for you.” Heck, even a “Thanks for the shout-out about our book!”

Or even, “Really? That pricing *does* seem odd. Let me look into it.”

The conversation is happening everywhere. It cannot be controlled. That does not mean silence is the answer.

File Under: Marketing For Introverts

15 responses so far ↓

  • Biblibio // Jun 17, 2009 at 10:50 am

    I think the reason there’s this unfavorable impression is because publishers haven’t realized yet that customer feedback can be found in more ways than simply “did they buy the book or didn’t they?”. Publishers are late to the game and still don’t seem to get a lot of things, like that books don’t need to be quite so expensive in order to turn a profit or that diversity is okay sometimes. I have no idea how Twitter could possibly help in having a real conversation (but that may be because though Twitter is allegedly geared for my age group, it seems to me like completely pointless…) but publishers could definitely do with better customer interaction.

    As for bookstores, I think it would really help for them to have websites. They don’t need to handle online shipping and an online store but it would be comforting to know that even the cozy used bookstore has a clean, useful website with the hours, the phone number, a mission statement (of sorts… though now that sounds stupid) and an option for comments and callbacks. I think something like that could add to the store’s overall feel.

  • Kat // Jun 17, 2009 at 11:12 am

    It would help, too, if publishers didn’t approach the whole interaction with readers thing with such scientific precision. It’s like they don’t understand that communicating with their audience is as easy as logging into twitter and saying hi, letting people know what’s going on in a more personal way. Marketers in publishing have always detached themselves from the consumer, convincing themselves that because they can’t predict bestsellers, they can’t know what the people want, even though they never asked what they wanted in the first place.

    It’s a confusing situation, and it’s mirrored by all the defunct panels at BEA, trying to tell people about blogging and twitter like it’s the next new thing instead of something that’s probably already on its way out in deference to the NEXT big thing. It’s hard to look toward the future when you can’t even wrap your mind around the past.

  • Mike Shatzkin // Jun 17, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Kassia, that S&S Scribd thing is REALLY weird since Scribd pays 80% back to the publisher!

  • Theodore P. Savas // Jun 17, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Scribd can also offer pitfalls of the intellectual property variety. Today we learned one of our bestselling reference titles is posted in full on their site. We have notified them and demanded they pull it down forthwith.

    Thanks for the discussion on Twitter. One of our marketing aides is taking the Tweet Camp to teach the rest of us luddites.


  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 17, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    While Scribd is taking positive steps toward reducing piracy, I’d like to see a better system in place. I was doing a random search for a project and the first book I encountered was, clearly, a pirated version of a novel. I searched high and low for a “Report Violation” sort of button and didn’t see one. That sort of proactive response will go a long way in combating piracy as well as building trust between all parties.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 17, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Kat — Interesting comment. The publishers who are already engaging are reaping benefits, but it’s hard (boy, is it hard!) to change corporate culture. Yet this kind of dramatic change is exactly what needs to happen.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 17, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Biblibio — There are some really smart booksellers out there who get the future and see a clear place for themselves in it. The conversation I referenced is proof of that. Person A would not likely shop in Person B bookstore’s if they lived in the same area because the bookstore wouldn’t have what Person A is seeking. And while Person B knew this, it seemed like there was a bit of revelation as well. She’s trying to change how she views her customer base, and I think that’s so positive.

    As for the Twitter conversation, you may just have to trust me on this. It’s happening, it’s goofy, it’s serious, it’s productive. The final aspect, to me, is really important. I love that I can toss out ideas and have them debated by some very smart people. I love even more that those smart people come from different perspectives and backgrounds. It helps cement thoughts and approaches.

  • Richard Hargis // Jun 17, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Palace of paraphrase; rumer of winds: I feel strongly about it both ways.

  • Butch Drury // Jun 17, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I recently attended IBPA’s Publishing U in New York City, where there was a lot of discussion about Social Media. At one of the last classes I attended, the speaker talked about some of his experiences using twitter. Mind you, he just started using twitter about 2 months ago, when he noticed someone was following him. He tweeted that person, who ordered several copies of his recently published book. Shortly thereafter, she tweeted him again, telling him that he needed to drop everything and come up to this symposium she was attending. So he did. To make a long story short, she bought 5000 copies of his book, on the spot. That definitely tweeked, or is it tweeted, my interest in twitter.

  • Anysia (Booklorn on Twitter) // Jun 17, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Unfortunately, S&S is a dinosaur when it comes to the Internet and they’ve been that way since they went online (that must be a corporate culture thing). Their website is practically unusable for the consumer (and has been, in every iteration, since they went online in the 90s–heaven forbid you tell the consumer what the book is about before you have them hit ‘buy’).

    They are on Twitter, but clearly are not monitoring the Twitter stream (if they are they aren’t responding in any manner whatsoever). If you look at their corporate accounts, only the UK account actually follows people back. The US corporate accounts show a distinct disconnect between followers and following.

    Compare S&S’s approach to any of Hachette’s corporate Twitter accounts or even their website and you can tell immediately which company is focusing on engaging the consumer as part of their corporate culture.

    S&S lost me as a consumer a long time ago (around the time they withdrew ebooks in the format I was buying them is around the time I stopped being their customer). Every time I even contemplate buying something from them they give me a new reason not to (for instance charging $20 for a paperback novelization of a movie *cough*).

    They can’t even give away a free ebook without making it impossible to actually find on their site (yet they issue a press release to promote it).

    Nothing S&S does really surprises me anymore, least of all discharging a loaded gun into its corporate foot, yet again, on the ebook front. Now if they did something consumer-friendly that would shock me. I think I’m safe for the next few decades.

  • Anysia (Booklorn on Twitter) // Jun 17, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Sorry, didn’t realize I went on quite that much until I hit ‘submit’.

  • Perry Brass // Jun 20, 2009 at 9:19 am

    You can twitter all you want; it doesn’t change the fact that direct selling to readers is pretty doomed, unless something changes very directly about it. One thing is book fairs. I am co-director of the Rainbow Book Fair, which will be held at the CUNY Graduate Center in NY on Sat. March 27, 20010. It is the country’s largest LGBT book fair; other book fairs are coming in, now that indie book stores are barely making it. What these stories about fabulous buys from forms like Twitter tell us is that there is a market out there for Twitterable material, but that does not necessarily help people whose work is a little less digestible in 40 bite bits.

    Perry Brass, author of Carnal Sacraments, A Historical Novel of the Future, A ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Finalist

  • Debbie Stier // Jun 20, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Just so you all know…..there are some people in some pockets of major publishers who are listening…..and hear you…..and agree with you…..and are trying to act accordingly ๐Ÿ™‚ HarperStudio’s Who is Mark Twain? and Burn Here ebooks (our first two books) were $9.99 (discounted 20% on our site — or free if hardcover was purchased) — and were DRM free. I’m a consumer too ๐Ÿ™‚ Looking for new ways to construct the business so we can continue to publish good books. Would love to hear ideas if anyone has any (I have a few of my own that I’m working on).

  • Melissa B // Jun 25, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Hi Kassia,
    When it came to twitter, at first I was a strong disbeliever. But I got curious and decided to give it a try for work. I’m in the magazine world – I work on a series of B2B magazines geared toward the pet industry. And what I quickly found was that the people on Twitter were mostly newer stores, and stores that were doing really well, despite the economy. The more I “waded in” the more impressed I became.

    I’ve been following a recommendation I hear everywhere for when you first start using twitter (or any social networking site) – to mostly listen for the first few months before really working to get engaged. I’ve been taking small steps. It’s been a great tool for our magazine (in terms of getting reader feedback) and I’ve been absolutely amazed at some of the ideas I’ve seen.

    One bunch does a twitter ‘party’ (they call it #barkhunt I believe) and they give away free products to anyone who answers a question correctly. It requires sending consumers to different sites, and therefore exposing them to information you want them to know – quizzing them on it essentially. What better way to ensure you create an impression? They do it the same time every week … and have a steady following that play along… and a good number of manufacturers donate products (heck, I even got our magazine to donate some products).

    Now THAT is getting consumers involved.

    Stores and publishers need to think outside the box and really work to put these things to the test. Push them for all they’re worth. Otherwise, someone else will.

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