By Ellen Harvey
Testing books isnÔÇÖt a common practice in the publishing industry. It makes sense, considering that for the majority of the industryÔÇÖs history acquiring a new title relied on an individual editorÔÇÖs intuition and skill. In the past, the only way to find out if a book would be successful in a certain demographic was simply publishing it and seeing how the sales performed.
Although digital technology, social media, and a slew of new marketing tools enable more testing than ever before, publishers are by in large using the same guesswork system of the past. In part there is a hesitance to turn literature into a science ÔÇö a machine that churns out the same type of bestseller over and over. But that fear is unfounded. Today tested literature is already a reality, and itÔÇÖs resulting in some fantastic titles. But these titles are thriving in the self-publishing arena, leaving traditional publishers out of a significant revenue stream and an opportunity to develop a direct connection with their readers.
I read an interesting article from The Guardian yesterday about the ÔÇ£InstapoetÔÇØ phenomenon. For those who are unaware, Instagram is becoming the laboratory of a new generation aspiring poets, as are sites like Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. These social platforms make it easy for poets to push out a few lines of poetry, often accompanied by a compelling image, to thousands of readers. The poets are organically growing their audience before they ever publish a book.
Lang Leav is one of the Instapoets who has grown a massive following over the past few years. She began sharing her poetry on Tumblr and self-published her first poetry book. According to The Guardian, ÔÇ£Leav had around 50,000 followers on Tumblr when she published her first collection. Her poems on love and heartbreak sold close to 10,000 copies in one month and she soon had a powerful literary agent and a deal with a U.S. publisher.ÔÇØ
Novels too are finding traction on social media. Photographer and author Rachel Hulin is currently publishing an entire novel in segments on Instagram, titled Hey Harry Hey Matilda. The project began in September and is slated to run for nine months. It shares the story of twins Harry and Matilda as they write letters to one another about their lives and hopes for the future. The Instagram account has over 7,500 followers to date, as well as a dedicated website with extra content and ÔÇ£secretsÔÇØ about the two characters. HulinÔÇÖs website should be even more troubling for publishers. It raises a problematic question for the industry: if an author can create their own high-quality platform to reach readers, why work with a publisher at all and give up a share of their revenue?
That question is why publishers need to enter this field of social-media-tested stories now. Why let the initial publicity and audience of these tests go directly to the author and in turn lose the revenue from the first self-published title? And why run the risk of an author opting out of traditional publishing all together? Publishers could lose the primary value they provide authors ÔÇö the scale they can bring to the marketing of a book.
Publishers are beginning to test new authors and grow their audiences through digital-only presses, like HarperCollins, which recently launched HarperLegend. But why not take this a step further? Test stories where the audience actually is, on social media. Not only will this grow the direct relationships many publishers are seeking with their readers, but it will become a critical part of the editing and acquisition stage. The book will already have the enthusiasm of its most dedicated fans pre-publication and those fans will provide the all-important word-of-mouth marketing when the title actually goes on sale. To me, social media testing seems like a no-brainer for trade publishers.
What do you think? Should┬á publishers start testing new authorsÔÇÖ works on social media? Or is the current system sustainable?
Ellen Harvey is the associate/digital editor of Publishing Executive.