It is virtual! Publishers bank heavily on Facebook and Twitter to promote books

HarperCollins India wants readers to read Mary Kom’s autobiography before heading for the movie. On Twitter, they invite readers to bounce off story ideas at Harper Pitch. Random House India congratulates the reader who wins a book as gift in a monthly contest on Facebook. Penguin India invites readers to a book launch on Facebook and tweets their healthy presence on the Man Booker Prize list. Roli Books welcome pre-orders for The Novel Cure.

Book promotions in the past were just one plush evening when the author met readers and read extracts over wine. Today, promotions start much before the launch. Publishing firms rely aggressively on social media — Facebook and Twitter — to promote new releases. On social media, a new book is heralded with meticulously stirred up curiosity. Harper’s new release, Annie Zaidi’s Gulab, appears to have a spooky being for protagonist. And so, the publishers on their FB page had pictures of the book placed in empty office cubicles and readers were warned of Gulab’s imminent arrival. Publishers promote everything about a book online including the jacket. The cover is often a “to-be- looked-forward-to” event with many countdowns and contests leading to its first glimpse. Readers, on occasions, get to pick the jacket they like for a book too.

Whether all this hoopla on social media counts where it matters finally — book sales, is nebulous. For publishers, upping sales is the final step. Social media, for now, is the tool to reach out to new readers and building relationships that will eventually lead to buying books.

Caroline Newbury, vice-president, marketing Penguin Random House says, “It is hard to attribute specific numbers just to a social media element.” Social media, she adds, is not a “standalone promotional tool.” But she is quick to point out, “One thing we have seen recently especially in a campaign we ran for Durjoy Dutta’s When Only Love Remains is an increase in pre-orders for books, driven mainly by social media efforts.” With the author active on social media, the intention, says Caroline was to turn followers into buyers. There were contests, author-meetings and signed copies on offer. The “incredible buzz” she says on e-mail “lead to such a number of pre-orders that the book hit the top of the charts in its first week.”

Priya Kapoor, editorial director of Roli Books, agrees pre-orders are possibly the strongest link between social media activity and sales. “The posts on our FB page usually have the pre-publication link.” Pre-orders, she says, are bigger for bigger books, like it was for Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography Beyond the Lines.

But it is not just about sales, says Priya. “It is not only about building a buzz, but creating a community. The page for Hussain Zaidi’s Dongri to Dubai, which continues to be a best seller after two years, is vibrant with 15,000 members. Lot of discussions happen there. It extends to reading a good book and then wanting to talk about it,” says Priya. Social media, says Priya, has opened the floodgates to publishers when it comes to direct interaction with readers. In the past, publishers were heavily dependent on reviews and posters. Not so anymore. “The communication is direct, the in-betweens are cut out. It is about intelligently getting to your target readers. It helps that it is a free medium and channels to interact with the author bring a sense of intimacy,” says Priya.

V.K. Karthika, publisher and chief editor at HarperCollins India, says social media allows access to unchartered territories. “With social media, we are more in control of what we want to promote. With FB and Twitter we reach beyond the metros,” says Karthika. What appeals to her is the timeliness social media allows. If a Mary Kom movie is in the offing, one could let readers know her autobiography exists. Recently when controversies involving the Shiv Sena surfaced, the publisher brought the focus on Sujata Anandan’s Samrat a book on how Shiv Sena changed Mumbai. “With those books we were exactly right with the timing. With social media, new and old books get opportunities at promotion. We never had that earlier,” says Karthika.

Priya also recalls landing a promising manuscript through social media interactions. “The author Sumedha Ojha lives in Switzerland and we were ready with the contract before meeting her. Her Urnabhih is the story of woman spy in the Maurya age. Its television rights have been sold and the book will come out in September,” she says. Promotions at times begin when the deal with the author is inked. Priya had long wanted a book on Irani cafes. “When we finally found the right people and signed them on, I put out a teaser on Twitter,” she says.

The immediacy social media allows, says Karthika, aid brand building. Lively discussions at book launches are often tweeted. “That brings in a lot of attention to the book. Retweets, comments, trolls are all immediate. And buying is at the fingertips, isn’t it?” she asks. Caroline says empowerment of readers is also the biggest strength of social media, “They can now tell us directly what they think of our books, what they want from us, and we can respond – that is the real revolution,” she says.

At most publishing firms, small teams take care of social media promotions with help from the marketing team. But publishers know blanket norms do not work. “Each book is different, so there isn’t one-size-fits-all plan for promotions,” points out Caroline. Some books do not lend themselves to quaint ideas and they are left alone. “We pick a book and then do a 15-day concerted promotion. That way we can do only do two a month, may be separate ones on FB and Twitter,” says Karthika.

With publishing firms going all out, authors too are cajoled to be vibrant on social media. Author Anita Nair says when publishing firms go gung-ho online, “they feel they are doing something physical to push the book.” “They are trying to build these unseen bridges with the faceless world and hoping it will ultimately culminate in sale.”

She is relatively active on social media, giving out information on book readings and launches. She says, “The people I find at readings are the ones who would have turned up anyway.” Online promotion, she says, is taking the horse to water. Making it drink is another deal.