The End of Discoverability and the Rise of Merit

One of the long-term consequences of the digital revolution is, of course, the decline of physical bookstores. Remember when there were at least two or three great bookstores in town? More in a big city, with a lot of indies to choose from as well as the chains? I remember Pickwick, which was bought out by B. Dalton, which was bought out by Barnes & Noble.
There was Brentano’s, which was acquired by Waldenbooks, which was acquired by K-Mart and rolled over into Border’s.
Then, all of a sudden, there was no more Border’s.
And now poor Barnes & Noble is the last chain standing. But it’s been closing stores left and right. A couple of weeks ago its CEO was ousted. The future of its remaining brick-and-mortar outlets is cloudy at best. Which of course ripples upward to the traditional publishers.
We all should have bought Proctor & Gamble stock in 2007, when the Kindle hit the market. Because P & G makes Pepto-Bismol. Sales of the pink elixir must have shot through the roof in publishing boardrooms across Manhattan.
All of which leads us to another consequence of monumental importance: the end of discoverability.
What do I mean? Take a look at these stats from an article in Salon:
According to survey research by the Codex Group, roughly 60 percent of book sales — print and digital — now occur online. But buyers first discover their books online only about 17 percent of the time. Internet booksellers specifically, including Amazon, account for just 6 percent of discoveries. Where do readers learn about the titles they end up adding to the cart on Amazon? In many cases, at bookstores.
The brick and mortar outlets that Amazon is imperiling play a huge role in driving book sales and fostering literary culture. Although beaten by the Internet in unit sales, physical stores outpace virtual ones by 3-to-1 in introducing books to buyers. Bookshelves sell books. In a trend that is driving the owner of your neighborhood independent to drink, customers are engaging in “showrooming,” browsing in shops and then buying from Amazon to get a discount. This phenomenon is gradually suffocating stores to death. If you like having a bookseller nearby, think carefully before doing this. Never mind the ethics of showrooming — it’s self-defeating. You’re killing off a local business you like. (If you prefer e-reading, many independent stores have agreements with Kobo and Zola Books that give them a cut of e-book sales.)
As online sales continue to gain ground and shelf space diminishes, “discoverability” has become a big worry-word in the industry. To make a point so obvious that it’s sometimes overlooked, the most crucial moment in bookselling is the moment a reader finds out that a book that sounds interesting exists. How else is she going to buy it?
So there you have it. Physical bookstores are (were?) the big driver of discoverability. You walked in and saw a huge front-of-the-store display of a writer the publisher put big bucks behind. You saw recommendations from store staff, you saw certain titles cover out. You saw all sorts of books in all sorts of ways.
But when that space is no longer there, what happens to discoverability?
Well, you can try to create a new stream. The recently designated CEO of Random Penguin believeshe and the big publishers are the ones who will be able to “crack the code of discoverabiity in a world of fewer bookstores, to come closer to the end consumer, to keep readers more interested in reading and provide them with the best reads.”
To which I say, with all due respect, there is no code to be cracked. There never was. Once upon a time there was but one system with but one player: the publishers, who controlled placement in bookstores.
But the era of massive placement is over. What do we have instead? An old-fashioned system, one your grandparents called merit. That means trust which is earned, over time, as people come to rely on the quality of your offerings.
This is good news for writers. Because it should be about the writing, and writing is a craft, and craft can be learned, and writers can get better.
In the past, writers needed the backing of a big publisher to get any prominent real estate in a store. Precious few writers ever got the royal treatment. But now the playing field is digital. And those who compete directly for reader loyalty do so with the same chance to grab market share as anyone else.
Thus, the key to success in this game is not advertising, shelf space, co-op, The New York Times, algorithm ping pong, bookstore signings, launch parties, or social media saturation. It is simply and reliably what we all concluded in Friday’s open forum: good book after good book.
Sure, you need a home base (website) and a modicum of exposure to social media. You have to give some thought to how you present your professional self to the world. You’ll have to explore some means of “getting the word out” when you have a book available. Just don’t stress out about it. Don’t fall prey to Obsessive Promotion Disorder.
Instead, concentrate now and forevermore on the most important thing: the quality of the experience you deliver to readers. Focus on that and discoverability will take care of itself.

41 thoughts on “The End of Discoverability and the Rise of Merit

  1. My book discoverability was not in bookstores–even long before the Kindle was just a twinkle in the developer’s eye. At least not for fiction.

    The only exception was the late 70’s & early 80’s, back when there were good Star Trek novels being published–I’d go to the bookstores & inspect the series sci-fi shelves to find my latest treasures.

    I’m a utilitarian shopper–even for books. Like getting groceries, I zip in, sling what I need in the cart & zip out. For books, Amazon is my shopping expeditor of choice. They do it easy. They do it fast. And often cheaper.

    Which all goes to back up your point. Just write fantastic novels. Eventually someone is going to tell this persnickety shopper, & w/a few keystrokes, your book will be mine. 😎

    • Eventually someone is going to tell…

      Indeed, BK. Our old friend Word of Mouth. That’s the ticket. It’s always been the most important thing.

      The second most important thing is becoming a “favorite” author, which means reliably delivering the goods time after time.

  2. This is so true! I had always dreamed that one day writers would be like players in the minor leagues and professional scouts would go out and read all kinds of material, looking for that special player, er, writer to recruit. 🙂

    The problem with the book industry is no different than with any form of entertainment. There are more than enough people willing to make fools of themselves on reality T.V. Likewise on Youtube, where you can become on over night instant sensation because your video went viral.

    There is so much exposure to low quality trash, that folks, the true artists who produce beautiful art, literature, or music are swimming among the trash.

    I’ve discovered two blogs which kept me wanting more, week after week. These blogs had many fans, and then one day, they just stopped posting. Did they get bored? Were they not aware of their fanbase and superior work? Was it too much work and not enough feedback?

    Many of us blog because we love to write, we even share our fiction at no cost. But in order for people to experience good writing, they must read many, many, terrible works now. It’s too much squeeze for the juice, so people stop reading altogether? I hope not!

    • I think true readers will always read with hope, Diane. Hope that they can find their next favorite author. And if we’re ready, if our stuff is waiting for them, we have that chance.

      In a strange way it’s like the Darwinian theory. That somehow over long eons of time a chance mutation arises that finds favorable purchase in the harsh environment of nature. That mutation is then “selected” and begins to breed.

      So here we go, out with our “mutations” (ha!) and the readers scour the landscape, with as many “bad” mutations as there are, until they find that ONE.

      What do we writers do, then? Scatter our mutations! Work our craft to make them as favorable as possible. And never stop.

    • “Scatter our mutations” I love it. That’s one of those stick on your wall incentive quotes.

      BK Jackson

  3. Well said, Jim. As with any paradigm shift, some jump at first light while others must be drug kicking and scratching. For some of us, we’ve only known one way to publish a book. But as we said on Friday, one thing will never change: quality of product. Write a great book. Then write another. Repeat.

  4. Jim,

    Thought provoking! Great blog. So we all scratch our heads and try to plan a strategy.

    I’m reading THRILL OF THE CHASTE by Valerie Weaver-Zercher, a critical analysis of the history of Amish fiction and what makes it so successful. She points out that Evangelical women use these novels as “portals” for relationship with other women who are reading the same books. She discusses the importance of book clubs in the success of Amish fiction.

    My questions are: What can we learn from this? Are there ways to leverage book distributors, book clubs, etc? Can groups of writers have any greater influence in these endeavors vs. individual writers?

    I can see it now: The James Scott Bell Literary Guild Book Club offers 20% discount to members of the book club who sign up for a monthly purchase. All book club offerings personally endorsed by the legendary James Scott Bell. Five reviews on Amazon earn you an additional 10% off your next purchase. Host ten book reviews in your home and earn a free book.

    Just think, Jim. You would have a free supply of books forever, as writers attempt to gain entrance to your prestigious writers guild.

    I know. I’m manic. At least my wife thinks so. I like to think there is a fine line between genius and insanity.

    Thanks for keeping us informed of what is coming, and for helping us plan our personal strategies.


    • You had me at “legendary.”

      I like outside the box thinking, Steve. What you’re proposing is a model that traditional publishers, and new startups, are thinking about. Subscriptions…I’m not sure the current marketing realities support this. The consumer, I think, would rather be free to pick and choose at will.

      But there is something about this Amish fiction….it just keeps going and going.

  5. Once again, great post. Sometimes as an author (especially an Indie one) it’s hard not to get caught up in all the “Promote, promote, promote” hoopla, but as you have so aptly pointed out many times, it really does come down to the writing (and maybe a little word of mouth).

  6. I read your post James, right after I happened upon a blogger talking about this problem of readers using B&N to browse before buying via Amazon.

    She made the good point that books are what economists call “experience goods.” Unlike blue polo shirts or AAA batteries, you have to consume them before you know whether you like them. That’s why people rely so much on trusted friends to recommend books (Word of Mouth!) and it’s also why browsing is so vital to the health of publishing AND authors.

    One reason folks still browse bookstores is because Amazon et al make it deliberately hard to do online. Yeah you can read a couple pages but it doesn’t replace the EXPERIENCE of browsing a whole section of mysteries at once. And according to Bowker Market Research, a reader is TWICE as likely to buy a book on impulse in a store than online.

    The blogger suggests that B&N’s salvation is to become a sample store. “Separate the discovery and atmospheric value of bookstores from the book-warehousing function. Make them smaller, with the inventory limited to curated examination copies — one copy per title. (Publishers should be willing to supply such copies free, just as they do for potential reviewers.) Charge for daily, monthly or annual memberships that entitle customers to hang out, browse the shelves, buy snacks and use the Wi-Fi. Give members an easy way to order books online, whether from a retail site or the publishers directly, without feeling guilty. And give the place a good name. How about Serendipity Books?”

    Sounds good to me!

  7. I remember when there were 2-3 bookstores in every shopping mall. Now I live in the boonies where the nearest indie or B&N is at least 90 minutes away.

    Online is our country-fried salvation. It is what lets us live in towns with zero traffic where you can buy an 1800 sf house for $30K.

    Small towns have been some of the drivers in the e-commerce revolution. Amazon has replaced the old SEARS outlets that were just a room full of catalogs and half a dozen stools.

    So, big publishers, what is up your sleeve to keep us little folks (who are big readers, cuz, face it, there’s not a lot to do out here and we like it that way) happy?

    I make my discoveries roughly in this order: recommendations on a pro blog that I respect (as in TKZ or Janet Reid), recommendations on a writer’s blog that I respect, name brand of the author (as in Stephen King), browsing the shelves at the local library (I just twigged to a new YA post-apoc series), social media chatter, the Amazon “books like this” feature(and there had better be a good cover and a sample,) personal purchases from the writer at a convention, and finally waaaaaaayyyyy back in the pack, is publisher-produced promos.

    I think the publisher can be most effective by helping the writer with promotion by doing things like discounting all their other books when a new release drops or sponsoring them at a con rather than a bookstore signing. A good con presentation is probably worth a lot of new readers. It is how I ended up here at TKZ after meeting Mr. Gilstrap at MMW.

    A view from the front porch: Terri

  8. I’ve noticed a few indie bookstores that are doing better, because they have either specialized (Mystery Book Store in Seattle) or have an enormous number of books and will go out of their way to get one you want (Powell’s in Portland, Or) Both have an online presence. If you haven’t been to Powells, it is worth the trip. Set aside 3 or 4 hours.

    I would be less if either or both went out of business. I make a point of buying there instead of Costco or the grocery stores which seems to be doing as much damage to bookstores as Amazon.

  9. I had my comment crafted in my head halfway through your post. Then you wrote it for me in the second half, better than what I had in mind.

    I’ll just sit here quietly and see what else happens.

  10. LinkedIn looks like they have a way to say “what you’re reading” that’s different than the past.

    James, I read the Salon article and read most of the comments. Interestingly, most of the comments said they didn’t showroom book stores.

    Some creative marketing ideas would be useful instead of just the “don’t worry–just write a brilliant book”. Many books that went viral have been put down as not worthy of being written (Da Vinci Code, etc.)by so called “experts”.

    The initial spirit of this article-thread was “how do you get discovered”? If you’re not going to be creative to come up with alternatives to a physical book store–then I think you’re missing the point of this article. (yes…write a brilliant book. that’s nothing new).

    It’s kind of like, how does the “Star” actress get discovered?

    You guys ever heard of Comic Con? It’s HUGE. AND for reasons that may shock y’all…most hot new TV shows and movies are marketed at the convention itself. As are books and authors.


    • I went to WonderCon this year. Definitely caters to specific genres. Not sure how many self-pub authors can get badged, however.

      Funny about the “star” actress. Ever see All About Eve?

  11. We live near a large library in the Chicago suburb area, so I almost always can get books there to see what’s in them before buying. I rarely go to the Barnes & Noble unless it’s for something specific that I have to have in hard cover. Otherwise I shop them online for my Nook. (I’m not a mall person.) But the favorite gift for many of us in our family is the B&N gift card. : )

  12. Thank you for this intriguing post. After the big-box stores completely disappear (the last BN), do you foresee a resurgence of indie bookstores? Atlanta had the classic Oxford Books that went under trying to compete with the corporate giants. We still miss it. I hope there will always be a place to buy hardcovers. That’s part of the dream, isn’t it, to see your own hardcover on the shelf?

    • Lance, I love the indies over and above the big box stores any day. There has been a reported resurgence, though I think it’s a matter of filling a niche. We’re not going to see the same bookstore culture that once existed.

      As for hardcovers….once more, they seem to be quickly disappearing as a viable form of content delivery. It’s all about the ticket price now, and it’s hard to justify this less efficient form of print product. Trade (large) paperback is fast replacing hardcover.

  13. Maybe a question to ask ourselves before “how do we get discovered?” is “who do we want to discover us?”

    The likelihood of being the next superstar author is rather slim and less a matter of good craft than capturing a social wave like pet rocks or hula hoops. Sometimes it doesn’t even take good craft (or editing!) if my daughter’s books are representative of the YA market.

    I know very little about Amish fiction but I can take a guess that it is a closely defined romance niche in which writers are careful to maintain a certain level of decorum. I can also guess that the niche that reads these books are looking for a slower paced escape. The writers cater to this and some enjoy quite a bit of success.

    The advice to write a great story, then do it again is great. So is the suggestion to have at least some public exposure. But to cut through the noise of the marketplace, we need to define who it is that we want to read our books. And it isn’t everybody.

    (Well, I’d be okay if everybody read my book when I am done with it but I hit lottery when I got married and had kids – expecting another lottery win isn’t rational.)

    My first book is aimed at 13-24 year old females that are runners. That’s a niche. JK Rowling has nothing to fear because I could saturate that market and still not hit a tenth of her numbers. I can turn a very nice profit though and I have room to grow from there.

    So the question becomes, what is your niche? Thriller? What kind of thriller? Who is the target audience? Why are they your target audience? Sci-fi? Hard science? or Fantasy? Human-good or human-bad? Each has its readers

    Once you know who they are, opportunities present themselves on how to market your book. Since you are addressing a niche that already exists prior to your arrival, you can use the connections that are already built between the members. That’s word of mouth.

    I know that marketing is frowned upon by the better writers who feel that they are creating art but I have no delusions. The act of writing a book and placing for sale is an act of commerce. Marketing is simply a tool that allows the seller to inform the buyer of the product to be sold – in this case, my novel. I don’t want to sell them a lemon. I need to sell a good story that will exceed their expectations.

    The art is in the craft and creation of the story. The sale is in the means and methods of the marketing. Targeted marketing is often much more effective than a scattershot approach.

    How did I define my niche for the novel I just completed? I didn’t intend to write a novel of 13-24 year old females. I started writing the story that grabbed me and, after I got going, discovered who would enjoy that same story. I suppose you can identify the niche first and then write to it – many successful writers have done exactly that. Either way, now that I know the niche, I know how to market the book.

    One cautionary note about niches, though – abuse that niche, monetize it without paying respect to the people in that niche and the word of mouth will go the other way. In other words, if you write just for the money, you’re likely doomed.

    For all the business side of writing books, you still have to tell a good yarn or the reader won’t come back for more.

  14. Another informative, thought-provoking post, Jim! Thanks again for sharing your research with us! Speaking of merit, I’ve self-published my two craft-of-fiction books so even though they’re in both digital and print, they’re not in any bookstore (that I’m aware of) to be discovered. But I did happen to search on Amazon today for “How to write a thriller” and my Writing a Killer Thriller is #1 there! That sure made me feel good! It’s a narrow, specific category, I know, but still… I’m grateful to Amazon for allowing me some discoverability that way.

  15. Awesome post, as always. Straight to the heart of the matter — because quality fiction IS the heart of this whole industry and all its little obsessions and quirks. All else is foam floating on top of it.

    And as technology gains ground on tradition, and more books are published every year, discoverability becomes abstract and uncontrollable. Good storytelling, however, is always within the author’s control, and the only means of marketing that people will always trust (regardless of technology) is word-of-mouth.

    • I love that phrase. “As technology gains ground on tradition.” It captures the vibe. Traditional companies are scrambling to insert digital mavens, and curation (a value once king) has had to take a seat further and further toward the back of the bus. Authors increasingly must self-curate, no matter where they publish.

  16. I love this. I know many Indie authors who are completely exhausted by self publishing..I think it’s due to the Obsessive Promotion Disorder. 🙂 I love that books will rise by merit. I love that I can keep growing as a writer, slowly building my reader base and improving in my skill!

  17. Your post ignores a great range of valued writing as it seems to assume that writers of great books write more than one. You are ignoring, e.g., George Church and a range of essential writers—the most informative of whom do not write books for a living and do neither series nor volume. They do deeply valued and unique content. They are not discoverable by your model–“good book after good book”–because one does not write a new synthetic biology or other science book each year. Those who do (e.g., Jonah Lehrer) appear to be by definition, as in Lehrer’s indicated case, a natural and serial fraud.

    There are writing genres—vast, premium-paying and culturally and intellectually important ones— where frequency of publication appears inversely proportional to quality. Because these books, like George Church’s (or arguably even Akhil Amar’s on the rarely changing U.S. constitution), are not generated in volume with agendas for branding (the author is already branded professionally), fame (the author is already known in the smallest elitist academic circles and prestigious subscription-based journals) or fortune (the author is already rich), these books are that much harder to discover if not in the mix of the diverse and voluminous physicality that is the brick and mortar book store. In a purely digital world they would surely appear to vanish from any practical discoverability entirely.

    • Not sure where the disagreement is, Anon. As you state:

      these books are that much harder to discover if not in the mix of the diverse and voluminous physicality that is the brick and mortar book store.

      That’s the whole point of my post. Authors of the type you mention would do well to add short form works, digitally, to aid in their being “discovered” via merit.

    • Your attention here may be towards writers and those concerned with professional viability. I wasn’t thinking of writers but, selfishly, of the reader class–me. I’m concerned with the richness of my reading options. Such options aren’t defined by “professional writers” or those with agendas to earn a living writing.

      The “chance to grab market share” for the best writers doesn’t appear equal to anyone else’s because these are the very writers who are among the least concerned with being published, let alone with marketing or being adequately branded to earn a living thereby. Their chance appears less in general in the physical book world and particularly so (I’m arguing) in the digital one where you haven’t even a physical vector to discover them.

      I also distinguish discovery from marketing. Real discovery isn’t curated. The point of discovery is that you were precisely not a needle somebody threaded. The goal of discoverers is to encounter something truly external to your experience: That means external. It does not mean, as part of a familiar herd, or as aligned with buyer precedent. Silly Amazon (e.g.) thinks it knows what I like based on not only what somebody else liked, but based on what I myself even liked 1 event ago: It doesn’t. (See the below list, no item of which would lead an algorithm–or a human–to suggest any of the others—yet I own all of these authors’ books equally enthusiastically.) Algorithms and curation are exactly what discovery is not. They are simply marketing.

      In the physical world a main discovery vector to the best writers is the bookstore’s address. Take that away and these writers’ low profile can disappear entirely. For example:

      Gore Vidal
      Marcia Angell
      Nikki Finney
      George Church
      P.G. Wodehouse

      Most people already don’t know who these writers are, as none sought or could command market share, despite being meritorious. On the other hand I’ll guarantee you their books are on a shelf in any Barnes & Noble you set foot in, meaning they got past a real filter, and readers have, preciously, the option to discover them.

      Take away the shelf, and that discovery option goes away. These writers aren’t showing up in any algorithm and aren’t going to chase readers down the street via slick digital strategies when they weren’t chasing them in the brick and mortar world in the first place. Neither they nor their publishers are in it for that, just as the best and most legendary artists in American music were hardly chasing fame. They were discovered. The best had other plans entirely. Usually, recording was somebody else’s idea.

      The writers above will never write, market or publish like James Patterson no matter what the digital world is doing. Their discoverability will not take care of itself. Physical bookstores have a lot of junk, but they are also a filter against even more junk: Somebody had to work for that shelf space. The digital world, however, is an infinite “shelf” for all 6+ billion of us to “publish” on. The nice thing about physical bookstores and publishers is they are big enough to present more than you can read (millions of books); and small enough to exclude most stuff people on the planet want to publish.

      I want to retain the option to step into a massive enough literary space and discover the writers above. Currently, a physical bookstore best provides that. I can’t browse 2 million books in 45 minutes digitally as I can physically. I also can’t browse 2 million books in 45 minutes and get a hit rate as high as a bookstore by encountering the writers above.

      Because bad content is easier to generate than good content, for readers, the digital world increases overall content, but reduces meritorious content (absolutely and relatively) and commoditizes the encounter of new content. Real discovery, however, is a bespoke event that the reader designs on encountering massive (but finite) semi-filtered content dumps known as brick and mortar bookstores.

    • Again, Anon, the main point you make is the very premise I start with. Your argument is therefore not with me, but with the current reality. There are many of us who love the brick-and-mortar experience. I miss the indie bookstores in my town. I sort of miss the B & Ns. But those days are over, and they ani’t coming back.

      The question then becomes what to do about it? You come at this as a reader, so you’ll have to find new ways of filtering, and there will be ways. The NY Review of Books, The LA Review of Books (which, ironically, is digital only) are a couple of examples. Dedicated websites on certain subjects (e.g., science, politics) will nurture content. You’ll have to find them.

      For writers, it becomes a matter of cursing the darkness or lighting some of their own candles. They have the choice. As I said earlier, a robust stream of short form may be used to augment longer works. New strategies will have to be formed. It’s called responding to change.

    • I would just caution against giving B&N too much credit for being the most accurate manifestation of change: Physical books are physical books, and B&N is just a chain that does something with them. I’m not convinced that physical books are dead (and of course neither is Amazon), though I can fathom how the particular things a chain does with them can be dead.

      I’m not sure how interested B&N actually is in either readers (the people) or books today. Its own employees raise the issue online. You could argue that those books may as well be lawn mowers to upper management. But I don’t think that how B&N mismanages books is some natural final word on salability.

      Ousted CEO William Lynch is on record saying he didn’t much read physical books anymore. That’s like the BP chairman saying he only uses ethanol. You can’t make it up. By that sentence alone, the Board is broken. Period.

      Under Lynch B&N actually thought it was a technology company. No moderately astute customer standing in a fiction aisle holding a hardcover bestseller that generates most of B&N’s revenues thought that. The Lynch tenure suggests upper management lacks ideas, “religion”, a soul, and worse, the likely DNA to come by them. (I clearly digress.)

  18. I’m reading this super late, but wanted to add an example to this great post. Hugh Howey and WOOL. I heard about this book from others. He self-published his series and it exploded based on word of mouth. Plus, he’s really connected to his readers. No book store or publisher involved (well, now they are with his print-only deal). I find it refreshing that publishing has become more merit based.

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