How Publishers Can Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in the Digital Landscape

In a time of content abundance, “discoverability is becoming a bigger problem for authors and publishers,” according to JellyBooks founder Andrew Rhomberg (2014). But is the quantity of new books really creating the problem? Perhaps this is actually an example of a square peg fitting into a round hole. Book publishers continue to apply traditional or antiquated marketing techniques to a completely new marketing & selling environment. If book publishers re-strategized their marketing plans to utilize key tools available to them to optimize discoverability of a text, wouldn’t today’s discoverability actually be better than the old days of paper books in a 4-storey bookstore? This paper will examine the most important elements of book discoverability in the digital world and will recommend priorities for publishers as they adopt new and improved marketing techniques. Compared to traditional print book marketing strategies, such as jacket copy, print advertising, and co-op bookstore placement, discoverability in the digital landscape is better than ever before and presents an enormous opportunity for publishers in terms of awareness and sales.

1. Metadata

In 2013, 50% of print books and 90% of ebooks were discovered online (Booknet 2013). This online discovery takes place in multiple ways, including online browsing, retailer recommendations, author sites, and social networks. Though online browsing has the highest impact on online discovery, the distribution of impact between online sources is split between multiple sources. Therefore, and not surprisingly, my recommendation for a publisher’s first priority in digital discoverability is metadata, as the first priority for publishers must be to reach the online book shopper. Though the online book shopper may or may not discover books on Amazon’s or Chapters’ site, they are buying them there, and online recommendation algorithms also depend on quality metadata (Bellis). As of 2012, 25% of Canadian book buying was happening on the internet between ebook, audio book, and print book purchases (Booknet). Representing a quarter of the market, online buyers need to be able to find and purchase the book they want, based on any feature, including author, subject matter, BISAC, colour of the cover, or anything else that relates to the text. The publisher with the “best, most complete metadata offers the greatest chance for consumers to buy books,” (Dawson).

Metadata presents many opportunities of which publishers should take advantage. One opportunity for publishers is to appeal to more than one type of consumer. In traditional print book marketing, the single audience for the book is identified, perhaps a secondary audience is considered, and then marketing is strategically planned to reach that specific consumer. In marketing books digitally, there’s no longer a limitation to one audience or consumer for a given title. This is a huge opportunity for publishers, and it is largely being overlooked in today’s digital climate (Dawson). Many books are suitable to several specific target markets, and each has its own vernacular through which it can be reached (Dawson). It’s necessary to have different audiences addressed within a book’s metadata, because not everyone needs or wants to know the same thing about a given title. Where publishers in the past needed to segment, they can now reach multiple audiences through their metadata. The commitment from the publisher is to hire one individual to focus entirely on metadata entry. Of course, effective metadata requires research into search terms and audience data, and research requires associates who know how to do it well (Shatzkin). This is where the staffing perspective of publishers needs to focus on marketing beyond ability with social media and publicity pitches. Publishers need marketers who have the skills and awareness for the importance of metadata and how to best utilize this tool.

Another opportunity with metadata today is to harness the power of the backlist title. Where in the past a bookstore had limited shelf space to hold stock, today’s bookstore has endless storage space. Amazon, for example, sells products that it doesn’t even keep physical hold on. In the past, backlist sales have typically been an after-thought, a pleasant surprise in the profitability of a title. However, in the digital landscape, effective metadata and virtually endless stock space allows a longer lifespan for backlist titles. HarperCollins executive Susan Katz says backlist sales are an opportunity for all genres, if publishers place the proper focus on preparation of backlist metadata. “If you don’t take care of the metadata, it will take care of you,” she joked at Digital Book World 2014 (DBW). Further, backlist titles present the opportunity to address current events or news stories that make a title relevant once again, and thorough and effective metadata is the way to monitor the relevance of past titles (DBW).

The first priority for publishers when it comes to digital book discoverability needs to be focused on quality and extensive metadata for titles. Metadata is the bare minimum that publishers need to complete because online discoverability is literally impossible without proper metadata. The publishers who don’t prioritize effective metadata risk poor sales for one simple reason: because no one can find their books to begin with (Dawson).

2. Inbound Marketing

The second major priority for publishers, after metadata, should be an inbound marketing strategy. Inbound marketing would allow publishers to build up owned content on their own website that will work to attract search engine users (basically the entire general public) to their site content and eventually, their products. Plus, besides the manpower required to create content, a full inbound marketing campaign can be orchestrated on a free platform like WordPress with the help of affordable services like MailChimp for newsletters. Inbound marketing, coined by Hubspot in 2006, works from the basis of creating quality content, such as blog posts, email newsletters, calls-to-action, and social media, that pulls people in by aligning that content with the customer’s own interests. The four actions of inbound marketing (Attract, Convert, Close, Delight) work to move potential customers down the sales funnel to eventually create brand ambassadors out of paying customers (Hubspot). A publisher’s website is the only online venue that they have complete control over (Izenwasser). They don’t have any control over Amazon, or Kobo, or social media sites. The website is all they have, and that control over the content, the search-engine optimization, and the conversions, is exactly what publishers need to steer customers to purchase directly. Booknet reports that the top way readers become aware of new titles is through online browsing, therefore publishers need a way to reach readers early in the sales funnel, on their own site (2012).

Inbound marketing is also a great opportunity for publishers to begin building direct relationships with customers. Historically, a publisher’s relationship with the consumer has been almost non-existent, as the publisher sells to a distributor, the distributor sells to a retailer, and the retailer builds the relationship with the customer (and gets all of the customer data). Due to the importance of data and loyalty,“establishing a direct customer relationship is probably the most important task for publishers in 2015 and beyond,” (Izenwasser). Inbound marketing works to drive customers back to the website, creating a relationship between the visitor and the brand, even if they never buy products. Then, when they search to purchase a publisher’s book later on, they’ll recognize the publisher name (plus Google will reward the publisher for having created a previous relationship with the customer), and will potentially purchase products (Barnes). Barnes says to think of inbound marketing as a way to produce more reliable search results for customers. “Want to attract the right visitors to that online shop you’ve gone to the bother of creating? Inbound marketing is the best way to spark up a meaningful, fruitful relationship with customers who love what you’re doing,” (Barnes). The audience research done in the metadata phase of a marketing campaign will also be useful in the inbound campaigns. Content can be created to attract various audience segments and aid discoverability of a title. Imagine going to a publisher website and seeing content that interesting and valuable to you, as a reader, rather than a half-hearted visual of book covers or an online store that is obviously less streamlined than Amazon’s or Chapters Indigo’s. Build the relationship, and then send readers to the books and online store. Izenwasser notes that the advantage here is for small publishers who are likely to have an easier time building up brand awareness. He credits this to the fact that smaller presses have fewer titles and imprints, and often more focused lists, which will allow a more cohesive online experience.

Lastly, tools such as Google Analytics can be used by publishers not only to improve inbound marketing efforts but also to expand understanding of audiences for content and for books, which in turn will feed back to the metadata for an imprint and for backlist texts. The “right” search terms for a book or audience may not be the same in both Google and Amazon, and this level of data analysis will allow publishers to segment between online representations of a given title (Shatzkin).

Discoverability for print books is split between in-person (52%) and online (49%), as of 2013 (Booknet). This means that half of print books, and the vast majority of ebooks, are discovered in the online environment. Publishers need to build up their online presence where they have control over the content, reach customers early in the sales funnel, and build up the direct relationship with customers in order to capitalize on this key discoverability venue.

3. Social & Startups

Once publishers have managed their resources to cover both metadata and inbound marketing, there is some room to play with other exciting digital marketing platforms. Here is where a publisher will strive to reach passionate readers, not the typical reader. These are the types of readers who access special platforms to learn about books.

Social media, though used in inbound marketing to drive traffic to a website, is also worth consideration to a further extent once a publisher has successfully managed effective metadata and inbound marketing strategies. Beyond directing traffic, social media can also be valuable for discoverability of books within the confines of a given social ecosystem. This includes but is not limited to the social trinity of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Pinterest, Goodreads, Tumblr, and Reddit all provide publishers with unique opportunities to interact with potential customers rather than just push out posts, and build relationships with unique audiences. Despite being rented media, they’re still worth investigating (as long as the metadata and website are already taken care of), plus, they provide marketers with even more data to apply towards audience research.

Book marketing startups could be also enormously beneficially to publishers. As an example, Jellybooks is a platform that allows readers to sample ebooks to discover their next book by browsing by genre. Among many tools for publishers, two stand out as being especially beneficial. The first is their main service, which offers cloud-hosted book samples for readers to download or share with friends. This is a worthy opportunity for publishers because according to Booknet, reading an excerpt is the primary mode of ebook discovery for Canadians (Booknet 2012). Not only does this tool offer readers with no-risk opportunity to browse titles, Jellybooks also provides publishers with full access to download and share statistics as part of their Jellybooks VIP program (Jellybooks). The second tool worth note is their book widgets, which can be applied to publisher websites, author websites, blogs, and Tumblrs, to allow for easy and direct sample downloads. Again, data is shared with publishers including which widgets are the most effective at spreading the word and who creates the most downloads and shares. This also adds value to the publisher website by offering an additional service. Not only does Jellybooks facilitate ebook sampling, but it also links out for purchase of a book upon completion of the sample, which can include a publisher estore (for a print book or an ebook) as a purchase option (Jellybooks). Direct purchases will benefit from the improved brand recognition that publisher have already put in place by honing their inbound marketing strategy.

Social media and tech startups provide exciting new opportunities for publishers to explore. However, these opportunities should not be explored until complex metadata and strategic inbound marketing has already been put into place. The communities on social sites and on startups such as Jellybooks are specialized, and while they are worthy of exploration, they do not represent the majority of book buyers in the Canadian market.


Andrew Rhomberg says no author or publisher than sustain sales momentum without a virtuous feedback loop (2015). Discover, Sample, Buy, Read, Share, Discover. Where traditionally, discovery happened in a bookstore by reading jacket copy, today’s publishers can focus metadata on specific audiences to aide discoverability. Further, where in the past advertising was used to push product information towards customers, publishers can now use inbound marketing to draw the right customers in towards their products. Where contact between readers and publishers has historically been non-existent, publishers can use their websites and social media accounts to build direct customers relationships. Lastly, sampling can now be done digitally, in the comfort of one’s home, rather than in a physical bookstore. Success in these important digital marketing venues will only come from correct prioritization and allocation of resources. It’s easy to declare that discoverability is the next big problem in publishing, but publishers would be better to revolutionize their marketing techniques and take advantage of the great opportunities digital discoverability provides instead.

Works Cited

Barnes, Emma. “The How and Why of Inbound Book Marketing.” Digital Book World. 26 Feb 2015. Web. 31 Mar 2015.

Bellis, Rich. “New Ebook Discovery Efforts Differ on Means.” Digital Book World. 12 Mar 2015. Web. 31 Mar 2015.

Booknet. “The Canadian Book Consumer 2013: Book Purchases by Channel.” 2013. Web. 1 Apr 2015.

Booknet. “The Canadian Book Consumer 2012: Annual Report.” 2012. Web. 1 Apr 2015.

Dawson, Laura. “What We Talk About When We Tail About Metadata.” A Futurist’s Manifesto. ed. Hugh McGuire & Brian O’Leary. O’Reilly Media. 2012. Web. 31 Mar 2015.

DBW. “Selling Back-List Titles? Think Audiences and Metadata.” Digital Book World. 24 Apr 2014. Web. 31 Mar 2015.

Hubspot. “The Inbound Methodology: The best way to turn strangers into customers and promoters of your business.” Web. 2 Apr 2015.

Izenwasser, Murray. “Why Book Marketing (Still) Starts and Ends with the Website.” Digital Book World. 12 Dec 2014. Web. 1 Apr 2015.

Jellybooks. “Jellybooks for Publishers.” Web. 2 April 2015.

Rhomberg, Andrew. “Discoverability, Not Discovery, Is Publishing’s Next Big Challenge.” Digital Book World. 6 Jan 2014. Web. 30 Mar 2015.

Rhomberg, Andrew. “Publish and They Will Come… Right?” Digital Book World. 8 Jan 2015. Web. 30 Mar 2015.

Shatzkin, Mike. “Peter McCarthy and I have a new business and publishing has a new digital marketing service.” The Shatzkin Files. 7 Apr 2014. Web. 2 Apr 2015.

One Reply to “How Publishers Can Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in the Digital Landscape”

  1. This essay provides three very good ways/areas in which publishers can take advantage of existing technologies to improve the discoverability and sales of their books. If publishers followed Taryn’s tips, they would surely be better off. The research, logic, and presentation of the advice is solid. While providing this advice and thinking is a strong contribution, the essay under-delivers on its promise to make a case that book discoverability is better today than it was before. As more publishers take Taryn up on her suggestions, there is still going to be an increasingly crowded marketplace, and standing out in that marketplace still seems more difficult now than ever.

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