There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power;
not organized rivalries, but an organized peace
.
–Woodrow Wilson

Don’t be too quick to dismiss this post on the grounds that it relates to the children’s book industry.  While the children’s book industry is not typically viewed as a beacon of things to come, there is a lot that can be learned from how the publishing houses have come to depend on a web of communities.

I had suspected that the trend of influence was shifting towards people  (typically enthusiasts, not industry rollers) who have been successful in building strong online communities around literacy and children’s books.  New web sites and social networks are appearing regularly and they, too, show signs of strength.  Meanwhile, review space in newspapers is drying up which means fewer professional reviewers.  Publicity and promotion is changing fast and the publishing companies are finding it difficult to keep up.

It’s an industry with a broken economic model — not helped by the proliferation of big box stores that focus on staples and front books for a significant fee.  Independent book stores have become largely marginalized by their warehouse-like cousins, surviving predominantly on their ability to actually know the product they’re selling and catering to niches.  And before you start writing your protest songs, we also need to recognize that the big box stores have actually helped increase book sales (even if the margins have shrunk like crazy).

Publishing companies, publicists and agents have been gradually migrating to the social web.  It may be too little too late.  That is, many of them (if not the industry as a whole) are discovering that they have to throw themselves at the mercy of the communities and micro-celebrities of the (dare I use the term) Kidlitosphere.

By the way, the Kidlitosphere is the name adopted by a community of bloggers and podcasters that focuses on children’s and young adult books.  It includes children’s book enthusiasts (some parents, some not), librarians, educators, authors, illustrators and more.

THE SOCIAL WEB

Let’s be clear about something, the social web isn’t about a static webpage and an online bookstore.  I know that’s obvious to many people and companies.  I also know that there are many people and companies that don’t get that.  They also don’t understand that the web is more about real relationships and community than it is about technology.

TECHNOLOGY

During the Kidlit08 conference in Portland, Oregon this past weekend (more posts about the conference), one author announced that her editor told her to setup a MySpace page.  As the story goes, neither the editor nor the author knew why or how, or what should make up the page, just that it was a good idea.  So, the author went about setting up a MySpace page for herself, a page that the publishing company deems as necessary though will likely not include any mention of in any published book (I admit this may have changed: last year I learned that some publishing companies refuse to include links to authors’ or illustrators’ personal sites in their published books; that is, sites the publisher has no control over).

The editor didn’t make a communications, public relations, publicity or promotion decision.  The editor made a technology decision.  Technology is merely a channel and its application must be learned and understood.

Eventually, the author received a couple of contacts as a result of her MySpace page.  If something sticks around long enough, people are bound to find out about it.  Having a place for people to go to is all well and fine, but you also need to go to them.  Hence, Social Web.

COMMUNITY

As it turns out, the primary (perhaps exclusive) reason the Kidlitosphere needs the publishing companies is because they produce books.  Full stop.

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.
–Woodrow Wilson

Meanwhile, the bloggers and podcasters are doing more than just publishing meaningful book reviews that aren’t limited by word count, airtime or day of the week; they’re conducting insightful interviews with newcomers and celebrity book creators and they’ve organized the Cybils, an annual book award broken down into several categories that has earned a great deal of respect from the industry.  The nominations for the third annual Cybil Awards begin this fall.

The innovative ways of promoting literacy and great children’s books don’t stop there.  One section of the Kidlitosphere has organized itself for something called Blog Tours in which an author is selected to be featured on group of blog sites in a coordinated effort that ensures unique interviews on different subject areas.  One author at this year’s conference noted that the Kidlitosphere’s book tours are better organized, more insightful and more fun than the half-hearted efforts by her publishing house (which suffered from, among other things, the same interview conducted on several sites selected by the publisher).

All that and the Kidlitosphere has its own conference!

One author that I spoke with at the conference told me that the publishing industry is in peril and the Kidlitosphere on the cutting edge.  He explained that publishing houses don’t have the knowledge, money or people it takes to make things work online for a commercial interest.  Perhaps most significant is that authors and illustrators have more direct and more affordable (potentially free) access to the kind of publicity publishing houses can’t offer.

As airtime in major print publications and broadcast media dries up, the importance of the Kidlitosphere with its passion, coordination and innovation has been amplified.  The community of communities has done it right.

RELATIONSHIPS

You may have noticed that what I’m describing is something that began because of the passion of many people and has inadvertantly become an incredibly important public relations and marketing network for the children’s book industry.  It wasn’t organized that way.  Not intentionally, anyway.  It became that.  It became that because of the relationships that were formed within the community and the dedication of the individuals.

If you’ve always done it that way, it’s probably wrong.
–Charles Kettering

I suspect this is a difficult shift for the publishing industry.  Post-secondary marketing an PR programs haven’t taught social networking in a global space and the industry has a time honoured process for promoting its books through traditional channels.  Never before have they had to put their trust in people outside of the industry or rely so heavily on their own authors and illustrators to promote their books.

Some of the Kidlitospherians will share stories of pushy publicists that approach them to tell them how the industry works and how the Kidlitosphere will do a review or interview for the publishing company.  Some authors will regularly inquire when the book they sent a few months earlier will be reviewed.

On the other hand, I know of one Kidlitter that lists the Boston Red Sox as one of her interests and received a handwritten note attached to a book from one publicist — “Go Sox, Go!”.

The Kidlitters do things their own way, the way they know how; with passion and authenticity and the innovative use of community and technology.  That’s why the Kidlitosphere has become a community of power.