Discoverability: A Book’s Greatest Challenge

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Numbers that show us important publishing trends were released last week. One of the takeaways from these numbers is the biggest problem every book has today: discoverability. Here are a few figures that show why this is a challenge (we’ll talk about what discoverability is in a minute):

  • Nielsen BookScan data indicates the number of printed books sold by approximately 500 reporting indie stores rose by 13.4 percent (in units) this year, through mid-May. That’s great news and shows that rumors of bookstores’ deaths are greatly exaggerated. It doesn’t mean bookstores are healthy, but sales for the first part of this year are headed in the right direction and have done so ever since the economic downturn in 2008. Lest you think this isn’t important, we all need to realize that one of the biggest problems with book sales taking place in online shops is discoverability.

The Authors Guild cogently explains it this way: “Bookstores remain critical showrooms for works by new or lesser-known authors and for entire categories of books, such as children’s picture books. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more open to trying new genres and new authors when in a bookstore than when shopping online.

 “It seems to come down to browsing versus searching. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are optimized for browsing; the stores’ ‘search engines’ – their information desks – aren’t what draw in customers. A reader browsing the shelves and tables of a bookstore is often hoping to discover something unexpected. Virtual bookstores, on the other hand, are optimized for search – browsing isn’t the attraction. Readers behave accordingly, tending to use virtual bookstores as search engines to find books they’ve discovered elsewhere.”
I love the way the Guild has identified the difference between bookstore shopping and online shopping. What could be greater fun than the adventure of sauntering through a bookstore and pulling off the shelves books with interesting titles or some arty design that calls your name? But the Guild also is highlighting a major challenge for every book being released nowadays: How will the reader discover the title?
  • Bowker’s reports  that 211,269 ISBNs were recorded for self-published titles in 2011, up from 133,036 titles in 2010. Keep in mind that not all self-published books carry ISBNs, now including ebooks that are exclusively published through sites that don’t use an ISBN for ebooks, such as Amazon.

Talk about a discoverability challenge! Being part of this ever-expanding mother lode of self-published titles creates major problems in figuring out how to help a reader to find your book.

  • Adding to that challenge, eBooks comprised 41 percent of the self-published books tallied by Bowker, but they comprised only 11 percent of overall sales, reflecting the much lower average price of ebooks versus print-on-demand titles. Here’s the equation: Discoverability problem + lower sales price=fewer sales for a lower price per book.

So, regardless if you go the traditional publishing route or the self-publishing route, discoverability is a major challenge. Now, before you crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head, let’s talk about what the author can do in light of these challenges:

  • Buy books at bookstores, not online. Because bookstores are linchpins to discoverability, it makes sense for us to support local bookstores. With the closing of so many stores this past year, you might not have a store that’s local, but when you travel, make it a point to stop in a bookstore and purchase some books.

Wendy and I were in New York last week, and we noted a bookstore that specialized in drama  books for those who work in the theater as we walked to an appointment with an editor. After the appointment, we stopped in the store, and Wendy purchased three books on costumes in specific eras. Why? Because they were created for theater costume designers and therefore showed all the parts of each article of clothing and gave its name, including for handbags, gloves, and hats. Perfect for the historical novelist!

Since we knew Wendy’s luggage was near the weight limit for air travel, I offered to tuck the heavy books into my suitcase. But we could also have gone to the business center in our  hotel and mailed the books. Yes, that would have cost us more than buying (with free shipping) online, but keeping bookstores vibrant makes the decision to buy while traveling pound-wise and penny-foolish. (Not to mention that, in this case, these highly specialized books are difficult to find.)

  • Offer to do an event in your local bookstore. Think creatively beyond a book signing and come up with an interesting presentation you could make based on some aspect of your book. Or join forces with several authors in your community to have a “block” party signing with all of you at once. This works especially well if one of the authors is well-known and helps to draw in readers for all of the authors.
  • Introduce yourself as an author to the owner/manager at your local bookstore and ask what you could do to help keep the store viable.
  • If the bookstore is large, having an event in the store itself might not make sense for the store, but presenting some creative ideas of how to sell books at another venue (a library, a knitting shop, a new pet store), might make sense to the event coordinator. And, of course, the venue needs to make sense in terms of what your book is about. One of my clients found his book about dogs he has owned sold especially well in pet stores. What he had tapped into was finding the demographic that would be most interested in such a book. And his local bookstore was happy to create an event (including the author’s dog) at the pet store.
  • Use your social media connections to help your current readers to discover your new book.
  • Work with your publisher to create a marketing plan that centers around discoverability. This is one area in which traditional publishers can assist the author in significant ways. They can open up channels (displays in bookstores, inviting Barnes & Noble buyers to the publishing house to hear about recent releases, for example) that aren’t available to the individual author.

As a reader, how do you discover books?

As a writer, how can you translate that information into discoverability for your books?

What treasure did you discover when you were meandering through a bookstore?

50 Responses

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  1. Honestly, I don’t have much time to walk the aisles of my local bookstore to discover books, though when I do, it’s so much fun. I usually read a book based on friends’ recommendations. And I admit, I usually buy online because it’s so much cheaper. I figure at least I’m helping to support Christian authors, even if I’m buying the book at a cheaper price.

    Thanks for this list of things we can do to help. I’ll definitely keep the author-related ones in mind for when/if I get published.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Studies show that readers most often buy a book because a friend recommended it. Funny thing is that responders to one survey indicated they viewed the local bookstore staff’s recommendations as highly as their friends.

      • I think bookstore staff recommendations are appreciated more when the staff will say what you shouldn’t get as well as what you should. It’s like the buyer’s thinking, “Well, if they’re telling me not to buy a certain book, then what they’re telling me to buy isn’t just to make money – it’s an honest opinion.” Also, if staff (at any store, not just bookstores) will help you find something at a different store when their store can’t get that item, it makes you trust that store’s staff in general. You feel like they’re actually wanting to help you, not just earn money.

  2. I love to travel, and one of my favorite things to do is stop into local bookshops and pick up a regional cookbook. It’s funny; I’m staring at the 75 yummy titles on the bookshelf over my desk right now, and it suddenly hit me – without knowing, I’ve amassed a culinary timeline for my life – each book with a fond memory, revisited with each recipe attempt. Never could have had that experience online – long live the bookshop!

  3. Jeanne T says:

    This is an insightful post. I can see the value of buying in the brick and mortar bookstores, to keep them open, and hopefully, to one day make my book easier to discover. Your ideas for helping the local bookstore sound spot on. I’ll have to think on other ideas that will make my one-day book easier to discover. You’ve got my brain thinking.

    Like Lindsay, I don’t have much time for browsing bookstores, especially with kiddos vying for my attention. 🙂 But, when I’ve had time to browse in the past, I found The Scarlet Cord, by Deborah Raney and Firstborn By Robin Lee Hatcher. I enjoyed both books.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I discovered Maeve Binchy based on the title and cover design of one of her books. It’s been years since then, and I’ve read most of her books; so I can’t remember which one was my entry point into being a fan.

  4. Great post, Janet. Usually I buy online because we no longer have a local bookstore. That said, when we travel down south, I visit the bookstores. I love history, and the Outer Banks is filled with it. The bookstores there have local history books that I enjoy buying. I’ve bought several great books on the Civil War in NC.

    The only way I can think to translate that for me is if you have a novel that holds local appeal, that could be a selling point. Perhaps bookstores in that area–and maybe libraries–would be more apt to carry your book because of it.

    Thanks for getting me thinking this morning.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, it’s always a good idea, if an author sets a novel in a real location, to alert local bookstores so it can be highlighted. Nonfiction authors could tag-team with a novelist based on the author being local.

  5. Tiana Smith says:

    I love wandering through bookstores, but with the baby, I’ve found my time is rather limited in this regard. Now, I mostly find my books through Goodreads, which in essence, lets me “browse” until I find the one that seems interesting.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Goodreads is a great place to find new authors. Thanks for reminding us of that Tiana. It works like a “friend” in that you read lots of recommendations before making a decision.

  6. Sarah Thomas says:

    I mostly “discover” books when friends recommend them. I do enjoy browsing smaller, local bookstores, but feel utterly overwhelmed by B&N. There’s just too much! Give me a cute, privately-owned story every time.

  7. I love browsing bookstores but have little time to do so. We actually have a small Books-A-Million still struggling along here in town, as well as a Bible Bookstore and a small literary bookstore downtown, which seems to be doing very well. And there are several other options within a twenty minute drive. So I have more choices than it seems many do. I do a lot of browsing online — Goodreads is a new discovery for me, and I have found several new titles this way. But the libraries — both public and the college library where I work — are my main source for books right now. I rarely buy a book unless I’ve loved it after reading it. That’s a sad fact of my personal economy right now. If I had my own way, I’d have shelves of brand new books bought at local stores. But it does make me think about library marketing — which books do they choose, and why? The Kindle market exists there, too. Our local public library makes good use of them.

  8. Judy Gann says:

    Last fall Library Journal published it’s first “Patron Profiles”, statistical data gleaned from a survey of library users across the country. This survey showed that over 50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were first introduced to at the library.

    Janet mentioned partnering with bookstores to present an author event in another venue. Some of our library’s most successful author events have been presented in partnership with bookstores.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Judy, for chiming in. Anything you want to add about how Library Insider works?

      • Judy Gann says:

        Library Insider subscribers have access to a searchable, selective database of over 2500 libraries in the United States. The libraries were selected based on size of collections, open hours, and number of staff–enabling subscribers to target the libraries most likely to purchase their materials.

        Subcribers purchase individual state databases via the a la cate method Cheryl mentioned.

        Each state database provides contact info for each library, indicates if library is a system (several branches; more likely to purchase multiple copies of titles) or an independent library, name & contact info for acquisitions librarian (includes e-mail addresses, when available), market area (nearest metropolitan area–great info if traveling or for planning author events), and the name and contact info for the program coordinator (plans author events)–if library has one.

        One of the most important features of Library Insider is that it’s updated monthly, more often if I come across changes in contact information. No other library database is updated as frequently.

        Subscribers receive a quarterly newsletter with library marketing news (such as the survey results above), calendar of upcoming library events and possible marketing opportunities, and tips for using Library Insider.

        If you would like more info, visit I’ll be glad to answer questions at [email protected]

    • Could you expound on this a bit? How do the book stores and libraries team up?

      As a debut novelist, the whole idea of discoverability gives me hives. I’m learning there’s only so much an author can really do. Beyond that, you just have to hope the ripples keep spreading.

      • Judy Gann says:

        Katie, congratulations on your new release! Wendy calls me her “reformed reluctant marketer” so I certainly understand about hives when it comes to marketing. 🙂

        Bookstores provide the copies of your book and often are responsible for selling the book at the library event. This is changing, but in many cases, libraries don’t want to be responsible for “selling” books at an event. Depending on local laws/charters, it may be illegal for them to do so. Check with your local library.

        The library provides the venue, publicity, and Friends groups may provide refreshments.

        Here’s a link to an article about the benefits of bookstore/library author events:

  9. I enjoyed Library Insider while I had it. My budget doesn’t allow for me to maintain a regular subscription right now, but I’m hoping that will change. I’m thinking of subscribing just to MA again, since I have another book coming out in the fall. I like the a la carte option of this program.

    On the topic of bookstores, I would love to open one up here now that the only one is gone, but it doesn’t seem like the best investment when so many people are buying online. Maybe things will change.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, I’m glad Library Insider was helpful to you, and buying data for a limited area fits almost any budget.
      I personally wouldn’t have the courage to open a bookstore nowadays. I admire Ann Patchett for doing so.

  10. There’s a Lifeway and a Books-A-Million here where I live. Believe it or not the BAM has a way better selection of Christian fiction than Lifeway. When I do buy paper instead of ebook I tend to get them at BAM. It’s a good place to browse.

    All of my research books, though, come from online. The history section at BAM is pathetic when it comes to what I’m after. I also live in an area where I don’t trust most of the local “historian” writers because I know way too much about their methods and how wrong they are and how they refuse to accept they might have gotten a few fairly important things wrong. They don’t like me anymore than I like them, so a potential partnership if I ever sell my historical romance set here, is not going to happen.

  11. Wendy Lawton says:

    I’m surprised by the number of those commenting who believe you do not have time to go to a brick-and-mortar bookstore. It is one of the most important things a writer can do. It’s hallowed halls for you. You need to do your marketing research there. See where the books are shelved. What else is out there on your subject. How many copies does the store have?

    We can visually get a feel for the market and our place in it. And the bookstore is staffed by some of the most knowledgable consultants you’ll ever find. Make them part of your tribe!

    My advice: treat yourself to a babysitter once a month and plan a Mom’s day out at a bookstore. A latte, a comfy leather chair and peace-and-quiet. It’s all market research and, if you’re an author, the cost is probably tax deductible.

    It’s another investment you need to make in your career.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Wendy, I like this idea. I haven’t done much in the way of market research yet, so this suggestion is helpful. Thank you!

    • This is an excellent way to look at it, and I honestly had never considered that before. Part of that is because I loathe shopping. I’m a get it and get out type of person. I don’t browse anywhere.

      I like what you said about seeing how many copies the store has and the visual feel of the market and our place in it. You’ve sold me on making time to browse bookstores.

    • I never thought of it like that, Wendy. Thanks for your perspective.

    • This is very true, and I had not thought of it this way either — as an investment, not an indulgence! Good point.

    • I have to disagree with you there. Bookstore staff is only knowledgeable about who is the most popular right now, since that’s pretty much all the bookstores carry. Chapters, our big box store, carries titles from about 12 main publishers. That’s it. You only ever see the same authors and series and titles. Never anything new.

      I much rather do my research another way. I look at Canadian publishers that I like and see what they are putting out. I look at authors I like and see what else they are looking at. And sometimes I sit online and browse through Amazon or Chapters, looking at all of the books that *aren’t* listed in bookstores.

      Further, I pretty much buy only ebooks now, especially by obscure Canadian publishers and authors (a past time of mine). Looking at a bookstore isn’t going to help me at all with that. All I’m going to find is a million copies of GRRM and 50 Shades of the same stuff.

  12. Peter DeHaan says:

    My challenge isn’t discovering new books, but instead finding time to read the ones I’ve already discovered.

  13. Thank you, Janet, for this post and for the statistics.

    In regards to the bookstore question, as a reader, exploring bookstores is one of my favorite ways to spend time. What you said about the difference between bookstore browsing and online searching is spot on. Sometimes I search the Barnes and Noble site for a book I’m interested in buying. I’m an avid Star Wars novel reader and I use the site to check out the synopses of S.W. books I haven’t read yet. It’s a focused search. Rarely have I looked at any other books on the site, even though automated recommended books always come up. As strange (or as old-fashioned) as it may sound, when I find a book I want, I go to Barnes and Noble’s and buy it. While I’m there, I browse through other titles (not just science fiction), look at what’s on the sale table and have a good time. Often I buy a couple more books than I had planned to buy — and that is because something about the cover caught my eye and I was able to pick the book up and read through it, something I can’t do online.

    As a writer, I’ve used bookstores to do market research, something akin to what Wendy advised. I’m working on a YA fantasy, so I’ve spent time in the YA section to see what’s being published and what is selling. I’ve done research for my other WIP, an adult novel, as well.

    Keeping bricks and mortar bookstores open not only benefits us as writers; it benefits us as humans. Adam Porter (@AtlasProWriter) and I had a discussion about this on Rachelle Gardner’s blog this morning. He talked about the “heartfelt hospitality” he experiences in independent bookstores and, in mentioning author signings and reading groups, summed it all up as “a culture of connection because of shared stories…something very ancient and…necessary for humanity.” I wholeheartedly agree. It’s vital that we do what we can to keep bookstores in business. Since I’m not yet a published author, I can’t do a big event for a store, but I can continue to buy from bookstores and encourage everyone I can to do the same.

  14. I LOVE bookstores!!! I love used bookstores because you never know what you’re going to find. I found a first edition of Volume One of the Hardy Boys series and sent it to my big brother for Christmas one year.

    I walk sideways very slowly with my head tipped over so I can read the titles on the spines. I just smile, if the person I justed bumped into looks at me funny, and tell them I’m doing yoga.
    I can spot the old style fabric covers and gold lettering a mile away. I have only ordered a few books online, because I prefer to order from the bookstores themselves.

    We only have one Christian bookstore in our little town, the 2nd folded because the foot volume wasn’t there, the owners had lost their battle with online shopping.

    I was our church librarian for years and that let me spend hours in the bookstore “proofreading” for the library.

    Some people accused me of being “anti-Amish”. Not true. But the new librarian has managed to fill the shelf labelled “Amish fiction that was published while J. Major was in office and never bought”.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, that’s very funny about the Amish shelf. Thanks for sharing your bookstore enthusiasm with us.

      • Okay, I confess, that was a SLIGHTLY massive stretch. But when she took over, it was patently obviously at the, literally, 25 new Amish books on the shelf. It was amazing!

        Very very few new spy novels, speculative fiction, WW2 novels…I’m glad I thickened the list while I was still power shopping.

  15. Michelle Lim says:

    Thanks for the wealth of helpful information! I love the idea of bringing your books to the crowd that would be most interested as the pet store example showed.

  16. Brian Taylor says:

    I find that I discover most of my books through connecting directly to publishers of genres and authors that I like. This includes conventions I attend, webinars, magazine and televised press releases.

    As an author, I hope that what I have seen done by those I admire in the business will translate to a good process of discoverability for my own work as I continue to build a platform that will enable others to find my work.

  17. Darby Kern says:

    Maybe I’m part of the problem. I go to the local BN to find books and then order them online where they’re much cheaper.

  18. Charise says:

    Sunset magazine called my town “absurdly rural”. We have a bookstore that a formerly homeless man runs. He used to set up in a parking lot and had boxes in his van (The first time I went, I had my husband watch me to make sure I wasn’t going to get kidnapped). Now he’s in a corner of our local taqueria. His signs are hand drawn. You can browse or tell him what you want. I was looking for mid century etiquette books. He went to the precise shelf of chaos and pulled two books out for me. When he was in the parking lot, I got an amazing book on national parks. Also a 1930’s book on writing. His prices are written on scrap paper tucked in the book. The treasure is not only what you bring home but the “whole buying experience.”

  19. Yvette Carol says:

    Yes it’s definitely true that the hype of word-of-mouth is what motivates a lot of my book buying. However, on the other hand, browsing makes up the rest. I love nothing better than taking my time through a book store. In fact it’s quite dangerous, I can lose hours in one!!

  20. tina says:

    “A reader browsing the shelves and tables of a bookstore is often hoping to discover something unexpected.”

    Poor things. Bookstores don’t carry the unexpected these days.

  21. Carole Avila says:

    Thank you for so much meaningful information on the importance of discoverability, information I will be able to use!
    Sincerely, Carole Avila
    Posse Member