Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Barnes and Noble interview

The Internet has been very good for readers. Bookstores have nearly limitless inventory, used bookshops across the globe are open for inspection and perusal and of course you have blogs. Finding like minded readers is another way to take advantage of the Web. I recently corresponded with Kevin Ryan, Vice President of Social Media at Barnes & Noble.com about their own community effort, the Barnes and Noble online book clubs.

How does the online book club experience compare to the offline model?

The online book clubs at Barnes & Noble.com offer readers maximum flexibility, ease of use and access to quality discussions on dozens of books, genres and literary topics.

The breadth of our program ensures that readers can find the kind of discussion they’re looking for while also meeting readers – and writers – who share their interests. And because our boards never close, participants can join the conversation when it suits them, whether it’s morning, evening or the middle of the night.

Under the hood, our online discussions are a lot like the discussions that take place in offline book clubs. Our participants are serious readers who enjoy digging in to the recommended texts, but who also bring enthusiasm to the various “off-topic” threads that naturally develop over time. And, of course, the public nature of our forums means that our conversations can draw in people with diverse points of view and from varied backgrounds.

What do readers get from the BN.com book clubs that they can't get elsewhere?

The strength of the Barnes & Noble Book Clubs is the participation of our readers, who come from all walks of life and are hungry to learn and share. Our access to the publishing world means we can support the conversation with reading guides, related books, and the participation of literally hundreds of authors every year. These author visits – ranging from the weeklong conversations in Center Stage to ongoing participation in our genre forums – give readers access to the brains behind the books, and foster some lasting connections between reader and writer.

How does First Look work?

The First Look Book Club is a wonderful program where we partner with publishers to distribute hundreds of free advance reading copies to Barnes & Noble customers -- typically four to five months before the books are released.

First Look readers sign up at bn.com/bookclubs to reserve an ARC, and gain access to an exclusive discussion with the writer, the editor and others involved in the book. We expect participants to post their reviews at bn.com, and to participate in the discussion, though we know that the most active readers are also discussing the books on their own blogs and elsewhere in their online and offline lives.

What kinds of books are best suited for promotion via First Look?

We look for books that hit the book club sweet spot -- books with strong characters, a good story and exceptional writing. We've had success with new authors, with celebrity authors and with authors published many times before. The key is finding a writer and a publisher willing to engage with readers ahead of time, giving them a sense of ownership in the overall success of the book.

Has peer opinion trumped expert opinion when it comes to trusted sources for which books to read?

There’s no question that readers have more opportunities to influence book selection than ever before. Online retailers like Barnes & Noble.com have had customer reviews for years, and our Book Club readers have a long history of recommending books to each other here, on their blogs and in the various social networks they belong to.

But TV appearances and traditional review exposure continue to have an impact on sales. At Barnes & Noble, we recently celebrated the one year anniversary of the Barnes & Noble Review, an online literary journal featuring criticism and content from some of the finest names in the business. The Barnes & Noble Review helps to fill a growing void of literary criticism in the more traditional journalistic venues.

Do you anticipate expanding the technology used to connect readers at, or beyond, BN.com?

We’re always looking at ways to enhance the experience of shopping at – and participating with – the site and our stores. A prominent example of this work is the recent launch of My B&N, a social feature that lets customers build and share a digital representation of their life in books, music and DVDs.

My B&N users can build a virtual Library, share their favorite titles, authors and genres, create multiple wish lists, and track events at their local Barnes & Noble stores. They can email their selections to friends or share their content on various social networking sites. And all of their contributions – from their lists to their customer reviews to their book club posts – can be unified under a single pen name and avatar.

What has been your favorite book you have discovered through the process of managing First Look?

It’s hard to pick a favorite book because they’ve all been wonderful titles and great successes for us. We’ve been thrilled with the publisher, author and reader support of the First Look program. There’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you see the serious, enthusiastic conversation develop among people who might not have otherwise selected a book – and you know their positive word of mouth is going to further the cause.

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