Shilen Patel on 'Festival Annual' and social mediaShilen Patel is founder of Independents United, a London-based firm that has just published ‘Festival Annual’. 

Shilen says this is “the world’s first user-generated book” so I thought I’d interview him to find out more about it, and how social media sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are being used to coordinate and promote the project.

What is Festival Annual and where did the idea come from?

Festival Annual is an annual celebration of festival culture in the UK, with an online community sharing photos and stories, the best of which are published in a glossy, full-colour, hardback book in time for the Christmas sales period.

How long has it taken for the project to come together?

The idea came about 18 months ago. We spent some time talking to publishers, but the response was either that they only printed in the Far East (so the book wouldn’t ship back in time for Christmas) or that we should come back next year when the economy was healthier. 

It got to April this year and we didn’t want to wait until next summer, so we moved from thinking about it to actually doing it exactly five weeks before the first festival in June.

Why choose festivals as the theme of the book?

Many of our staff had been connected to festivals in one way or another throughout the past five years of explosive growth. 

It was the seemingly unstoppable rise of festival culture, plus the universal trend of sharing and tagging photos after each festival, that came together to give us the idea.

How did you go about spreading word and encouraging people to get involved?

We started off activating at festivals – taking people’s photos, telling them they could find their picture online, that they might be in a book, and encouraging them to upload their own photos and share their stories. 

After the opening weekend came Glastonbury, where we used Twitter aggressively in the days leading up to the festival to let people who were tweeting about their Glasto preparations know about the project. 

After Glastonbury we had the first in a series of homepage placements from MySpace, and it was only in mid-July that we broke a broader PR campaign that publicised the project and encouraged people to get involved.

How many festivalgoers participated in the project? 

We’ve now got over 13,000 friends on MySpace, and over 1,000 Twitter followers. We’ve had over 4,000 photos uploaded. 

Overall we believe that over 12,000 people have actively participated by uploading, tagging, being in a photo or sharing stories.

Which social media platforms worked best for you and why?

MySpace was our online hub, and the only place where you could see all the photos, and where you could upload photos. The benefit of MySpace is that it has editorial space on the homepage and on MySpace Today, and that support helped us raise awareness and drive participation. 

Twitter and Facebook are great for previewing content and driving traffic to MySpace to see full galleries, comment and vote. 

Twitter is great as a source of stories from the festivals – because it’s immediate and personal, much of the content is very funny.

Did you also crowdsource production, as well as content?

No – production was handled in house. We had so many photos that we needed to have some kind of gatekeeper to ensure that the book has some variety and narrative across its 312 pages, rather than each page being the same.

How will you market the book now that it is available for sale?

We start with our contributors – those who’ve uploaded photos and stories – who get a special discount off the book, and images of their contribution on the finished page to help them spread the word through their social networks. 

For wider sales, we have built up a very large email database of more than 35,000 people through our presence at festivals, and regular competitions and offers for those who sign up for updates. 

We are packaging the book in various ways for this audience, along with a very strong retail presence across HMV, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders, Foyles and Liberty. 

As well as festivalgoers, who we can target directly, we think the book is the perfect gift, so are using traditional PR to target gift guides in newspapers and magazines

Are you self-publishing the book or working with a publisher? 

We are publishing it ourselves.

Any other sponsors / backers / advertisers? Or is it all about book sales to cover your costs?

This year it is about book sales, but in the long term we would be seeking sponsorship to help the project be profitable. 

The value we have in the online community we’re building is significant and we have exciting plans for developing this over the winter and into next summer.

How many books do you need to sell to swing into profit? 

There’s never been a book quite like this before, so we’re unsure how it will sell. In the first year we do not expect to make a profit, but we’re well ahead of target in building the value in the community that will generate revenue over the long term.

Are you planning on publishing more user-generated books? Will this become a service for third party brands?

We’ve learned a huge amount about growing communities, user-generated content and publishing. We have several other ‘Annual’ ideas, and we’ve already been approached by brands interested in what we’ve done.