Five Shades of Book Discovery

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There have been two great and thought-provoking and much commented articles recently on the subject of new book discovery:

1. Discovery is Publishers’ Problem; Reader are Doing Just Fine by Guy Lecharles Gonzales

2. Is the Book Discovery Bubble Ready to Pop by Ed Nawotka

Guy has a great point in that book discovery is a serpentine road of multiple touch points and not a simple A-leads-to-B journey. It is also true that a casual reader could easily satisfy their annual reading demand just by buying books from the current top-50 in their favorite genre on Amazon. However, there is something magical and intensely satisfying in disocvering that book we had never heard of; or, at least, this applies to the true bookworm, who reads a book a week and probably accounts for 80% of book retail purchases.

Ed makes a related point that readers are not really looking for some killer app that discovers books for them and even less so for a machine that gives them perfect recommendations (book readers are somewhat intimidated by the notion that a machine can predict their taste — and Amazon’s “people who bought this book, also bought…” is rightfully much dreaded.

So here is my simple theory of the five shades of book discovery that stimulate readers to discover books outside the best-seller lists on Amazon or the New York Times:

1. Serendipitous Discovery: This is stumbling over a book either randomly or in a semi-directed fashion that was not based on a Google-esque search, where we already knew the title or author of what we were looking for (Google is pretty lousy way to “discover” new narrative fiction). This is what browsing a book shop or a library shelf is all about (usually within our favorite category and not truly random). We take pleasure in making great finds (and jellybooks.com, my start-up, is an experiment in trying to do something similar online).

2. Social Discovery: This is the good ol’ word of mouth. Books that trusted friends recommend to us (and we might only trust their recommendations in certain subjects or genres where we think they have authority) and what is increasingly also happening on Goodreads, Readmill, Pinterest, twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and at other social online destinations. We try a book or buy it because somebody else recommended it specifically to us or in a broadcasted recommendation to their friends and followers. This will continue to be offline (face-to-face), but increasingly will also be online. (Caveat: people don’t always broadcast what they are really reading, but what they want us to think they are reading — this is of course a challenge for any machine-based system to grasp). Where digital is changing the nature of social discovery is that we are now able to send quotes, snippets or samples (first 10%) of an (electronic) book with ease to those to whom we are recommending our books, which we could not have done in the day of the printed book.

3. Distributed Disocvery: We make many book discoveries when a book is mentioned in context, be it the review section of a newspaper, on a blog, at a conference, as a footnote or endnote in another book, etc. Increasingly we find links to Amazon and Goodreads attached and soon we may see more sophisticated ways of authors and publishers will embedding book discovery into such situations. At Jellybooks, we are beta testing a widget that embeds DRM-free samples that are device and retailer neutral (that is, do not direct you to a specific online shop or reading ecosystem). Out notion is that sampling comes before buying (remember the multiple steps from becoming aware of a book to actually buying it).

4. Data-driven Discovery: This is the last.fm of book discovery or the Netflix recommendation engine for movies applied to books. This might be an iPad or Web app that learns from our past reading list (and what our friends are reading or recommending to us) to suggest us new reads, but is more likely to be embedded into a retail shop front or a reading app. This can be as blunt as Amazon’s recommendation system (which has inherent flaws due to the history and size of Amazon) or a subtle personalization system that surfaces some books into our viewing range in preference to others without us even noticing (a very subtle form of hand selling). Of this we have seen little yet, but more of this is sure to come and technology is once again a key enabler here.

5. Incentivized Discovery: Be it a promotion, book giveaway, review copy or similar, incenctivized discovery has been with us for a long time. Readers can be tempted by the free or the great bargain. Increasingly we will see new data-driven, social or personalized models for creating incentivized discovery. The free book might only be sent to influencers identified to be trusted in a certain niche (all others will have to pay full price) or a discount might only be available if we recruit some number of friends to buy the book. Increasingly we might also be able to reveal willingness to pay — such as reader A will pay $9.99 to read it right now, while reader B could be tempted with a price of $2.99 in six months time. Technology will enable new models that were not feasible in the day of the corner book shop and data mining will be critical to these new models.

In other words, discovery is far from dead, be it from the reader’s perspective (even if we are not aware of it) or from the publisher’s perspective, where discoverability is simply the increasingly desperate attempt of marketing specific titles in a world of ever greater abundance of titles new and old, because in a digital world, nothing ever goes out of print.

Andrew Rhomberg

About Andrew Rhomberg

Andrew is the founder of Jellybooks, a start-up focused on exploring, sampling and sharing ebooks. He previously worked at txtr (whitelabel ebook retail platform), Skype (internet telephony), Reciva (internet radio), gate5 (now Nokia Maps), and Shell (oil). He holds a science Ph.D. from MIT. Follow him on Twitter at @arhomberg.

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3 thoughts on “Five Shades of Book Discovery

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