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:

See also:

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.

Uhm. Yeah.

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.


12 Responses to Is “Discoverability” Even A Problem?

  1. Rita Arens says:

    I totally agree with you. I am a book shotgunner, and I do have a TBR pile, but I will always override it for a good reco from a friend with similar taste to mine. My problem is that I know there is not enough time in my life to read all the good books — there are just too many good books. As an author, I’m trying to reframe my expectations to having the people who DO read my book get something out of it, rather than having everyone read my book.

  2. Richard Nash says:

    A two-part observation in relation to this issue you raise Brett, which others have raised in varying ways at Book^2 Camp.
    1. Publishers’ discoverability problem could be framed as: How do we place [our] books within the daily flow of human experience, so that people may encounter them.
    2. The user does not have a discoverability problem in relation to any given book, but the are a large number of people in the world who have a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction around the flow of culture and narrative in their lives. We have all sort of systems for delivering it: TV, smartphone, tablet, laptop, physical retail and they all tend to be vertically integrated based on business model. But a person lives horizontally, slicing through these vertical systems. What the user/reader/consumer wants, I think, is a more seamless flow, to swim playfully in the river of culture.

  3. Substitute the word “marketing” for “discovery” and the nature of the problem becomes apparent.

  4. Perry Brass says:

    There is no problem with “discoverability,” there is a problem with the narrowing focus of curiosity that our world is now experiencing, which is showing itself in dramatic ways: for instance, that fewer kids want to become scientists, and find theoretical thinking totally alien to them. Any kid on the street can tell you this week’s Grammy winners in various pop categories; ask one who won the Nobel prize for literature in, say, the last decade, or ever. I’ve been writing and publishing books for almost 25 years; at one time readers of my newest book would pick up older books of mine: not anymore. It’s rare. Very rare. When it does happen, I am amazed, grateful, even floored. The curiosity to know more is shutting down—so you can make a book as “discoverable” as you want, but that does not mean that masses of people today have the curiosity or energy to “discover” it. Perry Brass, author King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief.

  5. Adam Engst says:

    I think you need to break out what you mean when you say “books” here, because there are quite a few different types of books and the discoverability problem is different for each one. With fiction, reviews, recommendations, and in-your-face marketing are necessary, since people can’t know they want to read a fiction book beforehand based on the subject.

    But with technical books, the equation is different, since people absolutely can say, “I need help with iCloud, or with Scrivener 2.” Once they’ve defined the problem, being discoverable with the solution is essential to publishers.

    And I’m sure that cookbooks, children’s books, travel books, and all the other genres have different discoverability issues as well.

    cheers… -Adam

  6. Peter Prasad says:

    Well, as an indie author, if I do not have a discoverability issue then I am left to conclude no one wants to read my book. I have taken to piling Campaign Zen in front of book stores for readers to trip over. (Joke)

    Indies like me will continue to race down a narrow vertical path looking for handholds of genre specificity. Just as the sonnet writers once did. Vonnegut began as a science fiction flak, then the world came around.

    Corner book shops, literary agents and big houses are left to flog transformative literature which holds the promise of mass market appeal. As in regurgitate another historical biography.

    Does this tell us something?

  7. Joyce M. Coomer says:

    My reading habits are so erratic that no publisher could ever predict what I would read next. Last month I read at least 30 romances — given to me by another voracious reader who had received them from yet another voracious reader — along with an umpteenth re-read of the Hitchhiker series by Douglas Adams, and several J.D. Robb books.

    So far this month I’ve been reading Nora Roberts, Dean Koontz and Michael Crichton, and humorous books about cats — and a wonderful fantasy series by Julie Kagawa. The only books in this group that I purchased new are the fantasy ones by Julie — and one I forgot to mention by Bob Mayer: The Green Beret Survival Guide.

    I read most anything that is handed to me. I purchase books at random at flea markets. I purchase books at random on-line and in bookstores. I have read auto repair manuals simply because there was nothing else handy to read at the moment.

    So . . . in my usual drift away from the topic, I have omitted what makes me “discover” a book — its being in plain view, whether on a web-site, a store display or lying on someone’s desk. However, I know several people who will read only one genre and sometimes only one author within that genre so “discoverability” can sometime be just a matter of catching someone’s eye.

  8. Mark Capell says:

    I think it’s a problem in that authors good at marketing are often not the authors good at writing books.

  9. Jean says:

    “Really doesn’t think discoverability is problem for readers. Publishers, sure, but readers know where to find books, get recs.”

    Hopefully, some context gave this tweet sense, but in itself, it reads like: Everyone says the sky is green, but I know it’s blue. Well, no, everyone doesn’t say the sky is green, nor would anyone seriously posit that discoverability is a reader’s problem. It’s a given that readers can find books. Books are all over the place.

    “Is “discoverability” just publisher code for “Why aren’t you buying what I’m selling you?” Not code at all, though for less embittered writers / publishers, the approach is more like: How do I bring my / my author’s book to people who would enjoy reading it–and hence buy it?

    True, selling books is a mystery and every technique from internet banners to publicists bullying authors into “building community” via social media is hit or miss at best.

    So what would the book-reading world be like with zero marketing? If we selected our reading from books with titles and perhaps a BISAC code on plain, white covers, no publishers’ or authors’ names, no blurbs, no billboards, no tweets, no share or likes, no reviews, no plugs allowed in the author’s blog posts? Millions of volumes of pure content, waiting to be read.

  10. Evan Geller says:

    A lot of verbiage to arrive at the simple equation that “discoverability” = marketing ==> sales of a product that a publishing house has sunk money into. A much bigger problem, and less traditional, problem is “invisibility;” that condition when a new, talented author or a new, great book sinks unnoticed beneath the morass of marginal, unfiltered content being produced because there is no mechanism to “discover” exceptionalism. Work on that, conventioneers.

  11. Jenny Twist says:

    I actually found the idea that there’s not much you can do about it really refreshing. I am sick of promoting and I am sick of reading other people’s promotions. I just want to write. I’m going now to do just that.

  12. Fred Goodwin says:

    Yes, I have a discoverability problem, because two critical tools I relied on are no longer available.

    Amazon and R.R. Bowker used to offer an email alert service that would notify me whenever a title showed up in their databases that met my user-defined search criteria. I reliably purchased about 50% of the upcoming titles that showed up in those periodic emails. Since each company withdrew its respective alert service, my level of purchases has dropped about 80-90%. I now find it MUCH harder to find new books in the specific areas in which I’m interested.

    I wish Bookish or other “discovery” webpages or apps would partner with Amazon & Bowker to bring back an email alert service based on user-defined criteria.

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