computerI have a confession to make. In the past month, I bought more collectible anthologies than I should from Cemetery Dance, a small press specializing in horror. When I signed up for their newsletter, I wasn’t expecting this, not when so many publisher newsletters give me the doldrums. Whoops. Before you knew it, I had ordered several gorgeous hardcovers. They enticed me from right off the bat with phrases words like “72% off” and “Free book” right in the subject lines. Usually, I hate it when companies fill my inbox with lots of offers, but I couldn’t wait to see what they were offering next. Who wants to be left behind?

I have another confession to make. I barely look at most of the publisher newsletters I subscribe to.  Usually, I glance at the subject line and think “Meh.” Do I really need to know James Patterson has another book out? (Isn’t that redundant?) Why is this so? The reason came to me the other day. I told myself, “Anne, you should actually read these newsletters. They’ll tell you what’s coming out.” So I opened a newsletter from a major publisher, and they told me about this hot new title. Only I had bought the book at least two weeks ago. Gee, thanks for the update, guys. Shouldn’t you have told me about it three weeks ago? If publishers were really on the ball, they would have told me that John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, just published a new book, Handling the Undead, about zombies in Sweden. Instead, I found it by accident through the Barnes and Noble Web site.

Compare that to the way Harlequin does it. Wow! What other big name romance publisher thinks of subject lines such as “Yard Sale: Get $1.99 Books” and “Magic 8 Ball Mystery Deal!”? Even better, you can tailor their e-mails according to your satisfaction, sort of like going into a fast food restaurant and asking for extra pickles. My newsletters from Harlequin feature books with my favorite themes or from my favorite authors. That way, I don’t get bogged down scrolling through secret baby books when I want to know if there are any new romantic suspense books this month.

Compare that to the subject line from an e-mail newsletter from Berkley’s mystery line… “New September Releases from Berkley Prime Crime & Obsidian Mysteries.” Yawn. It shouldn’t be much of a mystery what the subject line of their October newsletter will be. Inspirational publisher Bethany House tries to entice me with “Your Bethany House Subject Alerts.” Yeah, that’s really intriguing. Some publishers do try a little harder. Hachette will feature a couple of authors names or a current topic. For example, “Fall Fiction from Nicholas Sparks and Emma Donoghue” That’s a little better. But what if I’m not a Nicholas Sparks fan? (I’m not.)

It doesn’t take much to get me fired up about a publisher newsletter. A subject line that makes me want to open the message. Is that so much to ask for? Something to make it worth my while to open the newsletter isn’t too much to ask, either. A discount, a chance to win a free ARC, author interviews, something. Make it worth my while to open your newsletter, which is competing with the newsletters I really want to read. Which one would you rather read, a newsletter that gives you a chance to get a free book, or one that says “Upcoming books for November”?

The same rules apply to Facebook, Scribd, Twitter, publisher blogs and Web sites, and all the other ways publishers have of reaching out to me on-line. I can’t understand why publishers go to all that trouble of establishing themselves on these sites, only to put off updating their presence. (More excerpts, please!) Publishers… it’s OK to be chatty on these sites. It’s Facebook, not a corporate memo. Oh, and publishers? Please be on Facebook, OK, and don’t forget to use it.

When I go on Facebook, I know there’s a good possibility I will see an announcement from Kensington Publishing and from Tor Books. Even if the announcements don’t always interest me (oh yay, Fern Michaels has a new book out), at least I know these publishers are active on Facebook. They’re trying. Other publishers are not as active.

Publisher Web sites are the same. Some still look as if they were designed five years ago. Publishers should take a page (a Web page, that is) from the Avon Romance book on drawing in readers. If you visit their site, something amazing will happen. You will actually want to read it. When I checked the site for a quick visit, I ended up wanting to find out why Dukes Are Like Truffles. I also watched a book trailer and participated in a Web poll. Do you think I’ll remember the titles and authors I saw on that site? Of course!

Then there’s the Big Momma – eHarlequin. I’ve spent way too much time spending my money on their site. How many other romance publishers let you order and download their eBooks before they come out in the store? With some publishers, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to release the eBooks on the same week as the print edition. eHarlequin also has free on-line reads, book trailers, articles, forums and blogs, and even scheduled chats.

One of the best sites belongs to SF/fantasy publisher Baen Books. It’s like the eHarlequin of SF/fantasy, a very interactive Web site with more eBooks and free chapters than you can imagine. They have more than 100 free eBooks available for download – including some from NYT best-selling authors. Their theory is that if you read the first book and like it, you’ll buy the rest of the series. You can also you buy eBook editions of almost all of their upcoming titles, in about seven formats, for six dollars each, or buy an entire month of releases for fifteen dollars. They have one of the most famous (and sometimes vociferous) publisher message boards. Thanks to those boards, I learned that Lois McMaster Bujold had a new Miles Vorkosigan book coming out in November. Thanks to Baen, I bought the electronic ARC several months before its publication, and no, I am not going to tell you how it ends.

Compare that to the typical site for a big publisher, such as St. Martin’s. Their SF/fantasy/ imprint Tor Books has a great Web site, but I wouldn’t know it from the St. Martin’s home page. If I click their link to Tor, they bring me to the “official” Tor page. They don’t let me know about the interactive Tor Books page that has lively blogs, forum posts, and free stuff.

Most big publishers run their Web sites like this. (For example, see the Hachette Book Group site.) Like Avon, some publishers do have great sites dedicated to their imprints, but good luck finding them from the main Web site. They collect all the imprints on one page and expect readers to pore through the category listings, looking for what they want. I guess it’s like putting the milk at the back of the store and hoping that the customer will pick up twenty dollars in groceries when they only came in for a gallon of milk. So that’s why when you go to the site to find out about hot new romance releases, and instead, they’re telling you about a book on the Supreme Court. Or the Supremes. Persistent readers will find the sites dedicated to the romance imprints, however, I think some of them need an overhaul. The Warner Forever line features authors such as Elizabeth Hoyt and Jill Shalvis, but the official site didn’t make me want to stay for long to find out more.

The Simon and Schuster romance Web site fares better. Sure, you have to poke around a bit to find it. But once you get there, you’ll learn that there is a Pocket After Dark site that lets you read chapters from upcoming books, read books for free, interact with other readers, and more. Now that’s more like it! On the other hand, going to the home page for Random House would make a reader believe they don’t sell romance novels. They don’t list romance as a category! Yet they have a romance newsletter and publish authors such as Linda Howard, Lara Adrian, Monica McCarty, Luanne Rice, Sandra Brown, and others. On the other hand, a couple of clicks at the Sourcebooks Web site, and I was brought to listings of their romance novels, not to mention their Georgette Heyer page.

What’s next for publishers and the Web? More interactivity, I hope. Maybe, like some of us, some publishers are scared of interacting too much. Or maybe they’re worried about the expense of keeping an interactive site going. Yet they have to keep the benefits in mind. Tell me what you’re excited about publishing, and I might become excited about it, too. But if you just list a few titles by big names and make me go on a scavenger hunt to find information, then I might give up and buy another book from eHarlequin or Baen.

– Anne Marble AAR