Do publishers of print books have a future? According to Ronny Golan, CEO and founder of BookPulse, they do — but only if they marshal social networking to give themselves more power. “Publishers need to learn to become marketers in the digital age, and that is done today through social media, especially Facebook,” said Golan.

Bookpulse aims to do exactly that. While the book business is far from dead — according to the Association of American Publishers, sales of print books were up 3.6% in 2010 over the year before — publishers fear that the future does not belong to the printed word. E-book sales were up 164% during that period, and similar or greater growth is expected for 2011 when the numbers are tallied, thanks to the ever-growing popularity of iPads and Kindles.

It’s not the change in publishing medium from print to ebooks that portends trouble for publishers, but the business of ebooks. “Much of the publisher’s work has been made irrelevant in the digital age,” said Golan. “Their methods of marketing, sales, and distribution are designed to supply bookstores, and the book business, as we all know, has been completely upended by Amazon.”

As more books are sold on Amazon, fewer are sold in bookstores – and publishers become more irrelevant, with their services in advertising, wholesale sales, marketing, and even editorial guidance duplicated at every level by online services. “Writers see how Amazon, for example, adds value to their work, but they don’t necessarily see how publishers do so anymore,” Golan said. Currently, Amazon — and Apple, which is building its own book distribution mechanism — still works with publishers, but the contract terms are far less generous than publishers have been used to. But eventually, Golan said, Amazon or Apple will open up their own publishing services, basically booking traditional publishers out of business.

Publishers of traditional print books may be down, but they’re not out, and Golan believes that Bookpulse can help restore their fortunes by leveraging the power of social media, specifically Facebook. “Selling in the digital age is largely about relationships — hence the phenomenon of companies opening Facebook pages for products and campaigns,” said Golan. “Why not do the same thing for books — and publishers? Publishers need to learn to become marketers in the digital age, and that is done today through social media, especially Facebook.” Doing so, he hopes, will t only allow them to promote specific books and authors; it will also help them interest readers in their back catalogs, breathing sales life into books that may be great, but have no chance of getting to the public’s attention.

BookPulse’s platform enables publishers to do just that, with a series of online apps that readers can interact with and use. Surprisingly, no one had thought to use Facebook and other social media to sell books — even though, as Golan pointed out, there are many popular books with their own Facebook pages. “Those pages were usually set up by fans, and they often have thousands of fans,” said Golan. “But nearly all of them have absolutely no content other than perhaps the Wikipedia entry on the book.” It’s an opportunity just waiting for someone to take advantage of — and BookPulse helps publishers to do just that.

It does so not by opening corporate pages for publishers — those don’t work, said Golan — but by building app-rich pages for books that people want to read. By using popular books they publish, publishers can leverage their relationships with readers to build a brand image, or even to ferry readers to other, less well-known books that they might enjoy too, said Golan. And by giving fans fun and useful activities, publishers can cement the relationship with fans. “We have apps for coupons, sweepstakes, quizzes, annotations contests, and much more — we have dozens of ideas on how to engage readers on Facebook,” Golan added. Even more important, BookPulse provides a method for publishers to manage networks of fan pages, which enables them to leverage successful and popular books to help readers discover new books.

Eventually, Golan believes, publishers will be able to earn a measure of independence from big online bookstores. “They may even begin selling books via Facebook eventually, but not right away. Publishers can’t afford to start a war with Amazon, and Amazon can’t afford a publisher boycott,” said Golan, adding that BookPulse can get along with anyone, including Amazon; each fan page has a buy-and-compare button that includes Amazon as well.

That publishers need to do something is clear, said one industry expert. “Ebooks are definitely the future,” said Raphael Freeman, an editor at Israel’s Koren Publishers, which is strictly a print publisher. “I’m now reading a novel on my iPhone. I bought it on Amazon on the Kindle store and it is synced on both my devices. It was a one-click purchase. In the Western world, ebooks are the future whether they are on the Amazon’s Kindle device or their software for iPhones and iPads.”

Publishers need to be able to figure out ways to work with companies like Amazon, and a platform like Bookpulse may just be the answer, although, said Freeman, “while Facebook is an excellent marketing tool, I’m not sure if people understand how to use it properly.” That, said Golan, is what Bookpulse hopes to help publishers do, although even he won’t venture to predict the long-term success of his model. “With all the growth in marketing on social networks, we felt this was a natural. Sometimes a great idea is right there in front of you, and we certainly hope this is going to end up being a great idea.”