Emma Barnes, Snowbooks CEO

Digital Thought Leaders

Smart digital marketing by reaching customers online

October 2007

Over the last few weeks we’ve been preparing a new edition of the Digital Viral Marketing Academy; one focussed on the entertainment sector and in particular the challenges facing book publishers. Along the way I’ve learned heaps about how Harry Potter fans used their own magic on the web, how political diarists levered their influence and how unknown authors have shot to stardom. The folks at Book-Trailers.net have begun exploring Hollywood-style approach to selling movies, authors are now buying into creating their own sites, and Penguin Classics have created the cutest RSS buttons imaginable.

While ambling between the sites of the big sisters of publishing, I was lucky enough to stumble into the home of tiny Snowbooks, and find a small publisher that’s pulled off some big web coups.

Snowbooks.com | Snowblog | Snowbooks.com on YouTube | Books-Trailers.net | Training in viral marketing | Tips in viral marketing | Web 2.0 training and strategies

While most brands are still talking about blogging, Snowbooks MD Emma Barnes has put her personality and brand on the line, diving in with one of the best examples of a corporate blog in the whole book industry.

“It’s the epicentre of the activity and we’re not doing this for reasons of cost but because it’s a natural environment for spreading the word based on merit.” Their blog is notching up just under 10,000 visitors a month, and book lovers, publishing industry types and aspiring authors are all equally likely to be hanging out there.

“We primarily aim to get materials in front of bloggers who can choose freely whether they want to talk about our books or not,” explains Barnes, who went on to take vignettes of the content and get them peppered across Facebook, SecondLife, YouTube and a host of online social networks – even Twitter.

Inside the icy polarscape of Second Life, SnowBooks was the first publisher to plant the flag, opening up shop there before many had even started thinking about online communities. And it isn’t only a warm place to hang out, but a commercially powerful way of having events hosted around their books: readers can click through to buy books, read the first chapters or watch videos.

On YouTube their author videos are opening up new frontiers in connecting with customers and marketing to the YouTube generation (www.snowbooks.com/papercut Papercut caught my eye), and each book has its very own webpage; not a corporate template but something with some real personality…
• www.snowbooks.com/sarahbower/
• www.snowbooks.com/memphisunderground

Since setting up in 2003, Snowbooks has created a storm, winning small publisher of the year and pioneering the new ways to connect readers to the titles they will love. They’re an inspiration for other small firms because they’ve done it without massive marketing budgets, but by simply knowing their customers and reaching them on the terms they want.

Our interview with Snowbooks chief Emma Barnes:

Getting close to blogging - how did you get started with it?

- I gravitate towards free stuff – and after starting Snowbooks I surprised myself by turning into a bit of a geek. Suddenly, when it was my own money on the line the idea of reading IT manuals and googling techie forums was much more appealing than paying someone to do it for me.

- Plus Snowbooks is our own creation to nurture and be proud of - or ashamed of if we do things wrong. It seemed very important to be the one in control of the voice of the company.

- Plus we always like being first with things, or at least early adopters. It’s delicious fun to know that we are doing things years ahead of other companies, with more money and time than us. I will phrase that more sensitively when in front of an audience that aren’t early adopters!

- For reasons of cost and control, then, blogging seemed from the start like my natural habitat!

What can a firm like yours get from blogging as a communication channel?

- Publishing is a linear chain, not a feedback loop. An author comes up with a book (usually); an agent buys it and presses it onto a publisher, who in turn sells it to a retailer. The customer – the reader – eventually stumbles across it on the 3for2 tables (the ‘browser’ buying model) or sees a review/hears good things and buys it (the ‘searcher’ model). But there is precious little feedback after that to the producers. Amazon reviews don’t number sufficiently highly to be statistically significant; publishers don’t do test marketing or anything like the research Procter and Gamble, for instance, do. All publishers know is that they have the reader’s money – they have no idea if the reader ever read the book, or gave it as a gift, or loved it, or hated it.

- What a blog can do is provide one way for that linear chain to turn into a feedback loop. By taking the frankly rather brave step of enabling comments, you allow people to say precisely what they think. Scary – but utterly invaluable.

How do you find your voice? What is it to be authentic?

- Isn’t it sad that being authentic is special? After all, it’s just being human. I think the trick is at the recruitment stage. Only hire people who you are 100% confident in. Then let them say whatever the hell they like – and when they screw up, don’t yell at them. Again, brave – but the alternative is the air-brushed corporatespeak which will do *far* more harm and open you up to derision from your readers. People like to be proud of what they do: let them talk about it. Let them own their bit of the company.

Practicalities: How long do you and the team spend?

- About a half hour to an hour a day. Seems like a long time, and it is – but this is the essence of the company we’re talking about here. After four years of blogging, we have a lot of readers – every event I go to, someone new comes up and says ‘ooh, I read your blog’. Everything we are is epitomised by the blog, and frankly I’d rather find ways to automate the boring stuff that no-one sees so I have time to do important stuff like projecting our company’s progressive brand. Put in place the fixings for automation – like ONIX compliance, automatic field-fillers for sales spreadsheets and marketing materials, upgrade to a decent, simple bookkeeping system – and you have time enough for blogging.

What does the idea of 'being brave' really mean in using the web in book marketing?

- You don’t need to be brave if you’ve got no secrets. So, ditch the secrets. Go as far back up the supply chain as it goes and be absolutely certain that you are doing the best you can, creating the best books, working with the best processes that you’re perfectly proud of. So you have an amazing plan for next year? Who cares if your main competitor finds out – the trick is in the execution, not the idea. Snowbooks’ business model is incredible traditional – nothing unique at all – but it’s how we execute that model that is the trick. So don’t be afraid of people getting hold of secrets, because no one cares.

- If you discover things that your company should keep secret, that you’re ashamed of, then REMOVE THEM! So it turns out a range of business books you publish are actually quite crap, and you’re only publishing them because of a sponsorship deal? Well, I’d suggest that’s something you should rectify. Readers are quite possibly buying them and hurling them against the wall in disgust – that’s something that needs fixing.

Is there a particular challenge that large corporates face? You guys are racing away with digital channels much faster than those with much much larger organisation?

- Authentic conversations are at the individual level. Companies – groups of people – find it hard to find a unified, consistent voice, precisely because they’re part of an internal conversation.

- My advice? Find someone in the organisation whose views exemplify the organisation’s own, and let them speak. Ideally, it should be the most senior manager. Isn’t it interesting that we’re talking about blogging here, but the real problems are organisational and strategic?

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