This Sunday I attended the annual Book 2 Camp, which has become the pre-TOC venue for unconferencing since it began 3 years ago. All programming is proposed and carried out that day, so you never know what you are going to get. And, overall, I think the maturity and value of the discussion of these sessions has grown over time.
This year, my favorite thing that happened throughout the entire day was, during a session on talking about “what readers want” proposed by Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Schinsky of BookRiot, Laura Hazard Owen said after a pretty awesome leadup, “What if discoverability turns out to not even be an issue?” This comment echoed one that Rebecca had tweeted earlier:
<— Really doesn’t think discoverability is problem for readers. Publishers, sure, but readers know where to find books, get recs. #Book2
— Rebecca Schinsky (@RebeccaSchinsky) February 10, 2013
Is “discoverability” just publisher code for “Why aren’t you buying what I’m selling you?” #Book2
— Molly Templeton (@mollytempleton) February 10, 2013
All of this got me thinking. What if we are all jumping on this notion of discoverability and, in reality, there is nothing we can do. Bestsellers are always going to sell more than midlist. New authors either find their audience or not. People who are interested in titles will find them. Unknown authors will break out organically, not because it was forced or coaxed or orchestrated. “Viral” is not an on-demand proposition. Basically, the question is this: are we actually serving readers by forcing them to “discover” more titles, or are we just over-marketing our products?
Ultimately, the biggest issue that came to light in this discussion is this: discoverability, as we address it today, is solving some problem that we cannot actually define. Our best attempt is, “people cannot find all of our books so we want to make sure awareness is out there so a purchase can be made.”
So, like Rebecca said, a business problem, not a user problem. So, we’re back to the “eyeballs” argument. More people see it, more people buy it. So, we’re back to the volume game that publishing cannot seem to shake. It’s interesting how so many people today have accepted the concept that “we need to make fewer, but better, books” but don’t say the same about marketing. It’s BOOM BOOM BOOM IN YOUR FACE BILLBOARDS ACROSS TIMES SQUARE BUY THIS FUCKING BOOK RIGHT NOW! on a starburst flyer out on the open web.
Further extrapolation: can discoverability, as we address it today, solve a user problem?
Well, here’s the issue: The solution that discoverability apparently offers is one which assumes a normative (and logical) relationship to reading choices. This relationship is simply non-existent.
The algorithmic string of reading book A then book B then book C then book D (Enoch begat Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.) is erroneous. Reading patterns are a.) not linear b.) not logical and c.) not algorithmic.
People react to an incredible amount of non-verbal stimuli when taking a recommendation from someone, for instance, which weighs upon the ultimate decision being made. Motivation is very psychological. When someone recommends a book to you, you subconsciously analyse what you know about that person and their tastes in relation to your own, you determine based on their tone and description of the book whether you think it would be a good fit for you, you interpret, without conscious though, body language which can influence how you feel about the recommendation. You also dip into your deep memory vault and remember the last time that person recommended a book to you and you hated it, so you are not going to take their recommendations seriously.
The algorithm is not doing any of that. It’s a superficial chain of, even sophisticated, keywords which drives associative relationships between books based on various metadata categories. (Which we all know are not, in any way, more than very basic at this point in time.) Publishers are not using sophisticated semantic markup and thus, a short collection of keywords and traditional sales metadata becomes the only fuel for the algorithms.
A while back, I wrote about discoverability and talked about how an algorithm has its place in the mix, as does human interaction. Fundamentally, I still believe this is true. The reality is, however, that this mix of human-machine interaction and discoverability is a marketing issue; it is a fundamental business problem of the abundant world that we live in. It is a business function. It does not solve a reader problem.
I don’t know about you, but most people do not have a “TBR pile.” In fact, the average human being doesn’t even know what a TBR pile is. Most people who read books read for pleasure. Then will have gaps in their reading before they pick up something else. Yet somehow, we’ve decided, implicitly, that the normative reading behavior, which discoverability facilitates, is shotgun style where readers are reading book after book after book after book.
And even where that is the case, these super-readers find books. Because for the people who are shotgunning book after book, they will take the time to search out what they want. Hell, look at romance readers. It’s impossible to find a hardcore romance reader who is in dire need of discoverability. And that is an abundant world.
So I come back to this idea of discovery. Is it even something that we need to spend time and money on? And, the more I think about it, both in this context and that of the work I am doing on The Holocene, I am starting to see the real aim is not in eyeballs, or awareness, or algorithms, or billboards, or discovery… it’s in relationships.
Nothing will ever replace building authentic, two-way relationships with customers and readers. The nature of how consumers make purchase decisions has made this an essential component to the transaction. No algorithm can replace that relationship. And, it is too late to assume otherwise.