#dearpublisher: an open letter to the industry

#dearpublisher Wordle

An early piece on the need for publishers to engage with readers through social media.

In a blogpost at Futurebook, shortly after this year’s London Book Fair, Sam Missingham, the Bookseller’s unofficial “chief twitterer”, suggested that UK publishing was using Twitter to engage in a conversation that embraced “authors and their fans, librarians and publishers, booksellers and agents”. Over the past couple of days, that conversation has expanded more than a thousand-fold as all of the above (and many more) have gathered under the rapidly-expanding umbrella of the #dearpublisher hashtag.

(For those of you not entirely familiar with the netherland that is twitter, I should explain that a hashtag is a word or short phrase sometimes inserted into 140-character messages (or “tweets”) by “twitterers” (people who tweet) to make it easier for users to find tweets on particular subjects. It tends to be marked out from the rest of the message by the hash symbol, thus occasioning the name.)

This particular part of the conversation began when long-suffering Baltimore bookseller Jen Northington followed up one of her many laments at publishers’ failings (“dear publishers: consider putting the discount info on packing slips, if you send invoices separately”) with a more general suggestion: “publishers on twitter should run a search for “dear publishers”; we write you twitter-letters FREQUENTLY”.

Her tweet was soon noticed by Harper Collins’ trade imprint Harper Perennial, who suggested she use the hashtag #dearpublishers to vent her frustrations. Within a few hours, the tag had been widely adopted, not only by booksellers, but also by readers, authors, bloggers, and the many other tribes of literary twitter types, all expressing their own particular requests, opinions, and annoyances. And as a number of publishers followed the lead of Harper Perennials and joined in the conversation, what had begun as a very specific complaint rapidly became a wide-ranging discussion of the needs of a wide cross-section of the publishing world.

From my perspective as a publisher, this episode exemplifies a key truth about twitter: that there are real benefits to engaging with it as a conversation instead of treating it as just another marketing channel. If Harper Perennial hadn’t read and responded to Jen’s tweet – which wasn’t even addressed to them – then very few of these opinions and dissatisfactions would have been articulated to an audience that can – if it chooses – learn from them and act upon them.

Twitter offers us a valuable source of information about our customers. Though the contributors to the #dearpublisher conversation are the very model of a self-selecting group, it’s a group defined by its enthusiasm for books. These are – most likely – people who buy significantly more than the average number of books a year, and if we can understand what makes them tick, we’ll all be better off.

Postscript:

To give a flavour of the conversation that’s going on under the #dearpublisher umbrella, I chose a hundred recent tweets and fed them into Wordle, a wonderful (and free) online resource which swallows chunks of text and then regurgitates a visual representation of the relative frequency of all the words included. The image at the top of this post (click here to see a larger version) is what it produced for my selection of tweets: hardly scientific, but intriguingly suggestive nonetheless. The prominence of ‘love’ (in both upper and lower-case forms) is surely encouraging; ebooks are more significant than hardcovers, with audiobooks still further behind…

Originally written for FutureBook on 14 July 2010

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