Digital marketing guru Mitch Joel kicked off BookNet Canada's Technology Forum, telling the 225 publishing industry attendees that marketing books in the digital realm means forgetting about the traditional goal of reaching as many people as possible. Rather than publishers promoting to a large group of people and hoping a small percentage will buy a book, social media centers on who you are getting your message out to, not how many. The question of how to find and reach those people and communities who are the audience for a book was a recurring theme of many of the presentations throughout the Toronto conference titled Implementing Digital: Putting the Plan into Practice.

Joel, president of Twist Image, said many companies that consult his digital agency now blog and tweet and have Facebook pages, but that is not enough. "Okay, fine, 600 million people on Facebook.... but the truth is that the average person on Facebook has about 100, 130 connections. It's a very close-knit private circle. It is very hard for a marketer, an author, a publisher to invade that space," he said. "But you can do it. You can do it by creating value; you can do it by creating relevance." For instance, Joel said 75%–85% of people who shop online read customer reviews, but many publishers don't post customer reviews because they can't control the message and they fear negative comments. In order to make their Web sites more relevant and offer more value, Joel continued, publishers need to overcome that fear. "Social media is about making your content as sharable and findable as possible," he emphasized.

Goodreads, which has attracted about 4.7 million readers to its site and includes about 40,000 small reading groups, does just that, said Patrick Brown, Goodreads director of author and publisher outreach. He advised publishers to remember that interaction always trumps static content. One of Goodreads' best interactive tools are featured author groups, he said, where authors make themselves available to answer readers' questions on the site for a number of days. The response has been tremendous, Brown said, noting that more than 750 people joined a group that was able to pose questions to Canadian author Margaret Atwood, while YA author Cassandra Clare drew the largest group ever with 1,200 people.

Colin Robinson, who is copublisher at OR Books, which publishes only print-on-demand or platform-agnostic e-books, said his company works to hand-sell books online. "The Internet comprises hundreds of thousands and millions of communities based around specialty sites, listserves and blogs, and we needed to work closely with these communities if we were going to be able to sell our books and tailor our marketing messages and materials to specific interests and requirements," he said.

"That's not necessarily cheaper than traditional advertising campaigns. You don't spend as much money as advertising in big publications or television or radio, but it is a lot more labor intensive." Robinson said that the company has had some success with creative marketing, such as offering excerpts of Norman Finkelstein's latest book to various sites in return for doing a mailing or an ad on the site. OR has also done Internet videos, which have been seen by as many as 50,000 people, but the industry veteran wryly noted that he couldn't discern any correlation between the number of views of the video and book sales.

Looking to the future, Joel pointed to figures that showed sales of smartphones outpacing PCs in the fourth quarter of 2010. "This is the shift away from fixed locations. This is the shift where we're going to have a society that is much more in tune with using our mobile devices as their primary form of connectivity," he predicted. Then he described a SnapTell app's ability to recognize a photo of a book and provide the user with information about the book, including the nearest bookstores and how many copies are in stock. "So a consumer walks into an Indigo, takes a picture of a book, walks over to the manager and says, I can get this for four bucks less 20 feet from here.... Changes your business model dramatically," he said.