The Publishing Industry Needs Social Listening, Not Social Screaming

By Laura Pastore

In 2010, John Sargent, the CEO of Macmillan, wrote an open letter addressing a pricing dispute that Macmillan was having with Before explaining why Amazon had removed the entire Macmillan book collection off of its website, Sargent begins his letter by calling Amazon a “valuable customer.” However, if it’s the reader who Macmillan makes its revenue off of, and who is effectively keeping Macmillan’s doors open, why does Macmillan consider Amazon a customer, and not the actual readers? If the CEO of one of the largest publishing houses in the United States is ignoring its real consumers — the people who actually purchase and read Macmillan’s books — is anyone considering the needs and wants of the reader?

Publishers need to shift their focus from the supply chain and realize that they have to transform their business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model. They have to reach out and interact with their consumers directly and get them involved in the book publishing process as much as possible. Instead of using social media to start conversations about books, publishers should use “social listening” tools to find conversations that are already happening and they should enter those conversations organically. Using social listening tools will also allow publishers to hear to what the real consumers want without cumbersome intermediaries getting in the way.

Simply put, social listening involves “listening to the conversations that are going on in social media channels and using the information gleaned to gain insights in things like customer sentiment and, more generally, ‘what’s going on’”(Rubens, “Social Media Tools and Listening Tools: A Primer“).

If you go on any major publisher’s Facebook or Twitter page, you will see a myriad of postings that advertise books, ask questions and promote contests. However, it’s not enough for publishers to bombard their customers on social media by virtually screaming at them and throwing heaps of promotions at them, as consumers have become very adept at ignoring them completely. Also, all the social media activity is happening within the safety of the publisher’s personal pages, and you rarely see interaction between a publishing company and a consumer anywhere else on social media. It is clear that publishers are not doing enough to find consumers who may be interested in their books, and instead, they are waiting for the consumers to come to them. However, in order to be successful, publishers must focus and target their promotional efforts strategically.

The Change From B2B to B2C is Critical

Most publishers can’t seem to shake the business-to-business model that the publishing industry was built on, which stemmed from a reliance on retailers to reach the readers. When there was no real way of reaching the consumer directly, publishers conceded to the demands of retailers, so their books at least had the chance to be discovered by readers. Before considering the needs and wants of the end-user, they worked on creating relationships with booksellers. However, as Mike Shatzkin says in his article, Publishers, Brands, and the Change to B2C, “it is increasingly apparent that the retail network is reducing its size and scope and, unless publishers develop alternate channels to consumers, they’ll be reduced in size and scope as well” (Shatzkin, “Publishers, Brands, and the Change to B2C”). Just last week, Mitchell Klipper, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail unit, announced that the company would close a third of their bookstores in the next ten years. Consequently, this decrease of physical bookstores makes it very difficult for consumers to discover books organically.

During a webinar promoting the 2012 Publisher’s Launch Conference in Frankfurt, Peter Hildick-Smith, Founder and President of Codex group, relayed some interesting statistics about discoverability in bookstores after surveying five thousand book buyers. In June 2010 about thirty three percent of new books bought that month were discovered in-store, and by May 2012, that figure had dropped by almost half to seventeen percent.

However, it should be noted that consumers are not trading their in-store discoverability experience to online. In June 2010, only six percent of consumers discovered their purchase online, and in May 2012, that figure rose by only three percent. It is clear that consumers are not discovering their books through retailers, and instead, are only using retailers to purchase books, since they cannot purchase their books directly from the publisher (out of the big six publishers, only Penguin and Macmillan offer purchases directly off the website).

It is clear that consumers are no longer perusing through the stacks of brick-and-mortar bookstores to discover their next read, nor are they searching through pages and pages of online retailers. Instead, they’re relying on the people they trust and the people who know their tastes and interests to recommend books, which minimizes the risk of dissatisfaction. Hildick-Smith explains that in June 2010 fourteen percent of book buyers bought a new book based on a personal recommendation, but only two years later, that figure jumped to twenty two percent. Consumers are not taking risks on how they spend their leisure time. They are being mindful of the books they choose, taking into consideration what people recommend for them and valuing the opinions of others.

Since consumers are no longer using bookstores to discover their next read, publishers no longer need to rely on bookstores as heavily as they had to in the past. Instead of focusing their attention on ensuring their books are in stores and are prominently placed for the book buyer to see, publishers should reach out to consumers directly. They should stop trying to reach readers through a third-party, and instead of nurturing their relationship with booksellers, they should develop a relationship directly with the end-user, their real consumer. Publishers should take the place of that person who offers recommendations that people value. As Brett Sandusky said in his article The Proverbial Sex Reassignment Surgery: What This Transition is Really About, ­ publishers have to stop being “ninjas, or a group of faceless factory workers buying, creating, selling, and promoting products without one genuine interaction with the people for whom we are making these products,” (Sandusky, “The Proverbial Sex Reassignment Surgery”) and instead should become reader-oriented, marketing and gathering consumer insights through social listening.

Stop YELLING! Start Listening.

Perseus, one of the largest independent publishers in the United States, has been experimenting with social listening by engaging with consumers on social media in a new way. Instead of using social media to promote a book, they are using social media to join conversations and to create relationships with readers. Rick Joyce, Chief Marketing Office of Perseus, explains in an interview that through the use of social listening tools, they are parsing the conversations consumers have on Twitter, Facebook and the comments section of blogs, looking for “consumers out there talking about the subject of our books… If you can find them you can join an existing conversation” (Greenfield, “Discoverability and Marketing are Publishing Company Differentiators”).

Joyce also goes on to explain that publishers must adjust the model so it is “much more about engaging consumers in the way they like to engage [which] requires some steely nerves from publishers to try not to sell a book to a reader at every occasion” (Greenfield, “Discoverability and Marketing are Publishing Company Differentiators”). Joyce is encouraging publishers to replace the recommending-figure that consumers value so highly. Social media is about talking to your consumers directly, engaging in conversation, learning their needs and wants, and gaining their trust. Social media shouldn’t be used to enter as many conversations as possible in order to blatantly and transparently promote a book; it should be used to join the right conversation in a way that directs the conversation to be about the book.

By authentically entering relevant conversations, not only will publishers build their profile with consumers, they will also find out who the influencers are, and who they should pay special attention to. According to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, “an influencer is defined as a ‘person who has a greater than average reach or impact through word of mouth in a relevant marketplace’” (“7 Reasons Why Social Listening is Important”). Since recommendations are a vital aspect to the book discovery process, keeping track of who the influencers are will help facilitate the recommendation process in the publisher’s favour.

Running Press Cooks, a division of Running Press, originally began as a trade cookbook catalogue, but has since manifested into an online community that looks more like a food blog. After the food blog rose in popularity, Running Press, who was listening and paying attention to what its customers were interested in, created a platform that was attractive, enticing, and exactly what their customers were looking for.

Tools to Use


CoverCake is a new technology analytics tool that was specifically designed to meet the needs of the publishing industry. In her article, CoverCake: Social Media Analytics Customized for Publishing, Rachel Adyt compares the power and magic of CoverCake to “being handed every focus group you could ever want to watch from behind the two-sided mirror, without having to organize the groups” (Adyt, “CoverCake: Social Media Analytics Customized for Publishing”). CoverCake asserts that its algorithm allows book publishers the ability to:

Identify- “Sift through more noise through robust filters and analytics. Find out who is saying what about anything you want to know. Find out their demographic and geographic information, and their influential reach.”

Engage- “Focus on who has online potential for your brand. With CoverCake’s engagement console, you can easily reply, retweet, queue a comment, create group lists, send group messages and campaign links, or just export users into a CSV file.”

Amplify: “Design, launch and analyze campaigns that will drive your key influencers to action, expanding your message and increasing your social influence” (CoverCake).

CoverCake gives its users the ability to search by individual titles, content titles and even BISAC codes. CoverCake results are then filtered, and the valuable influencers rise to the top of the list. You can narrow that list down further, eliminating categories or demographics that aren’t relevant to your marketing plan. CoverCake pulls conversation from Twitter, Facebook, popular blogs, Goodreads, and Amazon, with plans to include Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

INscribe Digital, the leading eBook distribution and services company recently employed CoverCake’s services. In a press release, INscribe Digital explained that their decision to use CoverCake stemmed from the prospect of having access to their complete and wide-ranging platform that “brings together the power of social media to discover not just how millions of people are reacting to specific books and who those people are, but how they’re reacting to entire book subjects, both at a macro and micro level” (INscribe Press Release).

The Marketing Cloud

Like Cover Cake, Radian6 has created the Marketing Cloud for companies who want to “listen, engage, gain insight, publish content, optimize social advertising, measure social marketing programs and integrate social data with CRM information” (Radian6). Unlike CoverCake, the Marketing Cloud was not made specifically for the publishing industry. They have a variety of clients from agencies, consumer packaged goods, retail and financial services. However, like CoverCake, the Marketing Cloud allows users to pull valuable insights such as demographics, influence reach, sentiment and intentions, on the topic of their choice, from platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, mainstream news, forums, videos and image sharing sites.

The Marketing Cloud also provides a few more services. They have an “Engagement Console,” which allows users to find conversations online and join them in real time. A “Summary Dashboard,” which monitors the health of the brand on social media; a “Salesforce Social Hub” that automates workflow actions to help companies that are not able to keep up with the online conversations about their company; as well as a mobile iPhone App, which allows users to have access to their data at all times.

Publishers can very well take the topics of one of their books and scour the Internet for relatable conversations. Entering those conversations organically opens up a new market of consumers that are interested in that topic, who marketers would not have had access to otherwise. Without the marketing cloud, not only do marketers have to convince readers that their book is worth reading, they have to convince readers that the topic of the book is interesting. But with the Marketing Cloud, marketers will find those groups who are already interested and who will be more receptive to books on that topic.

Imagine there is a conversation happening somewhere in the internet-universe about a particular topic, and a publisher has a book on that same topic. That publishing company can join that conversation (let’s say its on a blog that the publisher did not even knew existed), and become a part of that conversation, contributing valuable insights and building a rapport with all of those involved. After the publisher has built relationships with the other members of the conversation, when he or she let’s them know that there is a book on this exact topic, they will be much more likely and willing to purchase it.

Come On Publishers — Make the Change!

CoverCake and the Marketing Cloud are just a couple of tools publishers can use, but there are many other tools out there that do a similar job. Markus Dohle, the CEO of Random House, once said in an interview that he’s “convinced publishers have to become more reader oriented in marketing and trend finding/setting away rather than in a direct consumer way” (Shatzkin, “Publishers, Brands, and the Change to B2C”). It’s clear that publishers have to start listening and paying more attention to their end-users, the readers, and build better relationships with them, not the retailers. Publishers must be able to make recommendations that their customers value. Finding conversations that are already happening on the Internet, and entering those conversations organically in order to build a trusting relationship with those readers is the best way to change the publishers’ business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model.


“7 Reasons Why Social Listening is Important.” Social Bakers. n.d. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

“A Message from Macmillan CEO John Sargent.” Macmillan, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Aydt, Rachel. “CoverCake: Social Media Analytics Customized for Publishing.” Publishing Perspectives. n.p. 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

CoverCake. CoverCake, 2013. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

Greenfield, Jeremy. “Discoverability and Marketing Are Publishing Company Differentiators.” Digital BookWorld. fw Media. 30 May 2012. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

“INscribe Digital Chooses CoverCake.” PRWeb. 7 Aug, 2012. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

Publishers Launch Frankfurt Innovation and Analyis [Video File]. Retrieved from

Salesforce Marketing Cloud. Radian 6, 2012. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

“The Proverbial Sex Reassignment Surgery: What This Transition is Really About.” Publishr. n.p. 27 Apr. 2010. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

Rubens, Paul. “Social Media Monitoring and Listening Tools: A Primer.” IT Business Edge. QuinStreet Inc. 4 Jan 2013. Web. 30 Jan 2013.

Shatzkin, Mike. “Publishers, Brands, and the Change to B2C.” The Idea Logical Company. Disqus. 6 Sep. 2010. Web. 30 Jan 2013.


  1. Hi Laura, this was a very interesting read; I’d never heard of “social listening” as a marketing tactic before.

    Excellent point about the increasing importance of B2C marketing, what with all the bookstores dying. (Ever since Tom’s class I’m always surprised how many publishers don’t make at least a token effort to sell directly from their websites.)

    And it makes a lot of sense to listen carefully for your audience to reveal themselves, rather than trying to out-shout the cacaphony of hucksters online.

    It makes so much sense that you’d think publishers (and any business with a SM presence) would be doing this already, as a matter of common sense, rather than waiting for a chance to pay Covercake et al. to tell them to do it – but I guess we know by now that a lot things you assume publishers should be doing don’t get done.

    One thing I’m unclear on is exactly how, after a publisher finds these organic conversations, they can join them authentically – what would that look like in contrast to an inauthentic attempt? The key seems to be in the “steely nerves” necessary “not to sell a book to a reader at every occasion.” I get the importance of being a part of the conversation instead of flogging books constantly, but in practice, how many pleasant comments does a publisher have to make before they can linkbait their book and not seem inauthentic? And in the interim, while nerves are steeled, does anyone think that a publisher is spending time in their conversation for any reason other than to sell books? I guess it varies depending on the venue, and not everyone is as cynical as me about these things (thank god), but as a strategy, trying to sell books by authentically and organically trying not sell books seems a bit shady to me. Which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be incredibly effective.

    I think this line set my Adbusters-sense tingling: “Social media shouldn’t be used to enter as many conversations as possible in order to blatantly and transparently promote a book; it should be used to join the right conversation in a way that directs the conversation to be about the book,” which I read as ‘don’t try to convince them to buy a book, try to trick them into thinking it was their own idea to buy the book.’ Anecdotal evidence suggests this is a very effective tactic in the domestic realm, but I think publishers should be super careful using it sell books, lest people see them through them and get very upset – forthright sales efforts seem more honest in comparison to a failed long-con of ingratiating yourself to the buyer.

    If done well though, I agree that social listening could be very helpful in finding and moving books to the people that want them. Between this and your Googalytics prowess I’m sure you’ll make a certain publisher in Toronto very wealthy! Thanks for the great read.

  2. I’m a big fan of social listening, I think it’s step 1 in online marketing because without it you really don’t know who your audience is and what they are interested in talking about.

    I agree with Mike’s comment about authenticity. If publishers are approaching these conversations with as they would in a social situation, like a cocktail party, they have a better chance of striking the right cord. It is SOCIAL media afterall so social skills are highly important.

    One of the things you say is:
    “However, it should be noted that consumers are not trading their in-store discoverability experience to online. In June 2010, only six percent of consumers discovered their purchase online, and in May 2012, that figure rose by only three percent. It is clear that consumers are not discovering their books through retailers, and instead, are only using retailers to purchase books, since they cannot purchase their books directly from the publisher (out of the big six publishers, only Penguin and Macmillan offer purchases directly off the website).”

    To me this is the opportunity: there’s a hugh portion of the pie that publishers can get by focusing on online discoverability and knowing where and how people are finding their next great read. If it’s through recommendations: how can you get on the radar of those people who are recommending things? Often they are bloggers or active in social media. So what’s their incentive? Again, it’s all back to audience and knowing what they need and want. Social listening is one of those tactics to know.

    Google Alerts and NetVibes are two free tools publishers can use as well.

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