Heather Armstrong book signing. Image by rbucich, via Flickr

In a recent conversation, the manager at a publishing house told me about their marketing plan for a new book, set in New York City. The outline included Foursquare tie-ins and a Facebook account that would leave tips about the hot spots mentioned in the novel, which is due out later this year.

After reading an advance copy of the book, I checked out some of the restaurants on Foursquare and later liked a status on the official Facebook page. As of last night, I was one of 18 Facebook fans and the only person who had checked in on Foursquare.

Why was this campaign such a failure? It wasn’t the product; the novel is quite good. It was the strategy. The marketing plan essentially asked potential readers to interact with a story they hadn’t been told.

A reader has no way of knowing what certain restaurants, museums or the Brooklyn Bridge mean to the protagonist before they’ve read the novel. Without a story or narrative, there’s just no value in a Foursquare account or Facebook page.

Telling stories about stories

In the traditional publishing world, a marketing strategy for books means public readings, author signings and press blitzes.

But as the e-book market matures, publishers need to take a page from other parts of the content industry (games, music, magazines) that rely on free, interactive content to build audiences and generate sales.

The latest installment of The Iron Fey, published by Harlequin

The idea is to give readers more than a book excerpt, but a stand-alone piece of content that can be distributed through traditional e-book devices and online stores as well as new, net-native platforms such as Facebook.

In order to draw readers into their narrative and create viral interest before launch, writers are creating supplementary content such as short stories, videos or novellas that expand the story universe of the book itself.

Harlequin, the romance and young-adult publisher, has been particularly adept at this. Between installments of her four-book series, The Iron Fey, author Julie Kagawa created a novella that focused on some of the series’ supporting characters.

The book was available for free on e-book platforms and tablets and helped introduce some of the characters to new readers and entertain existing fans until the next novel was available.

Taking a different approach, other publishers have provided high quality video content for online media outlets, bloggers and the authors themselves to use on their websites and social media platforms. Book trailers, interviews and graphic or comic interpretations of a text are all forms of content marketing that book publishers can use to reach new audiences.

The good news is that none of this will be new for publishers. Content marketing is an extension of what they’ve been doing for centuries: telling and curating stories. These stories are just being distributed and consumed in new ways. By continuing to do what they’re good at, publishers can create new audiences for books ­– ­­­­even before they hit stores or e-readers.