Can video save the book-publishing star?

Simon & Schuster will soon be promoting authors through so-called docu-videos in the hope that putting a face on camera will sell more books.

What Oprah Winfrey did for novelists on television, Simon & Schuster is hoping to do with online videos.

Simon & Schuster, a part of CBS Corp., is planning to launch in early June an Internet video channel that will feature about 40 short videos of authors talking about their books and what gave them inspiration, as well as walking through the settings of their novels and explaining the context of their stories. The videos will be shown on a site called Bookvideos.tv. They will also be available at Simon & Schuster's site and hosted on one or more major online video sites, the company said.

"I'm 60 years old and I have 11 books in print," said Marianne Wiggins, whose The Shadow Catcher, a fictionalized account of the life of photographer Edward Curtis, will be among the Simon & Schuster videos. "My readers want to see who is the wizard behind the curtain. If I read a book I'm spending at least three to four days with that author in my mind. I want to know who that person is."

With book sales flat and Internet usage, particularly for video, rising fast, it was inevitable that the publishing industry would turn to the Web to help boost sales. From 2002 to 2006, sales for mass-market paperbacks dropped 1.6 percent while books sold in retail stores, including fiction and non-fiction, rose only 3.7 percent, according to figures released this week from the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

"The book-publishing industry has to compete with the Internet now and publishers should be taking advantage of the Internet," said Ed McCoyd, director of digital policy at the AAP. "I see so much of the industry going toward social networking and I think viral marketing can really take hold."

"Publishing is founded on the ultimate contradiction. The process of writing a book favors introverts and the process of promoting a book favors extraverts."
--Michael Norris, senior analyst, Simba Information

Simon & Schuster is banking on word of mouth, said Sue Fleming, vice president of online and consumer marketing for Simon & Schuster's adult publishing division. "We wanted to give people an opportunity to get something that was an extension of the reading experience," she said. "The videos offer the back story, the inside story on the book and the author."

In one of the Simon & Schuster videos, author Susan Patron discusses her children's book, The Higher Power of Lucky, about a 10-year-old girl dealing with the death of her mother and other existential matters. The book, which won the 2007 Newbery Medal, stirred controversy because critics thought the use of the word "scrotum" was inappropriate for school libraries.

TurnHere, the company creating the videos, has done videos for hotels, CitySearch merchants and other publishers and novelists, including Tom Perkins, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and ex-husband of Danielle Steele. In his video, Perkins discusses how he came to write Sex and the Single Zillionaire after being invited to participate in a reality TV series. The pitch was that Perkins, who is in his mid-70s, would date a series of 20-year-olds and choose one to marry.

The videographers do not use scripts or actors, said Brad Inman, founder and chief executive of TurnHere, which has been privately funded by media tycoon William Randolph Hearst III. "It's not about hype or celebrity. It's about the personal stories about these people and what they do," Inman said. "There is an affinity relationship with authors and subject matters."

"It's the next logical step in book promotion," said Michael Norris, a senior analyst at Simba Information, a market research firm covering the media industry. "Book promotion has evolved away from the author book-tour model and more towards a social networking, ongoing strategy where a book is marketed longer than just during the launch period."

Instead of waiting for readers to go into book stores to discover books or sending authors on pricy reading tours, publishers hope they can tap into social-networking sites where avid readers discuss what they've read. MySpace.com, for example, has a books channel, and large publishers are providing ways for Internet users to embed parts of books into their Web sites as sort of text "widgets," said McCoyd of the AAP.

Publishers hope putting a face to a book can help it stand out from the millions of others readers have to choose from, and it can prompt people to read more works by an author they like.

"Book publishers, on the whole, are famous for not knowing how to sell books. They don't know how to make a best seller," said author Wiggins. "They don't know what is going to move a book into the reader's imagination. Is it the cover? Is it the author's face? The title?"

An author like Wiggins, who was expressive and loquacious in an interview, is likely to go over well on video. But what of the writers who are less media-friendly? Would someone like the reclusive J.D. Salinger be able to able to market himself to the Web 2.0 crowd?

"A lot of publishers depend on their authors to help market the book through radio and TV interviews, and some authors aren't the right type of person for that, but the writing will speak for itself," said Terry Nathan, director of PMA, the Independent Book Publishers Association. However, he acknowledged that an outgoing and camera-friendly author is more help to the publisher.

"Publishing is founded on the ultimate contradiction," said Norris of Simba. "The process of writing a book favors introverts and the process of promoting a book favors extroverts."

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