• A lot of people talk about taking the power of “community” and leveraging that into a publishing brand, but few do it.
• Eoin Purcell of Dublin, Ireland discusses his achievements in launching “The Irish Story,” a community web site about Irish History and publishing John Dorney’s The Story of the Easter Rising 1916.
Editorial by Eoin Purcell
DUBLIN: This is the story of trying to build a community of interested readers, in a small niche, with little or no money. It’s not a fairy tale, but it’s not a horror story either.
I’ve often talked about the need for publishers to foster community and to build attention through their content. I wanted to the test the theory I’ve discussed for some time and to show that for a small publisher, a smart community strategy could be effective and even profitable. The secondary goals were practical wishes for the project. I wanted to create attention. I wanted to recruit community leaders. I wanted to sell books (in some form).
Having decided on the project, I had to select a niche to build my community in. I’ve commissioned Irish history since I first became involved in publishing, so it seemed a natural fit, and in October 2009, I commissioned five short histories on key events in Irish history and set about building a community in the space called “The Irish Story.”
How did I get on?
I launched in early 2010. The site was built on WordPress and I avoided anything with an expense attached, using off-the-shelf plugins and themes with only the barest of HTML/PHP/CSS coding required. The result has been, I think, an easily navigated site that displays the content relatively well.
The site itself has proved modestly successful. Several of my authors and their colleagues have submitted content, other have challenged articles and agreed while several academics have taken part in audio podcasts and submitted book reviews.
The overall traffic puts The Irish Story at about one third the traffic of the established Irish History magazine’s website, HistoryIreland.com. We are already rivaling several established Irish history publishers. Our search traffic is good because although we don’t rank highly yet for general terms like Irish History, we score very well for specific search like “Irish civil war” and “Irish war of independence.”
The five books have now been delivered and the first, The Story Of The Easter Rising, 1916 by John Dorney, has been published in a variety of formats –- from PDF to POD -– with the others to follow in the next month or so. Sales have been slow, but not totally disappointing, especially in directly downloaded PDFs which are, in any case, the most profitable form for The Irish Story. So money making, of the three is the least advanced.
What do I know now, that I didn’t know then?
The first thing I learned about building communities is that many of them already exist. Most of them are simple sites that allow discussion and little else. One, a subset of the huge Irish message board actually dominates the discussion of Irish history online.
The second obstacle to the site’s progress is the sheer mass of content online from early web pioneers. Sites that have been around for over a decade featuring great content (much of it without comment threads or other social networking enabled) dominate the search listings, unless you target specific search terms, as TheIrishStory.com has been doing.
Thirdly, and I feel most importantly, TheIrishStory.com suffers by only offering digital products and print on demand products.
Which leaves us where?
My experiment is working. That gives me some comfort, but the overall success is hard to show conclusively. But smaller established publishers should take two important points on board. First, where they have for some time been publishing into a niche, they have pre-existing content that provides value and which can be used to build the core of a content led community. The second is that they already possess community leaders in their authors, making two of the most critical stages less of an issue for them.
If TheIrishStory.com can start a community with no content, no authors, no reputation and no readers, and grow it to a position where it has a solid base, some sales, a decent set of contributors and authors and perhaps some of the best freely accessible content (some bias here I’ll admit) on Irish History, all at little cost, what’s stopping established small publishers doing the same in their niche?