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.