How do you get an e-book signed? Novelist Justine Musk on the future of marketing

I recently attended a lecture of a favorite author of mine where signed copies of his book were being sold. With my new iPad in hand, I was poised to download a copy of his work. But then I had a dilemma: If all I had was an e-book, what would I get signed?

This isn’t just about book signings. The iPad and other new devices like it are altering how we consume media. But we also need to think about how they change the business of content.

For answers to this question and many others, I turned to acclaimed fiction writer Justine Musk for some answers about the future of media marketing in the age of the tablet.

Some of the main takeaways: The distinction between an e-book and an app is blurring, as creators stop repurposing printed works and start exploring the capabilities of these new devices. And Musk foresees a world where writers draft and edit their work with live feedback from their fans through blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

Musk even went so far as to suggest that virtual goods will impact the consumer-author interaction. Instead of collecting signed copies, writers will create digital objects related to a particular book or piece of content to stir hype and buzz and foster connections.

While Musk’s ideas were spurred by her explorations of the future of book publishing, the lessons apply broadly to media creators, consumers, and distributors. Here’s our interview:

VentureBeat: You can now buy a book from anywhere, thanks to the ubiquity of broadband and the portability of e-readers. There’s no need to visit a bookstore, meet an author, get a book signed, and so on. What new interactions will take place instead?

Justine Musk: Now, when you discover a writer, you look for his blog, his Twitter, his Facebook. The writer used to be a distant mysterious figure who made these sporadic appearances through interviews and such, but is now a constant presence online who has this ongoing active dialogue with his readership.

The process of writing a novel will, at least in some cases, become more transparent and collaborative – writers will post sections of works-in-progress to get immediate feedback, ideas. There can be this cross-fertilization of ideas between writer and readers that wasn’t really possible before.

The writer used to have a passive audience; now he or she will have core fans, the True Fans, the new fans, the visitors. Writers will constantly be experimenting with new ways to reach fans, and will find the elements of social media that play to their strengths.

Book tours, whether done online or offline, will be a lot more targeted and personalized: The writer will know where his or her fans are, and can go to them. The writer can also announce his or her location through Twitter or Foursquare and let fans come to him or her. The whole idea of the solitary, enigmatic writer could disappear. The more photogenic writers will experiment with video, livestreaming. Book parties will take place in the virtual world as well as the real one.

VB: What if you really want to get something signed? What would that even look like with e-books?

JM: Getting your book signed is about having some actual face time with the author and also about the physical book as memento, as a keepsake.  So I don’t think that will disappear – if anything, it will become more valued and valuable. Publishers will produce limited, high-quality editions that are meant as collectibles.  The signature [will act] as a kind of fetish object.

When it comes to e-books, writers can personalize them with JPEG drawings or upload photos or embed videos in them; or it will become custom to sign the e-reader itself – skins or interchangeable battery panels.

They can also interact with their fans in virtual worlds, giving away virtual gifts or goodies. That could be interesting.

VB: Will entirely new interactions take place around the promotion of books, or will existing interactions adapt to new mediums?

JM: Definitely both.  Finding new creative ways to attract and interact with readers will become an art in itself.  Writers can conduct hashtag conversations on Twitter, or put up temporary Facebook pages and invite certain fans.

Also, as more content is given away for free, it’s possible that it’s the author’s actual presence that will become more and more monetized. People will pay for memberships to private forums where they can have direct interaction with the author, ask questions, etc. The actual physical presence of the author will be the most rarified thing of all.

You need to offer actual value to people in order to attract them to your website and turn them into readers and fans. As soon as they feel they’re being “sold” or “marketed” to, they’re gone in the space of a single click.

You have to give away content in order to get them – some of them – to buy content.  You have to give them what they want, which is cool, intriguing content and a sense of connection, and maybe they won’t buy your book right then but will do so down the line, or recommend to a friend, or perhaps they’ll share your blog with other people who go on to become your fans and buy your work.

Branding will become increasingly important, as people look for ways to filter all this content and find the stuff they like, the tastemakers they can trust. The author brands that become truly influential, and can use that influence to promote other authors as well as themselves, will have a lot of power.

VB: How else will e-readers and e-books change the way we market and promote for books and other content?

JM: The thing about iPads and iPhones is that people use them for things other than buying and reading books, which gives writers and publishers these other channels through which to reach them.

Things like book apps, book trailers, video games: content can be packaged and repackaged in various ways across various platforms to find and engage these potential readers. And reading itself becomes one part of this larger, transmedia experience, of this little universe or storyworld.

This means that writers will probably have to think of themselves as communicators and storytellers who work in other mediums as well as text.