Ahead of speaking as part of the PPA’s MagFest in Edinburgh next week, Andrew Losowsky, books editor for The Huffington Post discusses the processes the site uses to curate and promote its content, as well as the influence of the Fifty Shades series and how technological advancement is changing reading habits.
Can you begin by explaining a little about your role at The Huffington Post?
As for my role, I'm in charge of everything that appears at www.huffingtonpost.com/books and its assorted social media accounts. That means following the book industry and writing pieces that get people thinking, doing some reporting, inviting bloggers to participate, responding to comments, dealing with publicists, attending events, keeping tabs on everything coming up (book titles, new technology, new ways of thinking), everything that occurs (author deaths, announcements, trends) and anything else related to literature, language, writing and more. There are three of us in the books team; on any given day, I might write, edit, tweet, Facebook and more.
How do you engage with your readers on HuffPo and promote your content? What do you find to be the best method of pulling in readers?
There are six principle ways that people find our stories:
- Those who bookmark and visit our page
- Those who come to us via the homepage of HuffPost, where our stories are featured most days
- Those who come to us via AOL.com, where our stories are occasionally featured
- Those who are part of our social media communities (primarily Facebook, Twitter), receive one of our daily emails or follow the main HuffPost social accounts
- Those who share a story they like with their own communities, via email, social media, Reddit, blogs, etc., whether individuals or another publishing company such as The New Yorker or Paris Review
- Those who are on another HuffPost story, see a link and click on it
Each of these is different in terms of quantity, headline / sell, level of engagement, and so on. We find that a carefully curated mix, with a genuine voice in each of these areas (we don't just use social media to dump links with identikit headlines, for example), gets a strong response.
And how do you decide what content you wish to feature?
A mixture of art, science and personal preference. We have a great deal of data at our fingertips to help inform our decisions, but in the end, they aren't decisions by algorithm.
A lot of what we feature aren't what we'd call "top clickers", but we cover it because we feel it either important that we cover the topic, or because we have something original to say, or because we have an unusual angle on a story, or because we think it's good to have it in our mix.
It's also important that our content has editorial vision and integrity, while not contradicting the more "clicky" content we cover. We aim to have a more irreverent take on books and reading, steering clear from literary "high culture" and the kinds of conversations that take place within an established academy. We don't have any issue with those, but unlike a lot of online books coverage, we don't aspire to join it either.
We define our community as highly engaged people of all genders and ages, who enjoy stories and reading. The majority of them probably wish that they read 50 books a year, but actually read 10-20. We want to help them choose which to read, what to know about the ones they don't have time for, and provide thought-provoking, intelligent yet often fun content that is enjoyable in itself, without needing to do homework first to understand what we're saying.
There are also certain themes that we know particularly engages our community: bookstores, libraries, correct grammar usage, certain writers.
We're limited in some ways - we don't have a freelance budget, for example - but freed in others, as we have a strong, constantly evolving platform, a huge readership and a great deal of autonomy as a section.
So how do you go about interacting with your readership and getting their input and insight into the content that you produce?
Via the comments, emails, responses on social media. We do a lot of outreach - if someone leaves a really smart comment or tweets a reasonable yet opposing pov to a story, we often invite them to write a blogpost in response. We don't feature all blogposts in our main news section, but we often highlight well-written, well-argued ones. In our Book Club - which we treat as a kind of experimental lab for trying new platforms and ways to interact with our audience - we invite community members to blog/share/comment/chat about their own experiences and responses to the book. We also hold real-world events related to our books.
Do you find that most commenters are actively seeing to be asked to write a blogpost? How ready and willing are your reader to write for you?
Almost none are looking to blog when they comment. They often respond favorably to being invited. We don't pay, but they keep their copyright, so they can use it elsewhere, and we don't set restrictions on theme, deadline. And of course we give them a platform with millions of potential readers. Though these are certainly not the norm, HuffPost blogposts have led to book deals, permanent writing jobs and, in at least one case, a blogpost was optioned for a movie.
One of the strengths of our platform is an ability to highlight intelligent comments, and to invite people to expand further on their ideas. If there are two clear points of view, we have a format called Change My Mind that allows us to put them side by side, and let them debate the issues. For instance: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/24/is-fifty-shades-of-grey-bad-for-women_n_1699629.html
Do you see the HuffPo model as one that is being taken up by other online publishers? How successful can they adapt it?
Not really. We've evolved into a kind of newsroom-blog platform-editor hybrid that certainly isn't cheap.
Will the book section be developed as part of HuffPo live? Do you have any role to play with that?
No, it's here but I'm not really involved.
What about the book club? What is the purpose for that?
The Book Club serves a few different purposes. We spend 3-5 weeks on each book; it allows us to use the variety of community and other tools at our disposal to look a single work in greater depth; we get closer to our most engaged readers, via online chat and in-person events; and it's an experimental lab for us to try new software/methods/ideas for community engagement based around a common experience - that of reading this book.
With the rise of mobile and tablets – how are you seeing the experience of book reading evolving?
Don't forget e-readers - they're pretty significant right now in this area.
The context does change the content in some ways. The weight of a heavy book, the ability to flick randomly across pages, the smell, the memory associated with where a particular passage sits on the page - these aren't currently replicated in mainstream digital platforms. But the ability to share highlights and notes, read the same title across multiple platforms (with the last page read synced across devices), the instantaneous ability to buy and start reading a title anywhere in the world - these are significant too.
What we're seeing is a fundamental reorganization of the contract between us and books. What we read when and where, what we carry with us, how people read, write and share ideas are all being affected. The next stage will be when books are more dynamically connected to other digital information. Books are increasingly merging into other media. What is and isn't an ebook is an increasingly difficult thing to define (though the definition is becoming less and less important).
What does the success of Fifty Shades say about reading patterns and has the digital revolution been a major factor in the success of the books?
The most interesting thing about Fifty Shades for me was how fast word of mouth grew over this book, when it was only available via a small Australian press - but most crucially, internationally on the Kindle. Vintage Books had to turn around global editions extremely quickly, in order to avoid ebook piracy driven by hype and demand. They also couldn't edit as heavily as they might otherwise have done, as they didn't want two different editions out there.
Certainly, e-readers also make it easy for people to read it in public without others knowing, but that doesn't seem to have been as important an issue.
There's also been a more unsavoury aspect of smirking at people who might enjoy erotica. However badly written it is or isn't, or however positive or negative its female role models, the puritan edge that is part of people's laughter at someone reading what is, after all, the most hyped book of the decade feels unnecessary and unsavoury. We still have some growing up to do around public sexuality and erotica.
For more information on the PPA's MagFest event next week, see the official website for details.