Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Through the looking glass: online reading communities

This was an extremely interesting discussion at the London Book Fair yesterday by a panel of authors and publishers: Keith Gray and M G Harris, plus Anna Rafferty, Managing Director of Penguin Digital and Alison Ruane, Marketing Director at Harper Collins. There was lots excitement and optimism about the opportunities social media provide for two-way communication with teenage audiences. Authors and publishers alike are seizing on digital technology to engage with existing readers and reach new ones (the latter more problematic than the former). From the inception of the Joshua Files, Harris envisaged online interaction. She and her publishers devised a blog, SMS messages, games and more. She is particularly pleased that readers themselves have initiated other online activity around the books and characters. Although hosted and devised by Penguin, Spinebreakers is run entirely by young people. A core management group come in once a month to make key decisions. The group is now also helping with commissioning: reading manuscripts, pointing out gaps in the market and so on. (Rafferty had never before realised the extent of teenage boys’ fascination with war.) Ruane aired the challenges now faced by publishers to stay relevant, to keep on top of the game and to create a 360° experience around their books. YouTube is now key to effective marketing to teenagers. [I can certainly understand the impact of YouTube in this respect. Watching the video for Flip by Martin Bedford, you can easily see how much more powerful this medium is than conventional promotional methods.] Gray talked about the excitement created by a new online story writing initiative started during his writer in residency with the Scottish Book Trust, though he voiced discomfort about the pressures on authors to have a high-profile interactive online presence, something he does not want. He urged everyone not only to think digital, but also to remember the value of reading groups in libraries, and the dangers posed by the loss of libraries and librarians.