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An Analog Industry in the Digital World: Why Publishing is Embracing Social Networking

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"Finding the right agent is often about making a personal connection, and anyone who follows me on Twitter quickly figures out my personality and whether I might be a good match for them."
--Laurie Abkemeier, Literary Agent, DeFiore & Co.

Recently I was talking to an editor friend at a major publishing house who had recently been asked by his boss to create a blog to be devoted to one of their imprints. The purpose of the blog was to speak directly to readers, offering them a way to directly promote their books and authors from the mouths of the people who published them. In essence, the goal was to create a direct, unfiltered pipeline to the very customers they were trying to woo, and because the blog would be devoted to one imprint with a specific mission statement, people interested in that topic could find a slew of titles to read. With book coverage dwindling it has become more important than ever for publishers to create and explore alternative avenues in which to engage readers. And, perhaps surprisingly, publishers are responding. Many editors have personal Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and many share access to their company's Twitter accounts. Editors, agents and publicists are using these online tools to promote their acquisitions, authors and new releases in a way that, just a short time ago, was unheard of. While authors have been utilizing the Internet to promote their works for years, when it comes to staying ahead of the curve publishing rarely does the obvious thing. Often it is up to the individuals to get the ball rolling. And even though there might be a few bumps along the way, once the ball is rolling, an entire industry is willing to get behind it. Right now, after perhaps a long period of dipping their foot in the water (and then retracting it) the publishing industry has embraced social networking.

"I have to say that the Internet has actually made my life as an agent much, much easier. E-mail queries are a thousand times easier than snail mail, and the average author is much more well-educated now. I remember 15 years ago having to explain so much more to my authors about the process and there were often a lot of rude awakenings about the process. It's a way that I can educate and inform authors of likes and dislikes and material that I'm looking for. And most importantly, it's been an incredible educational resource for me. The links and information that people are tweeting are so helpful and so useful to me--for instance, everything I know about e-book royalties I know from twitter."
--Jenny Bent, Literary Agent, The Bent Agency

Let me take you to a little over three years ago, to my own online (mis)adventures.

In March of 2006, at the age of 26, I took a job as an Editor as one of the world's biggest publishing houses. I was passionate about books, wanted to devote my life to them, and had built a decent list despite still being shackled by the assistant reins. At my new job, with the assistant shackles removed, I was going to have freedom to buy and edit books I was passionate about. Between March of 2006 and March 0f 2007, I acquired in the neighborhood of 12-15 books. I felt I was doing my job, and doing it well. I was 26 years old, still had a great deal to learn, but truly felt I could make a difference in the publishing industry. In April of 2006, I started a personal blog to promote my debut thriller, The Mark, which was to be published in July 2007. I used the blog to discuss everything that interested me--from movies to sports to my passion: the ins and outs of the publishing industry.

Then, in March of 2007, I was abruptly fired (or in Gawker terminology Dooced). I was given no two weeks notice, no warning. I was informed of the decision on a Friday morning, and given until that afternoon to clear out my office. At 27 years old, the industry I loved had thrown me out on my ass. Gawker's reporting of my firing was extremely flawed, not that they ever bothered to attempt to contact me to clarify it. Suddenly news of my dismissal was all over the Internet, and most reporting offered erroneous reasons for my termination.

So why exactly was I fired? In short, for a blog I had written. How quaint.

"When I joined Twitter in May 2008, I wasn't thinking of it as a business tool. It was simply a way to connect with the outside world. The early days were carefree since I knew no one on Twitter (save for John Hodgman), and I said whatever I felt like without thinking about it much. But as more and more publishing people came on the scene, and writers began following me, it morphed into a way to give others a peek into the life of an agent and to advertise my sensibility. Email and the Internet connected all of us, but also isolated us. I recently had lunch with a longtime editor friend who said he jumps when the phone rings because no one ever calls anymore unless it's bad news. Social media sites have made our interactions more personal again. That's not a bad thing."
--Laurie Abkemeier

The firing left me devastated. Books were my passion, and I had lost my job because of an innocuous blog post in which I debated the future of the industry by comparing the recent successes of two very different booksellers. I was fortunate enough to land on my feet at another house less than three weeks later, but the ramifications of the firing were louder than my blog itself. Billion dollar companies revisited their blogging policies, which at that point in time barely had reason to exist because so few publishing professionals blogged. I kept my personal blog running--my new employer was incredibly understanding of the situation--and since then dozens of blogs by editors and agents have popped up, all illuminating readers to the business of publishing. Bloggers are free to discuss the joys, pitfalls, and insider information, and much of what is discussed today is vastly more controversial, entertaining and enlightening than my tame post back in 2007.

The industry has shifted. Whereas once it was looked on with a sense of disdain, publishing blogs and pros who network online are now fully embraced and encouraged.

"The publishing world as a whole may have been a bit slow to recognize the possibilities afforded by social networking, but in the jumble of the Internet people increasingly hear about new media through word of mouth via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, and that goes for books as well. We now have an opportunity to reach readers directly in a way that never existed before. It's an exciting new world."
--Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent, Curtis Brown Ltd.

The content of my blog in question is almost irrelevant, but in a nutshell my employer felt I said something that might have insulted a major book retailer and harmed their business. In fact, I said something so hurtful about this retailer that they have sold all five of my novels, even offering stepladder placement. In 2007, not too long ago, it was almost unheard of for editors, agents and publishers to openly engage in blogging and social networking. Sure, there were a few professionals who blogged out in the open, like Kristen Nelson's Pub Rants and Jennifer Jackson's Et In Arcaedia, but some of the most popular industry blogs--such as Miss Snark and Book Angst, aka Mad Max Perkins (later outed as Putnam Editor and current literary agent Dan Conaway)--were written under the veil of anonymity. Several editors I knew who blogged anonymously shut down their websites after my termination, petrified that one seemingly innocuous comment could unfairly put their livelihood at stake.

This was only three years ago. Publishing was Tyler Durden, and you did not talk about Fight Club. (If asked 'why not?', Publishing Tyler would likely respond, "Because...um...you do not talk about Fight Club!")

"It's very important for publishing professionals to be on Twitter, whether they're authors, agents, editors, marketers, designers, or production managers. Our industry is historically opaque, and it's only getting more diverse and decentralized. Twitter gives us some transparency and a sense of community that is allowing us to make more educated decisions about our business and our products. When I wrote thesis for my M.A. in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College, Twitter was a major source of information on breakthroughs in digital publishing. So if a Master's student can turn Twitter into a goldmine of publishing information, imagine what professionals can do with their contact lists and platforms."
--Victoria Sandbrook, Associate Editor, Adams Media

Now, every major publishing house has a Twitter account and most have Facebook fan pages. Many editors, publicists and marketers within those companies have both Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and use those forums to promote their work and, of course, divulge occasional tidbits about their personal lives. Just like anyone else involved in social networking.

Not long ago publishing for the most part looked on blogging and online networking with a sense of shame, embarrassment, irrelevance. Now blogging often comes with corporate prodding, or, more delightfully, simply because publishing professionals love the books they work on and are proud to discuss them in public. Agents meet prospective authors. Authors can converse publicly in real time with their readers. Publishers--from the 'Big 6' to the smallest independent presses--can run contests, promotions, keep databases and discover book bloggers eager to devour galleys and post their reviews online. Publishing might never give up the analog world, but it is quickly learning that the digital realm offers myriad possibilities well beyond the indefinite success of e-reading.

"For us, social networking is a way for readers and bookstores to put faces, names, and personalities to the people behind Tyrus Books, and at this point, we're trading on our personalities as much as we're trading on our books. I mean, honestly, we don't have the automatic proven-ness of an imprint of Penguin, or of Minotaur. In order for readers to trust that a Tyrus Book is something good, they first have to trust me and (Publisher) Ben Leroy. Social networking is a great way to say, 'Hey, we're open to a dialog! Get to know us, get to know who we are and what we like, and then you'll be in a position to judge whether you might like the kind of books we like, the kind we publish.'"
--Alison Janssen, Senior Editor, Tyrus Books

In early February, after an ebook pricing dispute with Amazon led to Macmillan titles having their 'Buy Now' buttons removed from the website, Macmillan CEO John Sargent began blogging in order to comment on the situation, dispel myths, and discuss the 'Agency Model' that they, and other publishers will be adopting. Since his first post on February 3rd, Sargent has posted three more times and actually responded to reader comments in his post on March 12th. Sargent was not responding only to agents and authors, but to readers who were interested in the details regarding ebook pricing. Sargent created a direct pipeline to his customers and industry professionals in a way that few CEOs have. Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, has been blogging for years, often drawing literally hundreds of comments on his posts. Publishers have slowly but surely begun to realize that it isn't merely authors who gain from the connections offered by social networking.

"Courtesy of Twitter, and the people I follow who have been kind enough not to block me or flag me as spam, I have a much broader, deeper awareness of the hot topics of the day--whether it's about how people feel about pricing, eBooks, or what book everyone is excited about reading at the moment--than I otherwise would. As editors and publishers, we're asking our authors more and more to invest their time in social networks. The best way to understand social networking--and, maybe, the only way--is to participate. You can't just watch. You have to jump in."
--Mitch Hoffman, Executive Editor, Grand Central Publishing

JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), which have been nominated for numerous awards and optioned to be a major motion picture. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at http//:www.jasonpinter.com.

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