Discoverability, Not Discovery, Is Publishing’s Next Big Challenge

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Discovery has been and continues to be a regular buzzword at publishing conferences. Sadly, we saw no breakthroughs in 2013. Instead we saw the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon and the very sad demise of Small Demons.

The reality is that there is no discovery “pain” for readers. Most readers have e-readers or tablets full of ebooks not yet read (and many ebooks bought in a knock-down sale might never be read) or a pile of unread books of the trusted printed variety sitting next to their bed. Many of us have both—I certainly do.

There is always plenty to read, and while we love those moments where we discover that magical new read that we hadn’t been looking for, we are amply entertained by what we find or stumble upon or are recommended by friends.

On the other hand, discoverability is becoming a bigger problem for authors and publishers. More books than ever are being published. Last year it was somewhere between half a million and a million new titles that were published in the United States alone. Self-publishing—mostly in the form of ebooks without a corresponding print edition (digital first)—has greatly added to that abundance.

Ebooks have added to this overwhelming choice in another way, too. Books don’t go “out of print” any longer. They now remain available as ebooks basically forever. Thus the total catalog of books available to readers for purchase or download has swelled dramatically and may now be around the ten or twenty million mark (exact numbers are surprisingly difficult to come by).

Discovery might be dead, but what about discoverability?

Let’s think in terms of the classical marketing funnel of Awareness -> Interest -> Desire -> Action for a moment. It’s that very first step of how to make readers aware that a title even exists that we need to solve, and that is essentially the challenge of discoverability, namely creating awareness among readers. If readers don’t come to us, then we have to bring the book to readers.

Search, be it via Google, Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Kobo, is not the answer. Most readers search by title or author, which implies they are already aware of the book, meaning they have already “discovered” it and are not on the path to interest -> desire -> action (searching by category is the exception to the rule here and the one segment where search plays a discovery function).

Last March, I talked briefly about the “Five Shades of Discovery,” and at the upcoming DBW conference the organizers are devoting a whole workshop to finding and building an audience. The three-hour workshop on “Finding an Audience: Discovery & Discoverability” will cover topics of what an author or publisher can do to find an audience and engage that audience. We will cover some practices in social marketing from Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook and dive into the “secret” weapon that is email marketing.

We will take a look at building author platforms, the importance of getting readers to sample a book, the use of social media mark-up, enticing readers to talk about books and other tools of the trade.

Of course, there will also be a book recommendation list so you can discover great books relevant to book discovery and discoverability.

Please use the comment section below if you are interested in a particular area to be covered at the workshop or in a future DBW blog post, or if you know of great discovery and discoverability examples that should be highlighted to others.

Happy 2013, and hopefully see you at the Digital Book World Conference in New York City next week. I will be there, swapping rainy London for icy NYC.

Related: Check out the Discovery and Discoverability workshop. Register!

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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22 thoughts on “Discoverability, Not Discovery, Is Publishing’s Next Big Challenge

  1. I confess I find this and most discussions about discovery both confusing and confused. We have to define what we’re talking about. “Discovery” doesn’t (or shouldn’t) be taken to mean the ability to find books. It’s never been easier to find books. It means finding books you weren’t looking for that satisfy your needs, interest, and so forth.

    Definition aside, since discovery refers to a user experience, how can you conclude that it isn’t a problem, that is unless you know of a user/consumer survey I’m unaware of. I don’t think we really know whether readers are “amply entertained” by what people find in other ways, through recommendations from friends, etc. The fact we have stacks of unread books or droves of un-openned eBook files could just as easily be taken as evidence that readers are having trouble with discovery.

    The reality is that there is no discovery “pain” for readers. Most readers have e-readers or tablets full of ebooks not yet read (and many ebooks bought in a knock-down sale might never be read) or a pile of unread books of the trusted printed variety sitting next to their bed. Many of us have both—I certainly do.

    There is always plenty to read, and while we love those moments where we discover that magical new read that we hadn’t been looking for, we are amply entertained by what we find or stumble upon or are recommended by friends.

    • well I look at jellybooks.com data and interactions with users and it is clear that while users enjoy those “discovery” moments (and we agree on the definition), it contributes a small part to the reading of most users. That’s sad. I wished it was otherwise. I would be much happier person.

      Also, and this is the more challenging part, readers don’t seek out as discovery sites or places as much as the industry would like. That’s why companies such as Small demons and Bookish have struggled though a lot of effort has gone into them.

      However, those serendipitous discoveries do leave a strong emotional impact and that’s why as readers we tend to overestimate how many books we discovered that way. This is one explanation why books stores ran as such a large source of “discovery” in survey when reality is probably a bit different. We disproportionally remember those moments over “other” paths.

  2. I confess I find this and most discussions about discovery both confusing and confused. We have to define what we’re talking about. “Discovery” doesn’t (or shouldn’t) be taken to mean the ability to find books. It’s never been easier to find books. It means finding books you weren’t looking for that satisfy your needs, interest, and so forth.

    Definition aside, since discovery refers to a user experience, how can you conclude that it isn’t a problem, that is unless you know of a user/consumer survey I’m unaware of. I don’t think we really know whether readers are “amply entertained” by what people find in other ways, through recommendations from friends, etc. The fact we have stacks of unread books or droves of un-openned eBook files could just as easily be taken as evidence that readers are having trouble with discovery.

    • many of those books waiting to be read are books I would love to read.

      I simply buy more than I have time to read, especially when the price points are really, really low.

      It is rational in its own way. It’s optionality. We buy because we think we *might* have the time to read more.

      It’s also the fear of loosing gout on a deal. Buy now or it will cost double, triple, quadruple next week.

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  4. This gets at the heart of the challenge I have with “Cinderella Spinderella.”
    eBooks don’t exist until you buy them, and you can’t buy them until you hear about them.
    One challenge I have is that, with the exception of iBooks, every epublisher takes about 20% of a book for the free download. Because my book is 25 variations on the same story (with different choices for Cinderella and the Prince) that means that you can effectively read the story for free. On the one hand, as an author I love that. On the other hand as a hungry author, I’d really like them to buy the ebook.

    Especially because it’s designed to be readable on any ebook reader produced in the next 1,000 years. (So their great-great-great grandkids can read it)

    The challenge for authors and small publishers is that everyone is in their own separate silo, and the time/energy it takes to find the silo, make the connection, slip in the plug doesn’t seem worth the 14 potential sales of a $2.99 product, which Amazon takes a hefty chunk from.

    I’m really open to suggestions!

  5. It’s an interesting debate, but I am sure that an increased usage of Metadata by Publishers and Authors alike would increase the Discoverability of the books that crave to be found.

    • I think meta-data is a bit of a red herring in this context.

      Good eta-data is essential to look professional in search results, but search is process that happens once a user has already discovered (become aware of a title).

      Some meta-data, such as good cover art, is extremely important for discovery, but that’s about creating an appealing cover, to subjugate this to the technical term of meta-data, will only confuse authors.

      Also, some of the most important forms of meta-data, such as sales ranking, which dictate appearance in best seller lists, are not under the control of the author or publisher. These are meta-data controlled by retailers.

      I am a bit uncomfortable with *some* people (not you) touting meta-data as a panacea to discovery. It is not. It is necessary, but insufficient, element in a larger picture.

      Thus at Monday’s workshop we will go into aspects, such as building an author platform, using social media and social media mark-up, how to create good pull quotes and great cover art and leave the technicalities of ONIX aside (a good discovery site isolates the author from how ONIX is created, formatted and use).

      • I would agree with you that Metadata alone is not the ‘panacea’ by itself, it is simply one of the steps that can help with Discoverability. I can tell you from my experience, that quite a few ebooks that I been asked to ‘fix’ have had little or no Metadata associated with them.

        I hope that your workshop will help people understand Discoverability a bit better.

        • I don’t disagree that meta-data (or more precisely the ONIX files in which the meta-data) is encoded) is sometimes very deficient.

          My opinion of most meta-data is that “it’s a necessary, but not sufficient” requirement.

          In other words, lack of meta-data is like poison, but having it is not a cure.

  6. Quote: “Books don’t go “out of print” any longer. They now remain available as ebooks basically forever. ”

    Maybe, maybe not. That’d be more plausible if:

    1. A standard format akin to PDF existed with an ‘archive’ category that’s guaranteed to be readable. Amazon’s formats are proprietary and ePub is still developing. If the original document is no longer available at the author/publisher and the standards change in quirky ways, it may be that books done in That Old Format cannot migrate to That New Format, effectively putting them out of print as no current device can read them. That’s happened with computer data stored in old formats.

    2. The law and statements by ebook retailers would make clear just what a purchase buys. Available forever could come to mean what it means with software–having to buy a new version every few years as hardware and software change.

    3. Still in print does a reader no good if the retailer, through his gadget, can eliminate that ebook on a customer’s devices or engage in an Orwellian upgrade.

    In short, the market is too new and unstable to claim that what might happen is what is going to happen.

    • Hi Michael,

      At the very granular technical level.

      However, the cost of data migration is generally rather low, especially for text based ebooks (Your arguments have more weight when it comes to fixed layout or enhanced ebooks, but this are a very small percentage of the market). Furthermore author, publisher and retailer have a reasonable strong incentive to keep ebooks available. With print books on the other hand the cost of doing so was usually prohibitive (i..e. cost of a new print run, keeping books on retail shelves across the country, etc.).

      Now, we regularly see reversions of rights from publisher to author, but usually with the author then distributing these works, so I stand behind my claim that it is:

      (a) much easier for titles to remain in circulation and
      (b) that this leads to an increase in the total titles in circulation

      In other words we witnessing an explosion of (e)books available, this is not going to change in the forseable future and discoverability thus only becomes more challenging.

      Compared to effort of digitizing files, the effort of reformatting from one digital format to another is comparable small. As long as there is an economic incentive for doing so (and it dos not need to be large), it will happen.

      • “Compared to effort of digitizing files, the effort of reformatting from one digital format to another is comparable small. As long as there is an economic incentive for doing so (and it dos not need to be large), it will happen.”

        That’s an interesting statement, in that I’ve always felt that if you have got the original content format correct in the first place – say in XML (yes that dreaded acronym), then ‘transforming’ that content to the various outputs should be straightforward, I’ve worked on production systems that can do just that. I have also worked on production systems (and projects) that ‘convert’ data from one format to the other. I have always preferred the former as there are inherently less errors and the ‘owner’ of the original content has much more control of the processes, unlike the results you may get from a ‘conversion’ third party. That’s not to say that you can’t get good conversions from ‘third-parties’.

        Of course not all of us can or want to start with XML, and there in lays the problem; the many different formats of original content that everyone has. It’s a minefield that does lead to the conversion of much content to get to a final ebook format, be that ePub or Kindle or variations of. I agree with you about PDF’s.

        A project that I am currently working on (banging my own drum here for a moment) which on the surface may look like a tool for technical/regulatory publications, has shown itself to be more than capable of producing ebooks of the highest quality for some book & learned publishers that have seen it and is based around HTML5. This ‘format’ might also address other parts of this discussion thread in that, you are not locked into any proprietary format and HTML5 is supported by many of the mainstream web browsers. Yes, there are some differences between them, but I think that will change much quicker than the IDPF’s ePub3 format and what better format to hold your ‘open ebook’ and archived data in for future use than a world wide accepted standard such as HTML5 – yes I know that will change as well. A number of national libraries are already looking for a ‘standard’ format to hold their digital content in and make it viewable to ‘us’ in standard viewers – I don’t think that they will be using Kindle’s or Kobo’s any time soon.

        A bit of a drift away from Discoverability and Discovery (and Metadata) but that’s what makes these discussions interesting (I hope). By the way, the link to the HTML5 eReader is http://www.eglootech.com/tekreader.html.

    • PDF is basically the only format I can rely on to maintain an ebook presence these days, as most of the other formats I have worked with have always had major or minor flaws in both representation to the reader and some of the distributors limit their file size. The latest version of calibre claims to circumvent those problems, but so far has not worked to reach Apple. When the software of device makers becomes more amenable to differentiated coding, then will ebooks remain constant.

      • I am one of those readers who would *Never* BUY a .pdf. It far too difficult to read, you cnalt change the font size (My eyes are getting old). It doesn’t reflow.

        For me .pdf is only good for stuff that I print out.

  7. This article is interesting in that it points out the distinction between “discovery” and “discoverability”. All books are discoverable. The difference is the desire of the readers to search and find. However, that still leaves the problem of the expectation by readers that all books should be free. That position cannot stand as authors do expect to be compensated. The balance will occur when readers recognize that the book is a product like any other, and a price will have to be paid for it.

    • Readers might go out and search, which they do far less than author might hope for, or we can go to the reader and try to win their attention.

      I don’t think that readers currently expect books to be free. The ebook market has been amazing in that consumers have been willing to pay for downloadable books, when they would not pay for an online newspaper article.

      However, that might change. Price is being used more and more often to capture reader’s attention and climb up the best seller lists and this could lead to deflationary spiral downwards.

      We may see something similar to games happen, where games app became essentially free and all the money is being made with in-app purchases

      Exactly the same will not happen in books, but the environment is certainly changing. Look what self-published author are doing.. They are meaning their first book free permanently (“permafree”) knowing that if reader like, they will pay to get the second or third, fourth, etc. book a in the series. Free is used to *find* the audience.

      Watch this space for more posts on this subject or come to DBNW where we will cover pricing an “incentivised” discovery in part 6 of the workshop.

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