Setting Up Communities: Author, Reader and Publisher

The first thing Hugh Howey would do, he said last month, if someone put him in charge of a publishing company would be to create a community for his authors. He says: 

"I haven’t seen this discussed anywhere else (makes me wonder if it’s a daft idea), but I think the #1 advantage self-published authors have right now is a sense of community. We hang out in the same forums (usually KBoard’s Writers’ Cafe); we chat with each other on FB and in private groups and through email lists; we congregate at conventions and conferences; and we share with one another. We share sales data. We share promotional tools and ideas. We let one another know what works and what doesn’t. If there’s a glitch with a distributor, we point it out. If there’s a way to increase visibility, we tell everyone. If we stumble upon a secret, we broadcast it."

Howey is dead on the money that publishers ought to be creating communities, and he clearly and accurately identifies the benefits to creating a community of authors. He even goes so far as to give publishers a roadmap for things they can do (emphasis as original): 

"[M]y highest priority would be to create the same sort of sharing and caring among my authors that self-published authors enjoy. A private forum for HarperCollins authors. Email blasts that went out weekly, detailing the things they can do to drive sales. Book exchanges within genres. Meet-ups in major cities. I would help these authors form an identity as a HarperCollins author. I would encourage the bestselling authors to serve as mentors. I would leverage the drive and enthusiasm of debut authors to keep the community humming. No one would feel ignored, because they would have each other to converse with. All the emails we at HarperCollins currently get with basic questions? Now, they are being answered across the group."

In my opinion, though, Howey doesn’t quite go far enough. Thinking about the idea of community a little more deeply, we see that there are three potential community types for publishers to consider: 

  1. A community of authors, where they can discuss their work and challenges with each other and their publishers. This might include story development, marketing ideas, and practical tips on things like how to use social media or run a mailing list. 
  2. A community of readers, where they can talk about the books they love, and chat directly with authors and publishers. This might include a beta reading section that allows loyal fans to get early access to manuscripts in order to provide feedback. 
  3. An internal community for publishers and their freelances. Publishers, like many other businesses, have a need for staff to share insights, expertise, and to collaborate in an efficient and effective manner. Too many businesses rely on throwing Word documents around by email, and don’t take collaboration as seriously as they should. Internal communities help bridge gaps, spread knowledge, and reduce reliance on email. 

The smart publisher would consider creating all three types of community, but as with anything social media related, it’s not just a case of ‘build it and they will come’. We have years of data to prove that just doesn’t happen, so you have to think more much about adoption — how you’re going to persuade people to join and engage with these communities — as you are about technology. 

The good news is that there are several mature community platforms currently available, so it’s easy to prototype a fully-featured community site very cheaply. There’s no need to commit lots of budget to developing a custom-built platform, in fact I’d actively advise against it. That leaves you free to spend your money on pre-launch planning and post-launch outreach. It’s usually not the platform but the community building work that determines whether such a project is a success. 

That does rather make it sound easy, but the devil is, as always, in the details. Key to a good community is developing a strong social contract and implementing it through both staff behaviour and moderation policies. You have to know your audience well, not just their demographics but their psychographics: What do they love? Hate? Value? Need? Want? And you have to have a very clear understanding of your own messaging: What are you offering people? Why should they be interested? What’s the long-term benefit to their participation? 

But underneath all this must lie your business goals. Putting time, energy and money into a community is not done just for shiggles, it has to support the business. All three types of community have clear business cases, you'll be glad to hear, it’s just a matter of articulating them in a way that makes sense given the context you’re working in and the challenges your company faces. 

There is a lot to gain from creating focused, rich communities, even though it’s hard to tempt people away from Facebook and Twitter. The success of communities like the Kindle Boards, Goodreads or Penguin’s Book Country shows that there is an appetite for such services. But as an industry we’ve really only just started scratching the surface of what’s possible; we are certainly not yet meeting fully the needs authors, readers or, indeed, publishers. 



Suw Charman-Anderson is a social technologist, journalist and writer, and is available for consulting work.