How Will Your Book Get Discovered in The Roiling Sea of Digital Publishing?

Ah yes, this is the question of 2012 for authors (and traditional publishers, for that matter). Last year the question was, Should I self-publish? That question has been answered with, Only if you want an additional stream of income and a growing platform.

Of course, we now have self-pubbing authors jumping on board in numbers approaching the population of China. So everyone wants to know how the heck you get anyone to know you’re out there in this massive, churning, ever-expanding bedlam.

Well, that’s why Digital Book World, an arm of F + W Media, put on a big “Discoverability” conference in New York last week. I did not attend but followed it in real time via Twitter hashtag #DBWDM and the amazing, flying fingers of the indefatigable Porter Anderson. Porter’s nice summary of the conference can be found here.

I came away with some strong impressions and later discussed them with a publishing executive who attended the conference. One option that was expressed was starting an effective SEO campaign, which is one of the many WHITE HAT SERVICES that are offered.He confirmed some of my opinions, and they are as follows:

1. There is No Consensus on What Works

Rick Joyce, Chief Marketing Officer with Perseus Books, said there is a sea of conversation out there, and “there’s too much of it.” While people are trying different things, to truly be effective, “we’ll have to build some stuff that doesn’t exist.”

And when that stuff does exist, is there any guarantee it will be any more effective and certain? I’m not sure we will ever be able to say that.

Publishing has changed forever. As Joyce said, it “is no longer a mature industry.”

So it has to try things and keep on trying. “Standing still is not an option,” says Joyce.

Joe Pulizzi of Content Marketing Institute counseled, “Get uncomfortable. If you don’t feel like you’re running off the road, you are not driving fast enough.”

2. Best Advice Re: Social Media

Willo O’Brien, a creativity consultant, said that having a small, dedicated “army” you are engaged with is more important than your number of followers. So don’t just talk atpeople. “Empower people to speak back to you.”

3. Worst Advice Re: Social Media

“Be everywhere, all the time. Find your customer and give them what they want.” (Shall remain nameless, but works for a Big 6 outfit).

Now, to be fair, maybe the speaker was talking mostly about non-fiction writers who are an “information-based brand” and can spend countless hours hawking books consistent with the brand. I hear if you try a top-ranked Los Angeles SEO company they can provide some critical information on the topic that could support your book launch with content campaigns and optimising your website for search engines.

But for fiction writers (entertainment based), this is horrible advice. It will dilute the strength of your writing and the production of new work. And will not make any discernable difference in sales. The ROI (Return on Investment) is terrible. It’s much better to specialize in one or two social media forms, and concentrate on your writing.

4. Business-speak on Parade

Someone from a Big 6 told the audience, “We are working to build and deploy verticals to construct thematically framed communities.”

Ack! I think that translates to: We are trying new things we hope will attract lots of buying customers to our online site, but that hasn’t happened yet.

I do recognize the challenge traditional publishers face. It is a harsh reality. They are competing against go-to sites like Amazon and Goodreads (10 million plus). This is where people are shopping and browsing. With bookstore placement shrinking, and more and more buying being done online (see chart, below) publishers have to carve out online territory. But can they, when they are essentially late to the game? Some may establish what will amount to a fairly popular blog. But then they have to compete against tens of thousands of blogs, too.

As Kelly Gallagher of Bowker put it, “Perhaps most daunting is that e-reader owners, tablet owners, online book shoppers, customers of different retailers, people of all demographics, readers of all genres are all discovering books in different ways.”
For a writer, one thing you can do is make sure you have an Amazon author page and keep it fresh and updated. That was stated several times at the conference.

5. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

That was a major topic, and beyond the scope of this blog post. But here are some interesting stats from Define Media Group:

With 100 million searches per month, 16% of queries typed into Google daily have never been used before.

• You get 65 characters or less in a search result to make your point. Get a main keyword at the top. Branding at the end.

• Your web pages’ headlines should be optimized not just for the content, but for the keywords people are searching for.

• Search engines are very literal…They don’t understand nuance, sarcasm…they (simply) want to see a headline.

It is a good investment of a writer’s time to learn about SEO and incorporate some of that knowledge into your website and landing pages. Failing that employ a specialist: if you’re a drug rehab company then you want someone that specialises in SEO for your field – like Rocket Pilots. The same logic applies if you’re an author. Don’t find a generic ‘we’ll optimise your marketing’ company, find a specialist.

6. Marketing Psychology

Rob Eagar, a marketing consultant, said, “Successful discoverability starts with psychology rather than technology.” IOW, you want to create a feeling in the potential customer that answers the question, “What’s in it for me?”

I certainly think that’s true. But the method may be quite different for fiction than non-fiction.

If someone asks you what your novel is about, Eagar said, and you answer with the plot, you have hindered the sale.

I don’t agree. It is plot copy itself that creates a “feeling” in a fiction reader. If they are looking for a thriller, for example, it’s not persuasive to tell them, “You’ll be thrilled!” Or “You’ll be on the edge of your seat!” The days of that kind of ham-fisted advertising are over.

Instead, give them a foretaste of the thrills with powerful copy that creates the excitement. I tweeted this to the stream: “If we try to tell a reader that ‘thrills are in it for you’ they won’t believe it. The concept must create mini-thrill.”

This is a big one for self-publishers: master the art of cover copy! You can get the straight scoop on that in my query letter and proposal section in The Art of War for Writers.

The Bottom Line

As I said, 2012 is a key year in the digital publishing revolution. Look at how e-commerce has grown when it comes to book buying (it’s the red slice):

Next year it will be even greater, and will continue to grow, and there is going to be some major fallout in some very big companies. But not all. There will be survivors, and a new sort of equilibrium will begin to take shape. Self-publishing will produce more and more writers who are making a living going it alone. Those writers will be the ones who have developed a business mindset and implemented a strategy like the one found in Self-Publishing Attack!

But traditional print publishing is not going away. It will, however, face challenges it will have to meet with paradigm-cracking (and leaner and meaner) innovation. New contract terms will have to be worked out in order to retain and develop writers. Knowing this, writers and their agents are in a better position than ever to negotiate.

The new successes will be centered around thinking win-win, creative partnerships and shared risk/reward.

But whether we writers choose indie or traditional or a combination of both, we still have to figure out how to get our fiction noticed.

The good news is there is one tried and true method that is consistent throughout all marketing platforms: good old word of mouth.

Which comes from quality + consistency x time. The best books and stories you can write, and then more, and more, never stopping, ever.

So resolve to spend less time fretting about marketing and social media and all those things you could be doing to get “discovered” (the list of which never stops expanding), and more time producing words worthy of being discovered.

25 thoughts on “How Will Your Book Get Discovered in The Roiling Sea of Digital Publishing?

  1. It’s definitely a hard task to get noticed, but doing so by cheap marketing tricks or being obnoxious and slamming one’s “product” at people’s faces ain’t a good idea.

    I truly believe, just like you said Jim, that writing appealing and emotionally tantalizing blurbs and pitch-phrases to use as “business cards” for the novel, gets the needed attention of readers much better. Using these in the right place (online) and at the right time is still a skill that must be mastered.

    I frankly love being a new writer in the digital age. I tend to see the possibilities more than the difficulties, and welcome the challenge.

  2. I loved your ending comments, Jim. Above all else, there lies what authors can do best for themselves and their readers. Focus on writing well and often.Everything else takes a backseat.

  3. I like the wrap-up comment – spend more time producing words worthy of being discovered.

    A writer friend of mine had this conversation last week: How can people find our work buried in a gazillion other books available?

    Umm, you write a better book.

    Thanks Jim for keeping us up-to-date and our fingers firmly planted on the keyboard.


  4. Veronica, you have exactly the right mindset. The possibilities are so great that’s where we should dwell.

    I also, as you suggest, see a number of self-publishing writers flooding Twitter with “buy my stuff” types of messages. That is the opposite of “engagement.”

  5. Hey Mark and Paula, thanks for the good word. That last sentence really encapsulates what I think is the most important advice for writers of any type. Even though it’s hard to get through the noise, quality does count. It’s like a small diamond drill bit. Just keep it going and it will make headway and never wear out.

  6. I followed the DBWDM conference on Twitter (thanks, Porter) with great interest. And I agree with most of what you agreed with in your synopsis.

    I’m a non-fiction writer, so yes, social media is a different challenge than for a fiction writer.

    But I’m increasingly frustrated by writers who fight social media with “I just want to write”. They don’t see themselves as a business, not really, or they’d see that marketing is part of what they do now (online and offline). Marketing is not the enemy: making excuses for not writing…that’s the real enemy.

    There are times when I need to spend more time on marketing (book launches). But I always write something every day, to keep the flow going.

    I hope Writers Digest West is as exciting and informative as your experience at DBW.

  7. Good points, Jim. From what I’ve observed, the most powerful factor–no matter how you’re published–is the formula you cited, Quality + Consistency x Time = Success.

  8. Wow, Jim. I just finished up creating a blog post for Tuesday called is Blogging Worth It? Your post and the the information from Digital Book World is overwhelming and fascinating. I’ve decided to do some experimenting at my blog and I’m not even sure what all that encompasses at this point. With 3 books under my belt and deciding what comes next along with my agent I know the writing has to come first and if I lag behind in social media I’m not sure what will happen. Maybe I’ll just get lost in the zillions of other books and authors out there but I have to find some way to be true to myself.

    I’m going to look at this next year as a time of opportunity because no one really knows yet where all the pieces will fall regarding these issues mentioned in your post. Thanks. Jill

  9. Good on you, Jill. I think all authors need to make that same assessment. 2011-2012 was the season of scrambling to do a lot of things. 2013, for writers, ought to be about getting back to the basics: telling great stories.

  10. I agree – we need to raise the bar for ourselves and only put out our very best work. And keep up a steady stream of new offerings once we begin. I’m reading Rob Eagar’s book Wildfire marketing – and I also stumbled over his ‘What’s in it for me’ premise regarding fiction – but he also has an impressive track record with helping fiction authors so it’s hard to outright dismiss his ideas.
    But – is writing a great book enough? Really? Because I’ve seen a number of badly written books become really successful due to little more than controversy. With so much noise and distraction, bigger marketing budgets, buying reviews… Hard not to be a little jaded.

  11. But – is writing a great book enough? Really? Because I’ve seen a number of badly written books become really successful due to little more than controversy.

    I think that’s really two different issues, Lisa. Writing a good book increases the odds of being found, eventually. Writing more good books does the same.

    Yes, crappy books sometimes break out, but rarely, IMO.

    I’d favor going for “good” as the default setting.

  12. Well said Jim, et al. This has been a intimidating hurdle for me to climb, getting adequately noticed among the masses. I do believe that writing and keeping writing brings the slow cooker goodness to success. One can make a decent stew in a pot in a matter of hours, but to make an unforgettable one takes days, or more. Simmering, boiling, browning, eating a few bowls, then topping off the left overs with fresh ingredients and keeping it cooking at just below boiling till everything gets this delicious taste that only well loved stew can have.

    Or sourdough bread. You use the starter to make a batch of bread, but leave some in the jar. Add more flour and yeast and sugar and that little ball of dough will grow to four times its original size. Pinch off half, make a new batch of bread and that next loaf will taste better than the first, as will each subsequent one. There is a restaurant in Soldotna Alaska where the owner has an original sourdough batch started over 80 years ago and kept alive ever since. You want great pancakes and bread, go to the Caribou Family Restaurant up here and you might be amazed.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that like those culinary delights, writing takes time and repetition and addition to the original skill set and in time folks will see it and hopefully pay well.

    That an do stuff on the side related to your work (in addition to good stew and fresh sourdough bread, make some delicious tea, pies, and omeletes to keep them returning).

    Presently I try to stick out by doing radio shows, helping on the board of the Alaska Writer’s Guild, working as a contributing editor for International Thriller Writer’s newsletter, and occasionally singing and dancing in my underpants on the street corner in downtown Anchorage.

    don’t worry, i’m a boxers guy…no thongs here.

  13. Thanks for this great summary. I really agree with the statement that “new successes will be centered around thinking win-win, creative partnerships and shared risk/reward.”

  14. Great post, Jim. I quote you:

    “But traditional print publishing is not going away. It will, however, face challenges it will have to meet with paradigm-cracking (and leaner and meaner) innovation. New contract terms will have to be worked out in order to retain and develop writers. Knowing this, writers and their agents are in a better position than ever to negotiate.”

    But it’s going to be a long, long time before legacy publishers force themselves to abandon their price-fixing, collusional boilerplate contracts. They still think this is all going to go away and they can’t envision themselves competing in the digital arena on an equal basis with unwashed self-published writers.

  15. Another excellent post, Mr. Bell! And for me, the timing was spot-on.

    You hit on several topics that have been on my radar this week, including SEO. I’m working on a new website project that has involved a lot of SEO work, and it prompted me to think more about how SEO relates to fiction writers. Very interesting that you would bring this up.

    As an unpublished writer, I’m soaking in all the sage advice I can gather from those of you who have gone before me. I study the craft, and am trying to educate myself on the current world of publishing. On top of that, I’ve gotten the message about how crucial an established platform is (especially for new authors), so I’m working on that too. Much of the past year has been about education for me, and it’s been a LOT of work.

    I’m finally feeling like I have a working knowledge of it all, and at least the basic skills to pull it off. But now, priorities must be established and choices made, on a daily basis. Building an author platform could be a full-time job in itself, but book-selling skills and tools don’t do much good if one doesn’t have books to sell, right?

    I’m in the process of mapping out a more focused plan, and your points in this post are extremely helpful to someone like me who needs to maintain perspective.

  16. Mr. Bell, thank you for keeping up with the baffling data on the self-publishing business, for condensing what is useful, and for sharing the results with us. You have no idea how welcomed and timely your post was.

    Your last paragraph validated my decision to finish my second novel before embarking on an aggressive marketing campaign. Slowly, but surely friends and acquaintances and their friends are reading my first novel. Word of mouth among readers might travel at a turtle’s speed, but it does travel.

    A local theater company that liked one of my short plays has asked me for a full-length play. I felt very honored and encouraged, so I took two weeks off novel writing to polish two one act plays, and loved every minute of it. I just sent the scripts off to the director, and I feel great. Writing is giving.

    Sella Pals
    Author Pitching Diamonds

  17. Thank you, Jim! Lots of accurate bits of advice in here, folks — listen up! (This comment comes from my 15+ years of Internet marketing experience.)

    And the best take away for me was your final admonition: Don’t fret over this stuff, focus MOST on writing words worth discovering. THANK YOU. YES. I need to hear that over, and over, and over. (This comment comes from my sparse 3 years of aspiring fiction author experience, ha ha!)

    Just wanna say: I’ve posted your 10 commandments on the wall next to my computer. *touches it* You help me stay focused!

  18. Thank you all for the kind words and comments. This has been an excellent discussion, and a lot of good information exchanged. That’s the currency of the future, info. Get it, analyze it, use it.

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