HarperCollins Wants to Be Your Friend

l pubcrawldebbiestier credi HarperCollins Wants to Be Your Friend“I get a lot of, ‘Can you tell me about the Internet?’ ‘Do you think we need to Twitter?’ ‘Do I need to blog?’ I get a lot of that—a lot, a lot, a lot of that. They don’t believe that it’ll work, they don’t believe that you have to do it. And to me it’s like, ‘Don’t you see the sky is blue?’”

Sitting in her office last week on the 26th floor of the HarperCollins building, Debbie Stier was explaining why she has no patience for people in publishing who remain reluctant to use the Web to get their books noticed.

“Change is easier for some people than for others,” she said. “You know how some people are hoarders and they don’t like to throw anything out? I’m the opposite: I get this weird thrill from throwing everything out and having nothing.”

Ms. Stier is the head of digital marketing at HarperCollins, as well as the associate publisher of HarperStudio, the small imprint there whose stated mission since it formed last spring has been to question conventional industry wisdom concerning advances and returns, and to experiment with untested methods of promotion. Ms. Stier is among the most visible and energetic believers in the idea that publishers must stop relying on critics, journalists and talk show hosts for coverage, and instead start finding creative ways of reaching readers directly through emerging social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.

“I’ve been running down the halls screaming ‘fire’ for a couple of years now, and you know, I feel like it’s only recently that people are starting to hear me,” Ms. Stier said. “It’s hard for me because I’m up here in my own little beehive of exciting stuff, and I forget that there’s a world of people out there in the rest of the industry who don’t believe. But there are definitely pockets of people who do, and those pockets are growing more and more, faster and faster, which is good.”

The central insight driving much of the outreach that publishers have undertaken online is that, if used with finesse and attention, social media platforms like Twitter can be used deliberately to generate that invaluable, heretofore elusive phenomenon known as word of mouth. To that end, Ms. Stier and her counterparts in digital marketing departments at other publishing houses have sought to integrate themselves and their authors into various online communities of readers, and to interact—meaningfully!—with the individuals who participate in them. While they make no attempt to conceal their affiliations, the publicists and marketing people who man their companies’ accounts on Facebook and Twitter aim to be seen not as corporate promoters, but as friends taking part in a conversation.

Such sustained, strategic infiltration of social networks is a labor-intensive process, one that consists of searching out and building relationships with semi-professional book bloggers and amateur “book lovers” alike, and ultimately directing their attention to new books and putting before them various kinds of promotional content—links to articles and reviews, author interviews, MP3s, giveaways—in hopes that they will in turn spread it to others.

Kelly Leonard, the longtime director of online marketing at Hachette Book Group, said she recently shot a short video with the Grand Central novelist David Baldacci, whose new book, First Family, was published last month. The way it came about was Mr. Baldacci was coming through the Hachette building to sign some books, and Ms. Leonard thought it’d be fun to film him on her flip camera talking about Mother’s Day. During the brief interview, Ms. Leonard asked the author about the best gift his kids had ever given their mom, and prompted him to offer a Mother’s Day message to all the book bloggers watching at home.

“I was a little shaky—you know, I’m not Steven Spielberg with my flip camera yet—but I got it, and we posted it to YouTube,” Ms. Leonard said. “Then last week we tweeted the Mother’s Day clip … which got a nice response from the Twitter community, and some re-tweets.” One user responded, “Cute video,” to which Ms. Leonard replied, “thank you! so glad u enjoyed the Baldacci clip.”

Was the point to move a few copies of Mr. Baldacci’s new novel? Well, sure! But that wasn’t all.

“The hope is that ultimately it will lead to people going out and buying a copy of First Family or another David Baldacci book, but first and foremost, it’s about relationship building,” Ms. Leonard said. “Here’s something from a New York Times best-selling author where he says nothing about his new book, he says nothing about ‘please go out and buy my new book.’ He just says something real and human and down to earth that everybody can relate to, that people see and enjoy and possibly then share and pass along. It’s genuinely about being engaged and authentic.”

The first title HarperStudio published (as of yesterday, they have published three) was a collection of previously unpublished short essays and casuals by Mark Twain. One of the many things HarperStudio did to promote the book when it was published last month was to announce a contest—“Are You the Next Mark Twain?”—asking fans to take one of the author’s unfinished essays and come up with their own ending. To publicize the contest, HarperStudio posted a link to it on their Twitter feed, which over the course of the past three weeks has been picked up by some 20 other users and, according to the tracking application TweetReach, has been seen by about 14,000 people.

“It was a word-of-mouth thing, not just a blind spam thing,” Ms. Stier explained. “It was me saying, ‘Hey, check this out!’ to my friends.”

Until relatively recently, the notion of courting an unknown blogger with a modest audience seemed to many in publishing a hopelessly small and inefficient pursuit. But the frontier of experimental online promotion has become an alluring playground for some of publishing’s brightest, most hopeful minds.

“I don’t know if it’s a direct response to the fact that publishing is in a very uncertain period right now, or if it’s just an idea whose time has finally arrived, but people right now are really interested in experimenting,” said Ami Greko, a 29-year-old digital marketing manager at Macmillan. “There seems to be a real sense of, ‘Let’s get creative—nothing is set in stone yet, so let’s just try a whole bunch of stuff.’”

On Wednesday, May 6th, Ms. Greko and her colleague Ryan Chapman—together, they are among the most prolific and determined online marketing people on Twitter—attended the first in a series of monthly talks on digital publishing organized by DailyLit.com, a start-up online reading service which lets people subscribe to any of the 1400 or so books in their catalog and receive them in short installments through email or RSS. None other than Ms. Stier led the first meeting of the series with a lunchtime presentation about social networking; the talk, held in a 14th floor conference room at the Random House building, provoked so much interest when it was announced that it was expanded at the last minute to two sessions, each of which attracted around 50 people, mostly in their 20s. Some of those in attendance were seasoned connoisseurs like Ms. Greko and Mr. Chapman, while others, judging by the questions asked during the Q&A, were there because they felt like they’d fallen behind.

“This industry is changing so fast, that if you’re not up to speed you’re going to find yourself out a job a year from now,” said Maggie Hilliard, the marketing coordinator at DailyLit. “Nobody knows what they’re doing—you just have to jump in and work together. What I don’t understand about people who are hesitating is, what’s the alternative? Doing nothing? That doesn’t seem like much of a strategy.”

lneyfakh@observer.com