It’s Time to Ditch Discoverability

by James Scott Bell

HumptyHumpty Dumpty published a book.

Humpty Dumpty hoped readers would look.

But all of the tweets and all of the ’grams

Didn’t bring Humpty significant clams.

See, Humpty was sitting on that wall waiting for his book to be discovered. Today, he’s a shell of his former self and living in an old yolks home.

Ever since the self-publishing boom took off, authors and industry types have bemoaned the “discoverability problem.” How can a new author, especially a self-publishing one, possibly get discovered in the tsunami of content flooding the market?

As Digital Book World put it back in 2014:

[D]iscoverability is becoming a bigger problem for authors and publishers. More books than ever are being published. Last year it was somewhere between half a million and a million new titles that were published in the United States alone. Self-publishing—mostly in the form of ebooks without a corresponding print edition (digital first)—has greatly added to that abundance.

Ebooks have added to this overwhelming choice in another way, too. Books don’t go “out of print” any longer. They now remain available as ebooks basically forever. Thus the total catalog of books available to readers for purchase or download has swelled dramatically and may now be around the ten or twenty million mark (exact numbers are surprisingly difficult to come by).

A prominent agent (who also happens to be a friend) wrote about the problem. I want you to read the following quote carefully. There is one word that clonked me on the head and has led me to question the viability of that blasted buzzword discoverability. Here is the quote from her post “Solving the Discoverability Challenge.”:

Discoverability continues to be one of the biggest challenges authors face. The market is flooded with books; how are the people who would love your book ever going to find it?

So what do you think the key word is?

Cue Jeopardy music.

Alex says time’s up.

The key word is: book. 


That is a major clue as to how we’ve all been thinking about discoverability. And it seems to me that thinking’s messed up.

Because it’s based on an old-school paradigm. The traditional publishing industry does one book at a time for an author. This is called a frontlist title. They hope that title gets discovered. If they really believe in the book or the author, they’ll put some money into advertising and co-op. (In reality, that money now mostly goes to a new title by an A-list author).

But in the new school of self-publishing, this paradigm has at least two major flaws.

First, readers hardly ever “discover” books. Rare indeed is it for a reader to float into a bookstore, spyglass in hand, scan the horizons, and suddenly spot a spine on a distant shelf, and then shout, “Book ho!” Still rarer for an Amazon browser who sees only a few of the gazillion thumbnails in the Kindle store.

The way readers find new authors is, and always has been, overwhelmingly by word of mouth—through a friend, book group, a favorite reviewer.

Second, discoverability thinking fails to emphasize that long-term writing success is not about a single book being found, but about an author building up trust with a growing number of readers.

Which is why I’m proposing we ditch discoverability in favor of trustability.

You should be thinking that each new offering is an opportunity to prove to readers that you deliver the goods. As you do this, time after time, trust in you grows. Consumers buy more from businesses they trust. Readers are consumers and you are a business.

But I’m putting out my first book. What am I supposed to do? I still want people to find it!

Of course you do. Trustability does not mean you don’t market what you publish. It does mean, however, that you have realistic expectations and are patient, knowing that it is going to take you a number of years and consistent production to establish a significant upward trajectory––if your readers trust you.

But to get rolling with a first book, most self-publishing writers would benefit by going into Kindle Select and using the five free promotion days. No less an authority than Author Earnings’ Hugh Howey agrees:

I can also say without reservation that most debuting authors should go exclusive with Amazon until they gain traction and can afford to branch out. The increased visibility offered by Kindle Unlimited makes it worth thinking of Amazon as a writer’s personal publisher. Keep in mind that self-published authors can move their works around. KU exclusivity is only for 90 days at a time. Unlike the decision to go with a major publisher, where you lose all control of your work for the rest of your life—and another 70 years for your heirs’ lives—with self-publishing, you can experiment freely. You can dip in and out and try lots of options.

In fact, you don’t even need a full-length book to begin this process. Write a killer short story or novella and price it at 99¢. Then use the five days of free promotion, along with your social media, to get as many eyeballs on your work as possible. Think of this less as discovery than as the first step in establishing long-lasting trust.

Make it easy for a happy reader to sign up for your email list. You need to build an email list because that’s how you directly communicate with those who are putting their trust in you. Start up a list with MailChimp or a similar service. Put an invitation to join and a link at the end of your story (some are now putting this in front, but I find that quite cheeky. You haven’t proven anything to me yet!).

And through it all, continue to do the following:

  1. Keep up a flow of production

Set goals, write to a quota, have several projects in development. You are no longer in the one-book business.

  1. Keep growing as a writer

Meaning look at your work, have others look at it and give feedback, and figure out how to make your stuff the best it can be.

  1. Keep learning about business

The principles of business are not difficult to understand. In fact, I’ve put the essential in a book. A business thinks ahead, plans for the long term. It knows there are only two ways to grow: a) find new customers; and b) sell more to existing customers. The former is hard. The latter is where the meat is. And that meat is based on trust.

One more note. Authors misunderstand and misuse social media when they make it primarily about discoverability. What is social media really about? Yep, trustability––real content and interaction and positive engagement, so when you do have something to offer, people will listen.

So put your eggs in the trustability basket. Don’t toss them, one by one, over the wall, waiting for a crowd to gather shouting, “Look! What a great egg! Come over here, everyone!”

That’s Humpty Dumpty thinking, and you don’t want your hopes to shatter like his.

Now, scramble up some thoughts and serve them in the comments.

35 thoughts on “It’s Time to Ditch Discoverability

  1. Production. Still my sticking point right now. I totally believe in the ability to snatch a few minutes here and there to write a ms when you’ve got your plan. But the one thing I can’t do in snatches is plot. Trying to figure out a way to carve out some serious time to plot out a novel series I want to write.

    On a good note, I did get to attend a one day Donald Maass Breakout Novel workshop yesterday. It made my head hurt–in a good way and gave me more things to think about with my series character & secondaries. Looking forward to his release of “The Emotional Craft of Fiction” releasing in December.

    • BK, one way to plot in “snatches” is to carry around 3×5 cards and brainstorm scenes. Not sequential, not “logical,” but just what your writer mind is coming up with. Do this whenever you have a few minutes. When you’ve got 20 or 30 scene cards, shuffle the deck and pick two at random. Ask what the connection might be. Repeat as many times as you can. A plot will begin to present itself.

      • I’m also currently struggling with the rudimentary beginnings of a plot that can’t find direction so thank you, James, for the idea of the flash cards.

  2. Thank you once again for valuable information. My husband and I have, and study, ALL your brooks on craft and read your fiction offerings for the pure joy of it. Your ears must surely burn every day when we talk over things we’ve learned from Mr.Bell.
    Many thanks !

  3. Jim,

    “Trustability”–I love that! Very keen insight. I see it at work in my public library day job, an author has earned a reader’s trust and they want everything by said author. When they’ve gone through the author’s books, they have to find another author they can trust, and that isn’t always easy.

    I’ve been planning on releasing a prequel novella for my new series before I release the first book in order build my mailing list and provide what some people call “a reader magnet”. Yes, I’m having that prequel edited and gone over as thoroughly as my novels by my editor and my beta readers. Wouldn’t do to release a reader magnet that isn’t as compelling as it can be.

    Thanks again for another terrific post.

    • That’s a great bit of anecdotal evidence from the library, Dale. Shows the incredible value of trustability thinking.

      And I love your thinking for the novella. As “compelling as it can be.” Sadly, some A-list authors and their publishers don’t think this applies to them. I’ve seen stinko “novellas” released, dashed off quickly, in order to pre-sell an upcoming release. You see a ton of 1-star reviews. That author is losing some trust. But the readership may be so large that he doesn’t care.

      I think authors should always care.

  4. Jim, lots to think about, as usual with your great posts.

    In your first paragraph after changing the focus from discoverability to trustability, you wrote “As you do this, time after time, trust in you grows.” (I would have put “you” – twice – in italics if this comment box would have allowed it.) I take your message to be – the focus is on the author, not the book.

    And the quote at the beginning from Solving the Discoverability Challenge:
    “Discoverability continues to be one of the biggest challenges authors face. The market is flooded with books; how are the people who would love your book ever going to find it?” With the change in focus, that final “it” should be “you.”

    When I ask people what they are reading, I usually hear the response focus on the author. Yesterday I talked to someone who was so upset Amazon didn’t have John Grisham’s latest offering, that he was rereading an old western until Grisham’s book was available. Wow, to have that kind of loyality.

    And when reading your list, #1 Keep up a flow of production: What are your thoughts on the advantages/disadvantages of a new writer having several books ready before they even start publishing? I remember, in October 2014, when you presented at the Columbus chapter of the RWA, there was another speaker (her name escapes me), who had about a dozen books ready before she started publishing.

    Thanks for another great post.

    • Steve. that was a strategy writers talked a lot about few years ago … release a bunch at once, the hope being readers will binge-buy your series. I don’t see anything wrong with that, if quality is not sacrificed in the writing. There’s also nothing wrong with publishing a story when ready, and following that up when the next one’s ready.

  5. Your post, Jim, made me ask the question to myself: If I were just starting out today, what would I do differently?

    Here is my answer: I would complete at least three books (and get them all in good shape with the best editing/input I could afford) and then plan a launch and marketing strategy around their timed release. This would be especially good if I were writing a series but I think it would be wise for stand-alones as well. Why? Because having a BOOK isn’t enough anymore. Having a bookSHELF of your works is what can get you readers and a good chance at “trustability.”

    I am not advocating quantity over quality! A great story still trumps all, but the goal should be to have three great stories ready to go. And completing three books also might give you self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses; and heck, maybe that THIRD books works better as a debut? I would advise anyone starting out today to come up with a CAREER plan that looks to the long-term rather than the short gain. I think the writer who thinks in terms of a series arc is three chess moves ahead of the writer who obsesses over one book then has nothing else ready.

    And you know, this is true even if you go into traditional publishing. My experience in that world taught me that the second question out of every agent’s or editor’s mouth is “what else are you working on and when will it be ready?” Okay, that’s two, but you get my point.

    • And completing three books also might give you self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses; and heck, maybe that THIRD books works better as a debut?

      I think that’s great advice for the brand-newbie, Kris. Almost always that first novel is like a first waffle–it doesn’t hold together. Going through the process twice, maybe three times, is a great way to learn the craft.

      I remember several years ago when it was a couple of pubs’ strategy to bring out three mass market titles by an author in rapid succession, like one month apart (or maybe in some cases all at once). The idea was sound enough, momentum out of the gate. I know of two authors where this was tried, and the authors did not catch fire. I read the first book in those two series, and sadly they weren’t very good. Lesson learned.

    • That sounds to me like a good strategy. Aside from the marketing aspects of presenting your author bookSHELF vs. having one book available, given that I ultimately want to self-publish, and given that 13-14 hours out of every week day are donated to my employer, there is no way I could realistically maintain presence by under-planning and just flipping my one complete book out onto the market.

      When it’s time for me to throw myself into the publishing water, I want to do so with strategy, not just a “eh well, let’s see what happens when I dip this guppy in.”

  6. I can see where setting up a grand story arc that takes three novels to run it out would give you books to release on a timed basis. However, is there that much patience and discipline in the world?

    Great post. Thank you.

    • Hugh Howey wrote the Wool stories as a series of shorts, releasing them when finished. Then he put them together and sold them as a single volume. He did great … but why? Because the stories were so darn good. Lesson learned.

      • Thanks for the Howey rec. I’m on the lookout for recommended series fiction to read. I honestly wish it wasn’t so, but I seem terminally drawn to writing series fiction (gives me a headache thinking through the arcs for a series).

        For anyone else reading this discussion today, I just checked at Amazon and Howey’s 1st book in this series is free on Kindle today.

  7. One of your best, Jim. And that’s saying something.

    So many traditionally-published authors are migrating to self-publishing, a silent majority of them because they have to (read: they were dumped… it happened to me, and it sucks). With all this new competition, and new playing field for it, it feels like we have to relearn everything. Sometimes, though, I wonder about the mid-list author still engaged in a traditional publishing model, how helpless (and hopeless) that would feel, now more than ever (because back in the day when I wore that hat, we had no real options). That, too, is a scary place. because everything has changed there, as well.

    Both positions in the game benefit from your message today. Production, ever-escalating craft, and a tone-sensitive social media presence (trust vs. “look at me!”) works for both, and underlying it all is quality storytelling. That discussion seems to be more quiet than ever (questions from workshop attendees seem to focus, overly-so, on marketing vs. how to write a great story)… but not from you, and not from me. Let’s keep beating the drum, my friend.

    • Well said, Larry. Just yesterday I got a spam solicitation for marketing services that promise a gazillion clicks. Which means nothing unless those are converted into sales, and those aren’t worth anything unless the sales turn into fans.

      As has been said so often, the best marketing comes between the front matter and back matter. That’s where you put your attention.

  8. The author who is still with traditional publishers doesn’t have this option, but the one who publishes independently certainly does. Write, edit, publish, lather, rinse, repeat. “Write the best book you can” is still good advice, but “Have as many good books out as possible” is the new corollary. Thanks for sharing.

    • Also, Doc, writers with traditional publishers should be augmenting their work with short form, and do it themselves. Clear it with agent and editor, plan the timing, but do it. If for some odd reason they balk, yell at them until they realize that it’s helping them by helping you grow your readership. Say “Sheesh” a lot.

      • Already started that, Jim, with two novellas self-published. And just made available the audio version of one of those. Considering the other for later in the year. I’m learning.

  9. Great and timely post, Jim. Lots of truth here. Your thoughts on trustability resonates with my approach these days, of more yet shorter offerings with the consistent quality I want to grow. Thank you for describing this process so clearly.

  10. When my time comes, I’m going to handsell the hell out of my book within my local region (Seattle and west of Seattle), speak to any group that will have me, and get to know prospective readers and friends in person as much as possible (and I’ve been laying a lot of that groundwork already). I will make my book available on Amazon/Kindle (and eventually in other national/global distribution chains), but I won’t count on those to make my name or my (cough) fortune. I want to develop a passionate local fan base who will promote my book because they like it as much as they like me. And we’ll see if that has a domino effect outside the region where I live. But, apart from writing good books, I think nothing builds “trustability” like being a person that people like in person. A little true human connection can go a long way, I believe. And when you start from that, I think your social-media presence will have more impact and resonance, because your friends there will feel like trusted insiders because they know you in person.

    • Jim, I think starting local is a great idea, because the word is independent bookstores are on the rise. You can establish a good working relationship with a store, and as you say, become a regional name. Your local fans will also be on social media, and their passion will overflow to a larger audience.

      Good plan.

  11. This post is so timely for me. I decided to shop around the first book in a new series rather than go with my current small press. But I worry about my readers. So I’m writing like a crazy person (while penning the best stories I can) to try to finish a collection of shorts that I can get out there in between writing the sequel to Marred and waiting FOREVER to hear back from the publishers who’ve requested my newest thriller. Every time someone writes “I can’t wait for her next book” in a review, part of me feels guilty for not letting my current publisher release this new series, but I’m thinking long term. Any advice?

    • Well, Sue, I don’t believe in waiting “forever” for an agent or a publisher to get back to a writer. It’s not professional or courteous. If they can’t give some kind of feedback within 3 months, try one follow-up each.

      If still nothing, wish them into the cornfield.

      And don’t do anything out of “guilt.” Do what is best for your career, because the publishers are doing what’s best for their business.

  12. Very enlightening post, Jim! Thank you very much for this!
    With hundreds of training courses and also many books teaching how to be discovered and how to “convert” readers into fans do indeed confuse me. Many of them seem to claim that bringing value is not enough, that you have to be first discovered or even approved (for example through a crowd-funding campaign) to write a book. Your post and the discussions did show me that the golden (or even platinum) way is not about being discovered immediately, but about writing authentically and continuously growing as a writer. Thank you so much and also to all contributors to this blog. In what you contribute and teach, you all sound very trustable and authentic. And I guess, this is the reason, why many writers of plenty of different genres stay around here and read your blog almost religiously.

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