Living in the Past

Feb 18, 2015 | Opinions

Some time ago, I decided that I wanted to keep up with the press releases of the various New York publishing houses. Mostly I wanted to know what they thought was important enough to issue press releases about, and I thought it would be enough to simply subscribe to their RSS feeds or something.

Except I can’t. What I found was that most of them don’t have RSS feeds for their press releases. They don’t have a method of subscribing to their press releases for people who may be interested. I mean… good grief. What century are you living in? I only have a WordPress blog and I have two feeds available at least.

Anyway – that’s not really want I wanted to talk about. What I’m really interested in is the way that the big publishing houses seem to be flailing about on the Internet like drunken soccer hooligans when it comes to social media.

Maybe I’m being too harsh?


Let’s take a look at the Twitter feed of Simon and Schuster, for example. It’s full of nicely scheduled tweets and retweets, and absolutely no replies or interactions with non-official Simon and Schuster imprints, as far as I can tell. There’s also a random mix of genres and information – it’s so unfocused as to be close to useless.

How about Penguin Random House? Here’s their official Facebook page. Notice that the posts are a mix of promotional news items and links from other people that seem to be posted with the sole intent of creating engagement, but PRH itself doesn’t actually engage with the commenters.

Let’s try Hachette US. Here’s their official Twitter feed, and again, it’s like Simon and Schuster. There is no engagement.

I’m seeing a trend here, one that’s highlighting something rather interesting about the legacy publishing houses.

Social Media as News, not Conversation

The big trad publishers seem to be living in the past. They’re treating social media, a fundamentally interactive medium, as yet another news platform where they talk and the readers listen without responding. This betrays a fundamentally different way of communicating, a mindset that doesn’t allow for feedback, discussion and conversation.

The question really is whether readers are interested in this, if they can engage with the authors directly without needing to engage with their publishers, and the authors respond. I sometimes take my husband as an example here – he inhales science-fiction, and spends a lot of time on Twitter enthusiastically tweeting about books to his favourite authors. I doubt he knows who publishes any of them, and I’m sure he doesn’t care at all as long as he gets the book.

The point is that I can clearly see a pattern of the big publishers spending good money on establishing and maintaining a social media presence, but they seem to lack the very human qualities that turn a social media presence into a worthwhile endeavour. For example, Penguin Random House’s official Twitter account has just over 700,000 followers. PRH is the largest publisher in the world. Stephen King, a single author (though admittedly a very famous one) has almost 650,000 followers on Twitter, and the engagement with his tweets – measured by retweets and favourites – is an order of magnitude higher than PRH.

Wil Wheaton, former actor and current nerd who really knows how to engage with his fans, has 2.7 million followers.

That’s the power of treating social media as the interactive medium that it is, and not just another bullhorn for the stuff you want to sell.


The other problem I’m seeing with the social media of the traditional publishers is just how completely random they are, most of the time.

If ever there was an indication of wasted money, it’s in the scattershot approach to social media displayed in most of their accounts. Again, going back to PRH, you can see that they tweet regularly about their books. But what reader is going to be interested in all of those different genres and styles? On their feed right now, for example, I can see ‘What Pet Should I Get?’ by Dr. Seuss, ‘Confessions of a Comma Queen’ from a copyeditor, and ‘Dead Wake’, which is a book about the Lusitania.

Fact is, no one is interested all of these, and tweeting about all of them at once displays a fragmented approach to cultivating an audience. All of the big traditional publishers seem to have this issue: they spread themselves too widely. But going back to Wil Wheaton, again, you basically know what you’re getting in advance – nerdy silliness with a side order of snark. Wil knows his audience, and he’s not about to start tweeting links to, say, websites on gardening without a damn good reason.

The end result of this is that the big publishers’ social media presences feel nebulous. It feels like they’re not ‘real’, as it were. A lack of engagement and a lack of specificity translates to meaninglessness, on a large scale. It makes their brand feel like it doesn’t really represent anything, because, at a very basic level, it doesn’t. It’s a big, useless, impersonal catch-all.

So, with all this in mind, I’d like to ask some questions of you.

  • Do YOU follow any of the big publishers on social media? (Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan)
  • If so, why?
  • As a reader, do you know who published the last book you read?
  • If so, do you follow them on any social media platform?

Feel free to leave your answers in the comments below.