Our recent panel on ‘Building Reader Communities’ discussed how and why it is important to think about engaging reader communities.
Our starting premise was that writers, publishers and other creative producers need to engage with their audiences in new ways.
While publishers’ main relationship used to be with the retailers who sold their products, digital technologies now facilitate a much more direct engagement with their audience. This is a great opportunity, but it is also a challenge. Marketing departments are expected to be experts in social media and in building communities and there is an increased pressure on writers to have these skills too.
So how to go about it? Here are five key points that came out of the discussion:
1) Perhaps one thing that needs to be taken more into account is that communities usually take time to build. As Co-Director of Greenwich Book Festival, Auriol Bishop anticipates it will take three years to establish a community around the festival. In order to set it up, she and her co-directors, Patricia Nicol and Alex Pheby, drew on the communities of which they were already part. They all belong to the world of publishing. Auriol is Creative Director of Hodder & Stoughton, Alex is a writer and Patricia is a journalist. However they all also belong to the local community and so, while Auriol knew Alex through her publishing contacts, she met Patricia through the school playground network. With Alex also leading the Creative Writing degree programme at the University of Greenwich, the trio were able to bring into play a powerful nexus of local and industry support.
Sci-fi author, Kate Russell, and Alexis Kennedy, Creative Director of Failbetter Games, both recounted similar experiences of drawing on existing communities to build new ones. As a tech journalist and broadcaster, Kate had a large twitter following and Failbetter Games had a loyal community around their game Fallen London. They were both able to launch new projects with the help of crowd funding from these existing communities. In fact Kate’s project was a novel set in the world of the videogame Elite, a community of which she was herself a member. New communities then built around these new projects.
For many writers, publishers and other creative producers, thinking imaginatively about how to draw on existing networks and playing the long game is the best, most realistic approach to building a community.
2) Communities require not only time, but energy, to build and maintain. Meike Ziervogel, Founder of Peirene Press, testified to the fact that it is possible to build a community from scratch, with minimum reliance on existing networks. As a publisher of foreign language books in translation, which are traditionally difficult to sell, she knew she had to establish a strong brand, rather than rely on selling individual titles. Therefore, although Peirene titles are available for sale individually, the subscription model is very important to Peirene, as it facilitates much stronger reader loyalty. In order to attract subscribers, Meike focused on getting out into public spaces – setting up pop up stores at places like supermarkets and farmers’ markets. She also produced a newsletter, which she handed out at the entrance to the tube. The strategy paid off and Peirene still runs about 80 pop up stores a year to attract new subscribers. Meike sees face to face contact as very important, not only to build but to maintain a community. She runs a literary salon from her own house. Since the house can only fit 50 people, the salons tend to sell out very quickly. But for Meike the fact that the salon is in her house epitomizes the nature of a reading community – which is ‘the private and the public sphere colliding’. A community is something more intimate than a public. A community is something that you choose to participate in and belong to.
3) This brings us to our next point, which is that communities are interactive, dynamic and autonomous. Kate pointed out that communities need consistent and regular input, but it is equally important to offer people ways to participate and contribute themselves. Members of a community will not only buy books and attend events, they will crowd fund projects, spread the word and bring in new members. They will provide feedback and give you new ideas. Dedicated communities want this kind of involvement. They interact intensively with each other, discussing experiences, sharing strategies, organizing their own related events and thus deepening and expanding the experience of the game for each other. Publishers work closely with book groups, because they know how powerful and proactive they are in engaging readers with books.
However, communities also have a life far beyond this original engagement. Community members become friends. Sometimes they even get married. When your community is important to its members, it becomes part of their lives and they own it as much as you do. Communities are therefore also unpredictable. They will not always give you the feedback you want or expect and they may not always do things you want them to do. As Kate Russell points out, communities need to be managed. Yet, if communities are powerful and proactive, they will never be fully controllable.
4) Nevertheless, communities are a valuable business asset. Both Meike and Alexis were clear about the fact that their businesses depend on their communities. Alexis recounted vividly how his business struggled to survive financially on their original interactive fiction Fallen London. In a final effort to make the business work, he and his partners launched a crowd funding campaign to produce a videogame, Sunless Sea, which is set in the world of Fallen London. They found the Fallen London community keen not only to fund but to promote the game. Failbetter Games’ business model relies on this community. They operate a freemium model, in which people who participate for free in Fallen London pay for additional content and spin off experiences, such as Sunless Sea. Sunless Sea has also reached a whole new audience and expanded the community. The ability to beta test prototypes through the community is also highly valuable to the company.
For Meike too, it is this loyalty felt by the community to something bigger than a single work, in her case the Peirene brand, which holds the key to her business.
5) At the same time, communities depend on trust and mutual respect. When your community is your business asset, you obviously value it highly. But how do you maintain the balance between the values of the community and the values of the market? As Auriol pointed out, this is sometimes less of a conundrum for small businesses, like Failbetter Games and Peirene Press, or for writers like Kate, who are likely to share the values of their community and engage with them in a very direct way. Although many people who work within mainstream publishing are also passionate about what they do, it may be harder for a large publishing business to get the balance right. As Kate stressed, being authentic is vital to building a successful community. When communities build around a story world, a brand or an individual, it is because people feel it is something they can connect to, which is genuine and which has its own unique identity and integrity.
To hear more from our panel watch video clips here
You may also be interested in our next ‘New Space of Publishing’ panel on ‘The Writer as Catalyst and Collaborator’