Discoverability: A Book’s Greatest Challenge
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.
- 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?