Too Many Books, Too Little Visibility: the Problem of Book Discoverability in the Age of Content Abundance

“Audience is king” should be the motto of anyone who is in the business of producing and selling books in today’s digital age. In a virtual environment undergoing constant disruption, understanding the needs of multiple audiences has increasingly become a key aspect of the process of creating and marketing content, and an essential part of any successful publishing enterprise. Since the rise of digital publishing, the online marketplace has been flooded with a massive and ever-growing volume of titles, with the resulting problem of finding an effective way to achieve and maintain product visibility – in other words to connect a specific title to a specific audience. In 2013, in the United States alone, nearly a million new titles were published [1]. Before becoming “visible,” however, as obvious as it might seem, a book has to be found. In an age where books exist outside their physical container, this issue – the widely debated discoverability problem – assumes critical importance.

Whereas in the brick and mortar book kingdom, the reader, exposed to the view of hundreds of titles in one single space, is more likely to accidentally “bump into” their next read in the form of a serendipitous discovery and convert it into a purchase, in a digital environment, the chance of this to happen is extremely small. As industry veteran Laura Dawson has observed “ebooks face a discoverability problem that print books never have: they are only discoverable online and by word of mouth.” [2] With the shift from print to digital, publishers can no longer rely as heavily on bookstore displays as a powerful force in driving sales. Rather, they have to find new ways to cater to their audiences so as to ensure that their titles appear in the more limited set of choices available to online readers. But what are these strategies, and how can publishers benefit from them?

In the course of this paper, I will attempt addressing this fundamental questions, by giving an overview of some of the techniques that publishers should employ in order to better engage, grow and monetize their audiences –or, in other words, make their titles stand out in an ever-increasingly crowded marketplace.

Discovery vs. Discoverability

Before proceeding further, however, I feel compelled to clarify the notions of discovery and discoverability in the context of book publishing. In fact, although the terms are often used interchangeably, they define two different sides of the problem. Andrew Rhomberg, founder of JellyBooks, explains the distinction clearly. Discovery identifies the moment when readers become aware of a book; discoverability has to do with marketers’ efforts to reach the right readers by making them aware of that book. In discussing the steps that publishers can take to maximize the visibility of their titles in a context of ever-increasing abundance, therefore, I will be addressing the problem of discoverability rather than that of discovery [3]. As Brian O’Leary from Magellan Media simply but effectively puts it, “People can always find what they want; the opportunity lies in delivering what they want in a way that minimizes the work required to get there.” [4]

 Strategy I: Delivering Search Engine Optimized and Audience-informed Content

In a recent blog post, publishing guru Michael Shatzkin wrote on the importance for publishers to focus and intensify their research efforts to better understand and build their audiences [5]. In April 2014, together with Peter McCarthy (former VP of Marketing Innovation for Random House and Penguin), he co-founded a company called “The Logical Marketing Agency,”  a business devoted to helping publishers and authors alike to overcome the daunting challenges of online marketing. Two keystones of their philosophy are: 1) title and author optimization: 2) book metadata optimization. As Shatzkin explains eloquently:

“… Titles need easy discoverability; they need to be found in the right places, at the right time, by the people who are likely to be interested in them. This often involves a nuanced understanding of search as it exists in environments like Google, Amazon, Apple, and others but can also encompass other means of enhancing a book’s reach into its likely audience(s). Authors need optimized web presences, so that their credibility and personal networks are grown and enhanced regularly and so that their reputation as authorities on the subjects that matter is confirmed on the Internet”. [6]

 Strategy II: Book Metadata Optimization

Another important, often neglected, piece of the puzzle of online book discoverability is metadata optimization. Even though publishers have no direct influence on the algorithms of the major search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo), they can contribute to improving the discoverability of their titles online by providing product, content and enhanced metadata as complete and accurate as possible. Good metadata, in fact, can affect search results and ranking, and are a powerful discoverability tool from which, publishers and booksellers alike, should fully benefit.

Not for a lack of interest and importance, but for a lack of space, the vast and complex subject of book metadata optimization will not be covered extensively in this essay.

Strategy III: Engaging readers the way they like to be engaged

Knowing your audience is only a step – although not a small one – in the process that puts the right book in the hand of the right reader. Easy discoverability depends on publishers’ ability to reach and appeal to specific communities of readers by actively engaging with them. But how so? Rick Joyce, Chief Marketing Officer of the Perseus Book Group, in a thought-provoking interview, shares some interesting insights on what publishers can do to make their voice heard in the noise of today’s cacophonic media environment. With the aim of reaching readers and engaging them in a mutually beneficial conversation, Constellation, Perseus Book’s digital and marketing platform, has carried out several experiments through “websites that look more like blogs and less like catalogs”. [7] One that is worth mentioning is the coking site Running Press Cooks, a former cookbooks catalogue that turned into something closer to a food blog where readers get actively engaged through direct participation and mutual sharing of opinions and experiences.

Far from merely being a buzzword, book discoverability is a real issue with an actual impact on book sales, and should be addressed by publishers with serious effort, audacity and full openness to change.

WORKS CITED

1. Andrew Rhomberg, “Discoverability, Not Discovery, Is Publishing’s Next Big Challenge,” Digital Book World, January 6, 2014, accessed February 23, 2015, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/discoverability-not-discovery-is-publishings-next-big-challenge/.
2. Laura Dawson,“What we Talk About when We Talk About Metadata.” In McGuire, Hugh  & O’Leary, Brian (Eds.), Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, O’Reilly Media, 2012, accessed February 22, 2015, http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/metadata-laura-dawson.
3. Andrew Rhomberg, ibid.
4. Brian O’Leary, “2 Choices: How to Approach Publishing in an Era of Content Abunance,” Magellan Media, April 17, 2015, accessed February 22, 2015, http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/venture-capital-private-equity/2-choices-how-to-approach-publishing-in-an-era-of-content-abundance.
5. Michael Shatzkin, “Better book marketing in the future depends a bit on unlearning the best practices of the past,” The Shatzkin Files, March 2, 2015, accessed March 2 2015, http://www.idealog.com/blog/better-book-marketing-in-the-future-depends-a-bit-on-unlearning-the-best-practices-of-the-past/.
6. Michael Shatzkin, “Peter McCarthy and I have a new business and publishing has a new digital marketing service,” The Shatzkin Files, April 7, 2014, accessed February 25, 2015, http://www.idealog.com/blog/peter-mccarthy-new-business-publishing-new-digital-marketing-service/.
7. Jeremy Greenfield,“Discoverability and Marketing Are Publishing Company Differentiators, Says Perseus CMO.Digital Book World, May 30, 2012, accessed February 22, 2015, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/discoverability-and-marketing-are-publishing-company-differentiators-says-perseus-cmo/.

2 Replies to “Too Many Books, Too Little Visibility: the Problem of Book Discoverability in the Age of Content Abundance”

  1. This essay tackles the important issue of book discoverability and presents some valid and useful strategies that publishers and authors can use to improve the sales of books. However, in its attempts to a novel way of thinking about discovery and discoverability, while simultaneously presenting solutions, it ends up doing neither exceptionally well. The author clearly has ideas of how to think about and approach discoverability, but ends up only hinting at her opinions and pointing us to someone else’s essay on the topic. Similarly, she tells us what three different organizations are doing in this space, but does not analyze or even offer her thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. A stronger essay would have focused on one of the two competing objectives.

    That all said, I do think the essay offers a good summary of the most novel strategies being employed in the business today. The fact the author was able to identify these shows her understanding of the problem authors and publishers face. I look forward to further thoughts on this topic from her.

  2. The beginning of this essay succeeds at catching the reader’s attention. It’s certainly true that “audience is king”, although the continued importance of content should not be undermined; it will always be imperative for publishers to engage and please their audiences once they’ve reached them. The introduction to the topic of visibility and discoverability is very strong, providing a clear and concise overview of why this is something crucial for publishers to think about in today’s world. Furthermore, the promise of the paper providing an “overview of some of the techniques that publishers should employ in order to better engage, grow and monetize their audiences” is intriguing and useful. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the essay fails to deliver on its stated purpose in an insightful way. The paragraph explaining the difference between discovery and discoverability seems unnecessary, as the distinction is too straightforward to warrant such a lengthy explanation in an essay this short. Furthermore, the three strategies that are presented give too brief of an overview to provide anything substantial.

    In saying that, the essay is well-written and the author demonstrates a great understanding of this topic. This would make an engaging introduction to a long research paper, or perhaps even a book, on this subject. The author’s thesis may have simply been too large of an undertaking for such a short essay.

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