Building Bookbridgr to leverage bloggers' voices for publishing: "Nothing could have prepared me for how gosh-darn complicated it all is."
And what Ben Willis brought into development at Headline Publishing Group would get even more complicated, just five months after launch: today, his Bookbridgr.com offers book bloggers not only titles from Headline but also from Hachette family Hodder & Stoughton imprints.
The Bookseller's Sarah Shaffi quoted Willis in February in her report shortly before the initial launch, indicating the kind of innovative understanding some of publishing's junior leaders have for the importance of online community. At the time, Willis said:
Over the last few years, book bloggers have played an increasingly important role in a book’s publication. They not only command a huge amount of respect from the book industry and reading communities alike, but also often prove fundamental in creating that all-important early ‘buzz’ for an author or book.
Bookbridgr seeks to provide book bloggers with everything they need to get the very most out of our books and authors – from review and competition copies of our books to exclusive author interviews, chapter extracts, blog tours and more.
It would be Shaffi's story again in July when Willis added imprints including Coronet, John Murray, Mulholland Books, Yellow Kite, Saltyard Books, Sceptre and others.
By 17 July, some 5,000 reviews had been submitted by bloggers. Today, Willis says, about a fifth of them are for Headline books.
Willis, Headline's affable and wryly self-deprecating publicity and digital campaigns manager, was named one of The Bookseller's Rising Stars this summer, not only for the Bookbridgr project but also for his Bookseller Industry Award-winning campaign for The Silent Wife.
Obviously, this is a man with a sharp eye for which boats might be floated in the mission to engage readers. And he understands that the highest tide he can catch is online.
In retrospect, he says, he understands how steep his own learning curve has been. "I've always tinkered with building Web sites in some capacity," he says, "but the truth is nothing could have prepared me for how gosh-darn complicated it all is. Simon Appleby," from Bookswarm, the developer of Bookbridgr, "is a wizard in the sense that he makes it all appear so very easy; which having now seen everything so close-up I know is certainly not the case."
As blithely as we all like to toss around "digital native" terminology these days, Willis claims no such fluency for himself: "I've actually tried," he says, "with great failure, to build Web sites before. When I was at school, I attempted to build one over a dial-up Internet connection while on summer holiday in Dhahran. It was going to be an online club where people could share their best jokes. I won't/can't tell you what it was called..."
But there was, no joke, something of a background at home for this.
My dad was a hardcore computer gamer, from role-playing text-based MS DOS games like Trade Wars played on a WAN, to running four day games of Civilisation on our Amiga Commodore 64. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, a country where piracy and fake products reigned supreme. It was almost impossible to buy a Playstation without it coming pre-chipped to run hooky games, so from an early age my friends and I were spoilt with cheap knock-offs, both of games and general software.
So which came first, the chicken of book culture or the egg of digi-gaming? The egg:
My family weren't particularly bookish, no. My dad loved the occasional shot of fantasy to accompany his Warhammer fascination. My mum lives in New Zealand and fills a Kindle regularly, she tells me.
There are more than 450 dedicated UK book bloggers and "booktubers" holding memberships at Bookbridgr at the moment. Willis says new registrations are coming in at between five and 10 per day. More than 100 Headline and Hodder titles are available on the site to registered bloggers
"Between 30 and 60 Headline books are reviewed and 'bridg'd' weekly," he says, using Bookbridgr terminology for posting a review: one "bridg's" it, in the site's spelling.
Just think how much they're saving on e's.
"Bookbridgr is a Web site that lets book bloggers request not only books," Willis says, "but also exclusive book content and author interviews, direct from the publisher. It gives bloggers first access to dozens of front- and backlist Headline and Hodder titles, while allowing them to join an author blog tour."
As bloggers "bridg" their coverage to the site, their Bookbridgr profiles grow, collecting their contributions.
More than 2,500 books have been requested,Willis says, about a quarter of them ebooks. Requests for ebook editions are redirected to the publishers' NetGalley accounts.
Books become available for bloggers four weeks ahead of publication; they remain available four another four weeks after being published.
So far, 15 blog tours comprising 150 blogger spaces have been generated. "This is the part we want to grow," Willis says. "There's a huge appetite for blog tours and we want to provide as many cool themes as possible."
The site has logged more than 100,000 hits since its 20 February launch. "Awareness and coverage of our books online has increased exponetially," Willis says. "We're obviously over the moon about that."
"Concerns are understandable and sensible"
For all the game culture of Willis' boyhood -- maybe because of it -- he's perhaps more supportive of the publishing establishment's worries about electronic assets' protection than might be expected in a digitally immersed staffer.
"It's so strange isn't it," he says, "that one of the most enjoyable parts of reading and loving a book was to just pass it on to a friend and say 'you need to read this.' But then with an ebook all it takes is to pass a file to the wrong person and they can ship unlimited free copies of it via torrent or .mobi sites by the morning. Publishers' concerns are understandable and sensible.
"Then again, this has been happening for years using OCR machines and PDF-ing copies, and in India and China physical book piracy is still big business. The truth is if someone wants to get their hands on a book free or next-to-free, regardless of format, they'll do just that, whether it's buying it for a penny on Amazon's marketplace or downloading a PDF from a torrent site.
"But most people understand that authors need to be rewarded for their work and therefore they're prepared to pay a reasonable price for their books... Amazon and other e-retailers are such efficient setups that it's really just easier for a consumer to buy an ebook than to steal one."
"It's all so bittersweet"
Willis' tone is quite different, understandably, when he's asked about The Silent Wife.
The author A.S.A. (Susan) Harrison died at age 65 of ovarian cancer on 24 April 2013, before her first successful genre fiction, the thriller The Silent Wife (Headline UK, Penguin US and Canada), was released later in the year. With a background in nonfiction writings in sexuality -- her nonfiction Orgasms was released in 1974, Revelations in 1987 -- she had also found a focus in Adlerian psychology, which figures in her Silent Wife protagonist, Jodi.
When questioned about his award-winning campaign for The Silent Wife, Willis asks if it's okay not to get into extensive details of his programme's support for the book. The tragedy of her loss is uppermost in his mind.
"The Silent Wife will always be a very special book to me," he says, "but it's all so bittersweet. This is a first-time novelist, though she'd written nonfiction in the past, who didn't see any of the incredible success her book achieved across the world."
The book would go on to become a bestseller in the US, UK, Ireland, and France, "an unbelievable achievement," he says, "but one that unfortunately Susan didn't witness."
Willis had been handed the book by Harrison's UK editor Marion Donaldson before an acquisitions meeting. "From then on," he says, "I just tried to make -- and in some cases, force -- as many people to read it in the industry as possible. The truth is that by the end of the first page, you're hooked. The quality of the thing spoke for itself.
"Obviously," he says, "when Susan died, things changed hugely. She was coming over" from Canada "for Val McDermid's coveted New Blood Panel" at Harrogate, "and for a couple of national radio interviews. But just two months before, she died.
"After that, I just tried even harder. It was Jane Garvey at BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour that really gave the book its chance in the UK" with a discussion of the book on the show. When Simon Mayo featured the book on his BBC Radio 2 Book Club "in the late autumn," Willis says, "that launched it into bestsellerdom."
"It would be cool to give [authors] more of an editorial role"
Maybe in a reflection of its name, Bookbridgr is not the front-line reader-facing programme that many observers believe established publishers need in order to compete with Amazonian consumerism. Its effort is to mobilize a deep layer of D2C voices -- the blogosphere -- on behalf of company titles and author access.
"At the moment, there's no general-public access to the site," Willis says. And, in fact, Bookbridgr is open only to UK and Republic of Ireland bloggers. "We're always thinking of ways to open it up to a wider audience and open a section up to readers," he says, "that would be awesome. But the book bloggers and tubers out there are the real pros at reaching real readers. So long as we're helping them find good books, we're pretty happy."
"Authors are involved as much as publicists will run them blog tours to coincide with their books, and collate and arrange author interview requests. In the future, it would be cool to give them more of an editorial role in our featuring process, but we'll have to see."
Getting the new programme to the point it's at today was difficult, Willis says, primarily in "understanding the fundamentals of the technology. When I look at, say, Facebook, I understand that it must be extremely complicated to arrange and present so much data and relational information in such a simple, usable fashion as they do. But my understanding of the things I take for granted -- 'liking' a post, deleting a comment with one click, accepting a friend request -- was that these were so widespread on Web sites that they must therefore be straightforward to implement.
"In reality this is not the case, obviously, and budget often dictates how far you can go in a certain direction. What I loved about the whole development process was the logical way in which [developer] Simon Appleby wire-framed the thing and built the data structure. He's taught me a hell of a lot along the way – and he's made it all seem both effortless and good fun. No mean feat."
Is he satisfied with Bookbridgr?
"I know that Simon's at a computer somewhere constantly anxious that one day soon I'll make a major mistake and the whole thing will implode in on itself," Willis says.
"But in my head, Bookbridgr will never be finished. Sometimes if I get a spare second at home on the sofa, I go in and tweak this or that, or have a general tinker. Wait… Does that make me a loser?"
Well, at least it might keep him out of the E.L. James:
A few months ago, my mum asked me if I'd read Fifty Shades and I said, 'Jesus Christ, Mum, of course I've read Fifty Shades.' We haven't spoken since.