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Bloggers: Next Best Hope for Book Reviews?

We meant to say something about Thomas Nelson‘s new “Book Review Bloggers” program sooner after its launch Wednesday morning; it’s just been a busy week. The deal, which is largely a formalization of promotional techniques Nelson used on The Faith of Barack Obama and the Lynne Spears memoir, is pretty straightforward: “Any blogger can receive free copies of select Thomas Nelson products. In exchange, you must agree to read the book and post a 200-word review on your blog and on Amazon.com.”

michael-hyatt-headshot.jpg“I think this is a case where if the products are WOW, they will generate enthusiasm and buzz,” explained Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt (right). “If not, then that will also help us create better products in the future.” His plans are ambitious; basically, he wants to create a database of 10,000 bloggers, sorted by their areas of interest, so they can target specific audiences.

Some of the initial reaction among publishing insiders and other literati on Twitter Wednesday focused on what was perceived to be wrong with the Nelson system, like the imposed obligation to review the books, or the insistence that reviews need to appear not just on blogs but on catalog pages at online bookstores. (The latter was said to put people’s Google rankings at risk; frankly, we’d be more offended at being “forced” to create content for websites from which we haven’t bought a book in ten years, and that only because we looked in every local indie bookshop first.) Other suggested that printing 1,000 ARCs was a waste of resources—although Hyatt himself commented that “our ‘cost per thousand’ will be roughly a tenth of conventional advertising—and with much more impact.” (NOTE: As per Hyatt’s comments below, Nelson actually isn’t sending ARCs, but finished books.)

For all the objections, even the ones we share, we watch Nelson’s experiment with great interest because, let’s face it, publishers can no longer rely on newspapers to cover books and writers, and every day that publishers are not actively fostering public discussions about their products—we hesitate to even call the desired results “reviews” at this point—is another day they spend allowing their market to slowly disintegrate. (Please note that we are not saying the industry is at risk of dying any time soon; if we had to choose a colorful metaphor, we’d say it was like digging a grave with a teaspoon, then building a coffin out of toothpicks and lining the interior with cotton balls—and we would only apply that metaphor to individual companies, not to the industry.) Is Nelson’s program perfect? Probably not, but so what? As we said in a conversation with an executive at another house yesterday, “It’s okay to ground out in the first inning.” If this experiment fails, the next company will have a better idea of how to keep track of which bloggers should be sent books about this and which ones should be sent books about that, and how to squeeze maximum promotional value out of those mailings, which might turn out to be e-books instead of ARCs print editions, who knows?

Or: It could work this way, and then everyone would be trying to duplicate Thomas Nelson’s success… or just buy access to their database of contact information for influential bloggers.

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