Digital Context: Finding your book’s community

An ebook between paper books on a shelf

One of the greatest advantages of digital publishing is the ability to reach out beyond the boundaries of the book—to expand readers’s experience by providing opportunities for them to learn more about any of the words, characters, ideas, or facts within your pages.

So how does a publisher take advantage of this new reality? There are many examples of people trying to find a way to make this connection with the community. Most publishers seem to be in the awkward first date stage, adding soundtracks like unsolicited romantic mix-tapes hoping to connect with music fans or including book trailers and author videos to woo readers with their erudite appreciation of film.

But dating works sometimes. Once in a while we connect with someone and develop a relationship. Publishers need to be smarter about these moves though; they don’t have the luxury of spending their 20s dating the wrong people.

Below are three ideas to help you sift through the awkward pickup lines and furtive glances to find the tools that will strengthen and grow readership.

One: Identify your community.

Every book–be it a novel or a technical manual–has a community of readers looking for just this content. To carry our dating metaphor a little too far, there’s a somebody for everybody. To find Mr. Right, however, you first have to know what he looks like and where to find him. The same is true of our book’s community. Who are the readers as eager to read what you have to offer as you are to provide it? What do they look like? Where are they?

There are a couple of things we can do here short of starting a massive marketing survey. First, we can brainstorm who we think will most appreciate this content. Think about demographics like age, gender, and income, but also about psychographics like values, lifestyles, and common interests. Once we have a basic idea of who we think our audience is, we can test the theory and adjust as necessary. Second, we can find similar books and find out who gravitates toward them. In this area social media hubs like GoodReadsShelfari, or Kobo Reading Life can be incredibly helpful to help you hone your comparable title list and find out who your potential audience is.

Two: Understand the content and how it relates to the community.

In the digital world of memes and viral media, it is difficult to know how readers will interact with your content or what will spark an interest. Separating your fully conceived notion of what you think your content is from the audience’s perception of your content can be very difficult to do, and nearly impossible if you are the author of the content. Asking a third party to read the book, summarize it, and identify the strong themes they picked up on is a good exercise to illuminate and eliminate your own biases. It is critical that you accept their feedback as another valid opinion and not try to change the mind of the reader. By listening to these beta readers and the audience the book gathers, you’ll be able to find what truly resonates, what readers are taking away, and what they want more of.

Three: Use the appropriate tools in the correct ways to provide opportunities to connect instead of forcing content.

Once you know who your readers are and how they connect with you as an author or publisher, it’s time to implement the enhancements that will give them more of what they are looking for in an accessible way. Do readers have questions about a technical term or historical figure? It may be appropriate to add a pop-up definition, an external link, or a brief video tutorial. Does a character sing a song that enchants her love interest? Adding a link to the mp3 or embedding the audio into the ebook itself may give readers the opportunity to hear the song as it played in the author’s mind. Does the book cover material that is changing frequently? Adding external links to find out the most recent developments or to download an updated version of the text could provide the readers with new and critical information. Knowing the reader and where and when they want to know more will allow you to provide appropriate opportunities without adding bells and whistles for no reason.

Digital publishing has amazing opportunities to enhance learning, deepen the reading experience, and enliven content. It has equally amazing opportunities to turn off readers, confuse learners, and waste resources. Knowing who your audience is, how they use your content, and what tools are available to enhance the experience will allow you to make great choices that will take full advantage of digital publishing’s strengths.