what is (book) discoverability, and why do readers need it?

Before I put my thoughts out there, let me preface by saying:

There are a number of ways to describe this concept, and I’m sure that my definition will not align with everyone concerned with the issue as it regards publishing.

Also, I’m going to be citing blog posts by two people who are not only smart, relevant and incisive, but friends of mine.

Guy LeCharles Gonzales and Brett Sandusky have recently posted articles arguing that “discoverability” is a problem primarily for publishers and industry professionals trying to get people to buy the books they are marketing. Conversely, readers are “just fine” because of the plethora (love that word) of book recommendation resources (goodreads being an excellent example).

In other words, there are so many books and so many places to get online reviews and recommendations, readers have more reading material than they could ever consume at their fingertips (literally, if you’re using a keyboard). But to me, this is what constitutes the problem.

It’s not a lack of available sources to discover and acquire books, it’s too many. The “noise level” is so great, with so many new contenders for the readers’ attention, it’s difficult to filter it all. Especially for new authors, getting attention paid to the introduction of newly published books is daunting, and oft times doomed.

(I’m inserting an addendum here.  In response this post, Guy tweeted that my “noise level” point is still a publisher problem, not really one for readers as “filters” favor readers.  To me, this is like saying noise is only a problem for the musician, no the listener.  That’s not really a fair analogy because it’s too literal and doesn’t account for filters, but I couldn’t resist.  Instead, let’s take the cable television model, where the consumer has literally hundreds of channels and thousands for programs to choose from.  Channels and reviews provide filters, but they only work when there is an established audience and a body of reputable reviews.  The viewer can “find” what he already knows he’s looking for, but not that which has yet to be discovered.  Search engines are smarter, but if we are relying on them, then we’re back to metadata and algorithms, the very technology that fails to account for taste and affinity.  Currently, the existing filters make popular that which is already popular, based on rising popularity.  Which does nothing to help me or any other reader find new authors or their works.)

It’s not enough to be good, or even recognized as such. The writer/publisher/marketer must, at some point, have access to a community of scale. Of course, that’s no guarantee the book will be well reviewed, reader adopted or financially successful (each a distinct phenomenon) but without that exposure, the best book is very unlikely to find an audience, or looking at it from the other side, it’s unlikely that receptive readers will find it.

Yes, cream rises to the top and people win the lottery and lightening strikes twice. And sometimes, if you build it, they will come. But not often. Not most of the time. Even the best writing needs to be made more “findable” than the needle in the proverbial haystack. Anyone who has ever tried to gather an audience for their blog knows how difficult this can be.

Just look at the number of well written blogs with followers numbering in the double digits. Let me make it clear that I agree… quick fixes or one size fits all solutions are as non-existent as unicorns (or as rare… I’m not sure there isn’t a unicorn out there somewhere looking for a home…).

As both of my peers astutely observe, automatic devices like SEO, metadata and algorithms alone are not going to make a book get noticed, much less sold. As a matter of fact, this is part of the problem… algorithms tend to lift the most searched and most popular books to the top of the list. And, alas, so do reviewers and recommenders.

I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution, or that it’s easy to make a book findable (as opposed to just ‘available’). Brett has it right when he says that relationships are the key: engagement that leads to these relationships is always personal and unique. But to engage effectively, we must be able to find readers and get their attention. And they must be able to find us.

I agree that most readers do not line up books for constant consumption, and those who do are not making entirely predictable choices. I happen to be the kind of reader with a TBR pile. But the fact is, I still have difficulty finding new authors I enjoy. My friends, in both the physical and digital world, tend to recommend the same currently popular books over and over again (of the same old nuts I’ve already read). If I go outside my circles, I get too much information which in many cases I find too unreliable, agenda posted reviews posted by friends or enemies of the author being a good example.

My scenario here is general and anecdotal, but I think it makes my point. And besides, if I have to work that hard to research a likely book to add to my TBR pile, then it’s not very findable.

There is an understandable confusion between making a book findable and closing the sale, or making people buy what publishers wish to sell. But even in terms of sales,integrity based marketing is all about connecting people with the products and services they need and want (not manipulating or coercing them into a sale). If that’s the case, then making a book findable is a service we owe readers, and one with they will value (I would).

There is no easy answer… issues of organization, findability, marketing and sales have been greatly disrupted by the access and choices available to us via the internet and its technologies. But while these issues have been aggravated, the haven’t disappeared.

Though a one size fits all solution is not attainable (or even desirable, I would argue), there are workable principals and strategies that can be used as the foundation to foster better user experience, community formation and reader engagement.

So while I disagree with some of my friends’ definitions of findability and its relevance to the reader, I agree with their fundamental points. Technology, programs and even better formatted information will not provide an easy panacea to the book seller. But it’s a two way problem without a simple solution.  Engagement models and strategies are possible and necessary to motivate reader engagement, make the process of finding a book (which isn’t already a best seller, or just another piece of hack writing thrown in the users path) easier, more intuitive and more fun.

I think that’s what the issue of “findability” is, regarding the reader. Or at least, it should be.

By Gabriel Paul

An eBook is an Experience

I’ve been thinking about a point which has been made over and over again over the past few years:  namely, that an eBook is a legitimate book.

While I believe that eBooks are legitimate, the truth is that I don’t think they are books at all… not truly.

A book is an object… a nearly perfect object I once read somewhere.  Stories existed before alphabets and writing, script existed before printing.  But the difference between a story and a book was that the book consisted of pages on which the narrative was recorded.  This is what made it a book.  It’s a brilliant, self contained object that serves one purpose… it is a physical container for the narrative which is permanent and transportable. It exists as it is, until it is destroyed.

An eBook, on the other hand, is an experience.  It may be a way of recording the same narrative, but its form and format are of a different nature.  For one thing, it has no solid form.  For another, while the code exists, it is communicated as data through digital devices.  It is amorphous, and just because you are reading it on a screen does not mean that you possess it, or even that the digital product is local.

The eBook is the shadow of the code, cast by the digital device.  It’s little more than an illusion that in some ways resembles a book.  A book is a book even if you never open the cover.  An eBook only exists as an experience on a digital device.  It requires no cover.  It can include moving images and music.  The type can be altered or animated, the format is often amorphous, dependent upon which device you use to view it, along with the limitations of that device.

Calling an eBook a book is like calling a photograph a painting.  Photos and paintings are similar in that they both represent images, or pictures.  But a painting requires paint in order to be itself.  eBooks and print books are similar too.  They both communicate a narrative.  But a book is a highly specific kind of container for that narrative.  The eBook, though a legitimate container for the narrative, differs in that it lacks that physical presence.

It is more temporal in nature and format, and exists as a narrative only when viewed.  Otherwise, it’s  little more than an idea… a series of ones and zeros waiting in the dark.

However, it is this very lack of constraint that gives the eBook such potential… in that it allows for animation and sound, linking layers and multimedia connections and representations.  eBooks allow for different ways and dimensions in the telling of a story (or communication of information).  Indeed, it allows for entirely different kinds of stories to be told.

This is important, because it requires a different way of thinking…  just as a story is designed to be told in print, or as a movie, or on television (different kinds of stories told in different ways), an eBook narrative should be designed to maximize its format, not taken from a print book and altered (or merely translated) as an afterthought.

An eBook has a series of parameters, possibilities and limitations that are different from those of a print Book.

Not better, not worse.  But not the same.