The last few years have been quite challenging for the publishing industry, but I think the few coming up are going to be the hardest yet. We can, however, do something about it.

Social media tools and the entire social networking space are perfectly suited to promote and extend books and magazines into new ways of entertainment and information exchange. But doing this requires shifts in perspective, and it requires thinking far outside of the current definitions.

Bob Stein, senior fellow at the London School of Economics, at the O’Reilly conference on publishing, Tools of Change, said that the new definition of a book was this: user-generated media, where users, and sometimes authors, congregate.

You get the point. It’s “media” where users (formerly known as readers) and authors (the best in the industry already do this) congregate (as in social networking).

Magazines are doing great things to extend themselves. The augmented reality issue from Esquire was fascinating to consider, as is the upcoming Wired magazine extensions into the Apple iPad; they are examples of just how interactive a magazine can get. Books require a bit of squinting to consider, because the Kindle and the Nook and the Sony Reader are now only doing two-dimensional translations of printed files to the page, but inevitably we’ll be seeing a shift from digitized text into interactive relationships.

So how can social media influence publishing? Here are some examples to consider.

  • Authors are moving to Twitter to do their own promotion and relationship building. Some of the best of breed are Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) and Paulo Coelho (@paulocoelho), but there are hundreds more. Many book publicists are also on Twitter, as are a few magazine editors and publishers. The best way to use social media? Make relationships front and center. Talk about your constituency every bit as much as you talk about yourself.

  • Smart publishing professionals are using listening tools (technology that “listens” to specific queries on social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) to search what others are saying, about their books, about competing books, about the space in general. (Google the phrase “grow bigger ears” and you’ll get some next steps.) These tools allow you to find marketing opportunities (try searching Twitter for “what should I read next?”) as well as to build loyalty and relationships.

  • Creators are sharing their work in more than one medium, and in more than one way. We understand the need to release a book plus an electronic or sometimes audio version. There are other ways to share. Erik Qualmann released a very successful YouTube video to go along with the release of his book Socialnomics, which accounted for a strong showing in his sales numbers.

When people consider using social media for the publishing industry, the next thought turns to, “I’m already clocking tons of hours. I don’t really have time for this.” It’s true. Social media is time-consuming. It takes at least two hours a day to really get value out of it. It’s a lot like the gym. You get out of it what you put into it.

If you want simple block-and-tackle stuff to consider, here’s where I’d start.

  • Set up a listening station. Set up a Web presence both for you as publisher and/or your authors. Don’t skimp on custom backgrounds, on nice avatar photos of you, not your logo. Where to start? Twitter, Facebook, and maybe even LinkedIn.

  • Start finding and following the kinds of people your books would be best suited to. And here’s the trick: talk to them about their stuff and not yours for your first several conversations. Something like this: 30 minutes listening / 60 minutes connecting / 30 minutes publishing (blog posts and video interviews and whatever other content you’re going to create). This magic formula exploits the important parts of social media, but also reminds you that you’re using these tools in three ways most of the time. You can pick where you do those three things, but to know that those three things are part of the story is the important part. This new medium is relationship based and requires more than just pushing and promoting.

And the most important point is that in the end, realize that humans and humanity are what make social media special.