How Will Social Media Affect the eBook?

The birth of the digital book has made it possible, at least in theory, to make social media part of the reading experience. But is reading really a social activity? At the Digital Book World Conference 2012, publishers and social media experts predicted the role that social media will play in connecting authors and readers of digital books.

The panel was moderated by Travis Alber, Founder, ReadSocial/BookGlutton. Panelists included Sol Rosenberg, VP, Business Development & Content Acquisition, Copia Interactive, LLC; Sanj Kharbanda, VP Digital Strategy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Adam Salomone, Harvard Common Press.

At first glance, social books sound like a bad idea – who wants to be disturbed in the middle of a novel with chatter from friends (or worse, ads)? But there are some instances where this works very well, like textbooks. Students can take notes and discuss the text with their teachers and classmates, which is something they would normally do in a classroom, anyway.  Rosenberg also described a time that literary scholars provided annotations to a classic novel to add fresh perspective and context.

During the panel, the question was raised whether some non-fiction titles would turn into Wikipedia-style knowledge repositories where users could update the content themselves. The consensus seemed to be that this was a slippery slope. Not only would the “wisdom of the crowds” have the potential to introduce errors into the text, but it would also take away from the reader the feeling of reading a completed work. That said, new editions of books will be much easier to produce.

When it comes to using social media to market books, “It’s all about experimentation,” said Rosenberg. The challenge at the moment is to connect people from all of the various tablets, like the Kindle and the Nook, and bring them to a place where they can interact with the authors.  The panelists agreed that the best place to start is where the readers already are, which is most likely Facebook or Twitter.

“The number one functionality that helps engage consumer is the personality of the author,” said Salomone. Publishers should plan to coach the author on how to engage the community, taking care to strike a healthy balance between managing an online community and actual writing.

One way to do this is through scheduled live events. If the author is willing, live chats are a great way to engage readers online. This works well for cookbooks, said Salomone, because “You have people who are invested in the food they eat,” like vegetarian or gluten-free foods.  He tries to steer the conversations away from the actual recipes, providing instead historical background, like the evolution of gluten-free cooking, or tips, like the best grains to use when baking bread from scratch. This keeps the backseat cooking to a minimum.

Conversations surrounding a particular book will vary from market to market. In the social space, it’s not enough to translate a book into a different language. Publishers can, and should, use social media to make the experience hyperlocal. Rosenberg said he relies on local merchandising and marketing teams to plan social campaigns that will work best in each market, like a particular country or college.

While there is something for everyone in the social space, the panelists agreed that none of these strategies will work for everyone. Kharbanda summed it up best: “Adding social features to any book isn’t going to do us any good,” he said. Social media is most effective “where tools add features that make a better experience.”