online reader communities engagement direct sales relationships marketing consumer data metrics ebooks goodreads amazonOne of the great things that the digital era has brought to the publishing world, and really to the world in general, is enhanced online reader communities. Before digital publishing, most reader communities consisted of book clubs, niche forums, informal gatherings around the coffee table, and the like. But technology has made it so much easier for readers to gather together, socializing and sharing their favorite books, authors, and even publishers.

There are already some branded online reader communities that have made headlines in the publishing world. J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore is one of the more well-known examples. Rowling created Pottermore as a transmedia interactive online reader community that lets Potter fans engage with the story and world of Harry Potter beyond the books and movies. What Pottermore also did was allow for Rowling to develop intimate direct relationships with her fans, foster an ongoing environment of social engagement among readers, and create a platform that increased content usage—all while eliminating that pesky DRM and building a direct sales channel.

Mills & Boon is another good example of the successful online reader community. M&B’s community pages encouraged discussions among readers for “Romance HQ”—where readers could engage with each other through their own personal blogs, by creating book reviews, or by sharing their thoughts on life and love. M&B’s online reader community platform catered to the reader’s desire for individual recognition while still enhancing and promoting continued engagement and ongoing content usage.

Online reader communities put you as the publisher at the helm of engagement and reader interest. It allows you to be the wingman for your authors and their readers, while taking a proactive and innovative role in the future of publishing by reclaiming the reader relationship.

According to Michael Groth, online reader communities also offer up raw, tangible data from their engaged readers.

“[Online reader communities] provide a way of striking up a direct rapport with their customers and, at a time when publishing business models are evolving to become more consumer-focused,” says Groth. “They also provide publishers with the new holy grail of the digital consumption and that is customer metricsreal data about their core subscribers or readers.”

This is one nugget of knowledge that self-publishers were able to utilize to their advantage. And according to a 2013 Bowker Market Research study, nearly 90 percent of publishers expected their online reader communities to grow in the next two years.

As we learned from Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads, reader communities are a necessary investment in the future of publishing. Jim Milliot states that “social networking is the most important aspect of using online communities for trade houses, followed by the interaction between authors and readers.” Jane Tappuni agrees.

“It is clear that an online [reader] community around books and storytelling is a valuable commodity that could help publishers react better to reader interests,” says Tappuni.

And readers are the new gatekeepers in this rapidly-changing world of publishing. If you aren’t already building your online reader communities, you should be. Building relationships with readers is much more profitable in the long run than trying to build audiences.

Michael Wayne Selznick says that as primates, we are more inclined to invest in those in our circle than we would total strangers.

“We thrive in our tribe. We want the people in our tribe to thrive, because stronger individuals make a stronger group,” says Selznick. “You must build a tribe around your creative endeavors…you’ll sell more books to people who care more about you than care about your books.”

It’s pretty hard to argue with that logic.