Publisher Penguin Waddles Into Social Media Experiment With Peer Index

A little social media experiment is underway at the publishers Hamish Hamilton/Penguin UK: the publisher has tied up with the social media site PeerIndex to try out a new way of promoting its books. In what the publisher is calling an industry first, Penguin today is launching a campaign to tap “influencers” on Peer Index to read and spread the word about a new book — Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men.

The idea behind the campaign is this: PeerIndex uses an algorithm that identifies people who are influential on particular topics. In this case, the topics, says PeerIndex, will be philosophy, science, politics, music, activism, India, America and science fiction. Those targeted people are invited to visit a micrcosite, where they are offered free copies of the book, with the ability to introduce friends to buy a copy, too.

PeerIndex uses information from social media sites (Twitter appears to be the anchoring data point) to gauge how “influential” a person is, taking into account metrics like followers, number of @ mentions and retweets. It then crunches this data to come out with a number that is your supposed influence ranking. Others that have looked to providing this kind of analysis include Klout.

Although this may be an industry first, it also has the ring of baby-steps (or a Penguin waddle) to it. Penguin is only giving itself a few weeks to run the promotion, and ironically, although the campaign is fundamentally a bit of digital marketing, the publishers won’t be distributing the book in any form except for print. The book will be out to the general public on August 4.

The campaign is a test of how well social media can replace more tradition mediums in the book business. It comes as newspapers face declining readership and as a result perhaps less influence and column space for book reviews, the traditional route that publishers have used to promote their titles and influence buyers.

Kunzru himself seems to endorse the idea, too: “A recommendation from a trusted friend is worth far more to me than any press campaign,” he notes in the press release. “I also think that professional journalists (good as many of them are) shouldn’t be the only conduits by which I find out about books, or indeed anything else.”

But Joe Pickering, publicity manager for Penguin in the UK, is quick to note that this doesn’t make the traditional book review totally obsolete. “This has not completely replaced the review in the Sunday Times, for example, but I think that there’s less space for book reviews and book coverage generally in traditional media, while things are opening up online” he told paidContent. “Social media sites allow people to have contact with authors and publishers like never before.”

The campaign is only taking place in the UK, where the book is being released first. Pickering would not say what kind of budget has been allocated to the project, just that it has involved a “nominal fee.”

What else is on the horizon? If this campaign takes off, Pickering says there may be more influential targeting to come for future titles. He says he is also looking at other ways of using social media to promote books. Foursquare might be one route, and he says he’s also interested in GetGlue, although the latter content check-in service has yet to become widely used outside of the U.S.