Communitisable

Map of Online communities by D’Arcy NormanIt's not a pretty neologism. Following on from my previous post I got thinking about the value of community for publishers and there seems to me a distinction between building a community and making something "communitisable". Gavin Bell of our sister company the Nature Publishing Group has given an intriguing talk on publishers and community which argues that developing closer and more long term relationships with the most dedicated book buyers should be a priority for publishers. Whilst for some publishers- like Nature- building a community around the publishing brand can work well (see Nature Networks) I believe that for trade publishers the best strategy is to ensure that products are fully compatible with existant platforms; platforms that transcend the parameter of any given brand and thus offer the most utility to consumers whose reading habits are largely dictated by favoured writers, not publishers. Bell suggests this approach, advising publishers to "Find the people, reviews and discussions on the internet and link them into the books you sell."

Building a community website isn't easy. There are some great examples- Penguin have produced the sumptuous Spinebreakers and we have a thriving community at the Picador blog. The Picador blog is designed not to be a ghetto for Picador books, instead opening itself out to cover many different aspects of literary fiction and appeal to readers in the broadest sense, rather than just readers of Picador books.

Community from a publisher perspective can all too easily mean community around the products a publisher produces rather than the space as a whole including those parts of it occupied by other publishers . Google, Amazon, librarything, whoever, do not have this limitation, whilst already existing as destinations for those looking to find out more about books or use them as a vector of contact. On top of this they are eager for any content they can get to add value to their own brand.

In practice all this simply means making work available online, making it searchable, taggable, postable, findable, shareable- communitsable in general. Of course most online content is already most of those things, including this post. There is a vibrant culture of literary discussion on the web that publishers could serve well by opening up the closed, sealed off world of the book and enabling it to be integrated into those discussions, a move that in no way necessitates creation of a community but amply serves the needs of a community. At bottom this is an economic imperative, rather than an ideal. In essence it satisfies the minimum requirements of community.

The question is: if a community site is built and run by a publisher will this ultimately mean more sales, more of a relationship, than if the community exists elsewhere, on hobbiest boards or facebook groups. If we accept the premise (and I am not fully convinced) that social contact is the key here then as long as contact is taking place this should translate into some kind of positive feedback for a publisher.

For the first time Facebook usage figures have fallen. Perhaps it's wrong to read too much into this but it does suggest that social networking may be reaching its inevitable plateau or at least approaching that point. There may also be a kind of fatigue in joining endless sites (which is why Bell strongly advises using OpenID) as there is simply not enough time in most peoples lives to keep apace with the proliferation of social media. In a climate of super abundance and web 2.0 overdosing it makes sense to work existing channels rather than create new ones. A further issue is the wariness some users have of corporate websites, a sense that their contributions might become property of a money making machine or that their attention is not a dialogue but little more than a pretext for a sales pitch, which inhibits the very purposes of the site.

There are a number of things standing against this position: authors do work as brands, on that crucial granular level, which publishers can effectively leverage; making a product communitisable may require big strategic decisions (do we let Google index our paid for content? do we have the rights to put book covers on flickr?); without any moderating role things could quite easily turn bad and it may be the case that nothing has, or is likely, to grow organically on the web around a given piece of content. Moreover for journals or niche publishers operating in clearly demarcated verticals there is more obvious value in creating community spaces that can occupy that vertical.

What ultimately I am arguing is not that community is unimportant- I absolutely think that it is- but that being the builder of community need not be the only way of engaging readers on the web, and that communities can be encouraged by making books, writers, series communitisable. Its no different from viral marketing- scattering seeds rather than owning the garden. This is a point I feel it is important for publishers to make as lacking the vast new media budgets of, for example, television (e.g. this kind of thing) there is only so much we will be able to do.

Photo: Map of Online Communities by D'Arcy Norman