The Bookternet is simply “online book culture,” said Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser, a panelist on the latest in PW’s discussion series on the Future of the Book Business. The panel, “The Bookternet: Building Reading Communities Online,” examined the ways that online book culture has transformed the book industry, offering both opportunities and pitfalls for publishers.

Held at the Penguin Random House offices in midtown Manhattan, the panel was moderated by PW director of events Kat Meyer and examined how a convergence of technology and book culture has created new opportunities for readers to talk about books and, secondarily, provide a way for publishers to connect with readers and sell to them. The panel examined the ways in which social media—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube and blogs—online book sites, e-tailers, and new business models like e-book subscription, figure prominently in the burgeoning Bookternet.

Coined by Fershleiser, head of publisher outreach at Tumblr, the Bookternet is a shorthand term for the growth of all kinds of book-related communities online. One of those places is Tumblr, which Fershleiser originally used to find and connect with retailers when she worked previously at Housing Works. Tumblr, she discovered, was a place she could go online “to talk about new or old books with people I don’t know.”

However, the Bookternet, or the Internet of books, is a network of farflung, sometimes obscure communities of interest located in nooks and crannies all over the web, said panelist Clive Thompson, a writer for the New York Times magazine and Wired. The Bookternet, “is distributed, so its hard for institutions to deal with. There’s no center to this universe, it’s everywhere.” Thompson and other panelist emphasized that the Internet is an “Amazonian rain forest of book conversation, most of which is invisible to us.”

Thompson pointed to online communities around knitting and snowboarding, communities that include passionate conversations about books related to that community. The key to understanding online book culture—and using them to market or promote books—is to hangout and listen online, rather than forcing ill-advised marketing campaigns on them.

Among the points covered during the program:

Don’t confuse Return On Investment with Return On Engagement. “Twitter is not for selling books,” said panelist Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot. “You have to be present swimming in the digital waters, then people will turn to you if they like something you’re doing,” she said. “You’re not going to always know how many books sold because you put something on the Internet.”

“It’s hard to monetize conversation,” said Thompson. But online interactions are powerful. “I heard Clive on a podcast, then I read his book, talked about it on Book Riot, and now I’m sitting next to him on a panel,” Schinksy said. “What you do online is transferred to offline, which we can’t see. It’s about conversation.”

Publishers should visit online communities and “listen for awhile, don’t promote. It’s like reading the newspaper everyday. You’re reading your audience,” Fershleiser said. And if you can’t figure out how to use these communities, “hire a 24 year-old,” to do it for you.

There’s no need for publishers to create “bespoke” online book communities if “there’s already a good place to talk about that topic online,” Schinsky said.

Online book fans aren’t looking for reviews or longform essays about books. “No one is interested in reviews on Book Riot,” Schinsky said. “They want conversation. People want to talk about what they’re reading and what book they’ll read next.”

The book world is a big place online, said Schinsky. The old publishing world offered lots of attention to literary works, she said, but very little to the commercial fiction that actually drives the book business. “Now the Internet has connected all readers, including literary readers.”

How do we know any of this online stuff is working?

“Publishing has always been about gut reaction, judgement, word of mouth,” said Fershleiser. “Now that publishing is on the Internet, everyone wants certainty and evidence. You can’t divide up where digital conversations go. Online culture amplifies things throughout the on and offline media world.”