Staying Afloat in the Roiling Sea of Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Blue-footed booby

Discoverability is becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby.

According to Bowker, the outfit that registers ISBN numbers, over a million self-published books were issued ISBNs last year.

That’s a one with six zeros after it.

And understand, this does not include traditionally-published books, nor all the ebook-only titles without ISBNs.

Which means there’s a whole lotta books out there, and more added every year. (Most of which are bad. See Sturgeon’s Law.)

Industry observer Mike Shatzkin added this:

I had reason to learn recently that Ingram has 16 million individual titles loaded in their Lightning Source database ready to be delivered as a bound book to you within 24 hours, if not sooner. So every book coming into the world today is competing against 16 million other books that you might buy.

That number — the number of individual book titles available to any consumer, bookstore, or library — has exploded in my working lifetime. As recently as 25 years ago, the potential titles available — in print and on a warehouse shelf ready to be ordered, or even to be backordered until a next printing — was numbered in the hundreds of thousands. So it has grown by 20 or 30 or 40 times. That’s between 2000 percent and 4000 percent in the last quarter century.

Of discoverability, agent Rachelle Gardner recently observed:

How can any single book stand out in that large of a field? It’s very difficult. The problem is known as discoverability and it means the odds are stacked against us when we want to bring readers’ attention to our books.

This is why the publisher needs your help—it’s important to find your audience, that specific group of people who will like your book. They need you engaging with your audience, connecting with them, doing your part to make them aware of you.

Even with all this work, it’s still hard to make your book discoverable. It’s not anyone’s fault. Publishers are not conspiring to make life difficult for you. They’re not being unreasonable by requiring authors to participate in marketing. It’s simply the situation we find ourselves in—there are too many books, so we all have to work so much harder to each one stand out to its unique audience.

One line that jumped out at me is: the publisher needs your help. It used to be the other way around. A writer needed a traditional publisher to get into bookstores. If there were some marketing dollars in the budget, the publisher might arrange to have the book placed on the New Release table at the front of the store.

But now, with bookstore space shrinking, and marketing push going almost exclusively to the A list, authors writing inside the walls of the Forbidden City are expected to do audience building themselves (which has some authors wondering why the publishing houses still take the same royalty split as when they did all the heavy lifting. But I digress).

So how do you build an audience these days? The old-fashioned way. You earn it. (Hat tip to John Houseman).

Book after book. And more than one or two titles. You don’t hit a stride until you have several books out there to go with a steady pace of future production.

Another agent, Steve Laube, also reflected on the Bowker publishing numbers, and offered this advice:

  1. Write the very best book you can.
  2. Build an audience who will support your work (i.e. platform).
  3. Decide whether to self-publish (but only do it the right way) or go the traditional route (get an agent).
  4. Figure out how to launch a book.

The fundamentals don’t change, do they? That’s why they’re called fundamentals. I’d modify the list a bit this way:

  1. Write the very best books (plural) you can, at least one per year.
  2. Keep learning and growing in the craft.
  3. Decide what kind of writer you want to be. If self-publishing is on your mind, consider:
    1. Can you be sufficiently productive?
    2. Do you have the discipline to learn basic business practices?
    3. Are you willing to invest between $500 and $2,000 for cover design, editing, and proofreading for each book?
  1. If traditional publishing is your goal, ask:
    1. Am I patient enough to wait up to 18 months for my book to come out?
    2. Will my agent fight for more author-friendly non-compete and reversion-of-rights clauses?
    3. Am I ready with a plan should my publisher drop me?

One word I do wish we’d get rid of is platform. For non-fiction a platform is desirable because there’s a built-in audience for a subject. But agents and publishers push this amorphous concept on unpublished fiction authors, which only adds to their stress and detracts from their writing time.

The best time for a fiction writer to build a platform is 2003. That’s when we weren’t so blog saturated that a new author might actually gain a following. That’s when we weren’t tossing away good writing time on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram (and, worse, thinking that the latter venues are good places to sell books!)

As I argued a couple of years ago, we need to get out of “discoverability thinking” and into “trustability thinking.”

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.

This applies whether you are traditional or indie, commercial or literary, tall or short.

Or have blue feet.

So … are you about to dive into the cold Atlantic of content, knowing full well how vast and choppy it is out there? Have you taken swimming lessons (studied craft and market)?  

Or are you already swimming?

How’s the water?

6+

Marketing is Easy, Writing is Hard

It was probably the English actor Edmund Kean (1787 – 1833) who uttered famous last words that have been attributed to others. On his deathbed he was asked by a friend if dying was hard. The thespian replied, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Thus, we come to the subject of today’s post, which is this: Writing is hard. You should know that already. (I should say, writing well is hard, but that doesn’t sound as snappy).
But here’s the other side: Marketing is easy.
Yes, I said easy. I can hear the sighs, nay, the howls of protest. “If it’s so easy, how come my books aren’t selling?”
The answer is almost always: Because writing is hard. You’ve got to have a superior product to sell, and that’s not easy. It’s not easy for anybusiness to create great products. If it were, everybody would be rolling in dough and tipping fifty bucks at Sizzler. 
Believe me when I say, quoting my own 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws: it takes quality production over time to make a go of indie publishing.
So why am I saying marketing is easy? Because marketing is not the same as that tiresome buzzword, Discoverability. If you remember that, your life will be a lot happier. 

Marketing you control. Discoverability is out of your hands. Don’t brood about discovery. Write well, and market easily, and discovery takes care of itself. 
So why do I say marketing is easy? Because the things that work best for fiction writers are pretty much known. After you’ve written the best book you can, and given it quality design (editing, cover, description, key words), then you proceed to market. In my opinion, these are the top five ways to go:
1. Word of Mouth
This is, has been, and always will be the greatest driver of sales for any novelist. It is “passive marketing,” because it is done by others on your behalf.
Beyond the book itself, you really cannot do anything to improve word of mouth. There was an attempt to do so a few years ago, when authors were buying 5-star reviews.But that practice was quickly flamed, and some authors suffered because of it.
So don’t stress about this aspect of marketing. However, in the words of Bonnie Raitt, give ’em something to talk about.
2. Your Own Mailing List
I wrote about this here. Growing a list should be an ongoing enterprise. You should have a website with a place for readers to sign up for your updates. You should also learn how to communicate effectively so as not to annoy people. That’s the subject of a future post.
3. KDP Select
If you’re just starting out, the Select program from Kindle Direct Publishing is one of the best ways to get your work

out to new readers. You list your book exclusively with the Kindle store for ninety days and are allowed to offer your book free for five days within that period. The days can be used singly or in order. I advise doing it in order. Like I’m doing right now with my first Irish Jimmy Gallagher story, Iron Hands. Yes, it’s free, so nab it. I’ll wait.

Welcome back. Another option in the Select program is the Countdown Deal. Read more about that here. Currently, you cannot run a countdown and a free promo in the same quarter. If you’re just starting out, go for the free promos first. Your main task is to get people to your work. 
How you utilize KDP Select with multiple titles is up to you, but I would advise keeping at least some short works with the program.
4. A Subscriber-Based Ad
Services like BookBub, BookGorilla, and Kindle Nation Daily may run an ad for your book. You pay for the privilege. But here is where many writers make a mistake. You should not view this kind of ad as a way to make money or “break even.” You may, in fact, not make back your initial investment. This discourages many writers who may not take out another ad. 
But it’s still worth it to do so because when you attract new readers a percentage of them will become repeat customers. Thus, the value of a your return is not dollar-for-dollar, but future income based upon the new readers you generate.
5. Some Social Media Presence
It’s necessary to have some footprint out there in social media. But don’t try to do everything. Pick something you enjoy and which doesn’t gobble up too much of your time. Remember, social media is about “social” and not (primarily) about selling. See my notes here. There is a part of social media that’s too hard for me to recommend: personal blogging. TKZ is a group blog. Trying to produce content by myself, at least three times a week, takes too much time and effort for too little return. The people who can do this are few, and I’m still not convinced the ROE (Return on Energy) is worth it. Choose wisely where you specialize.
Okay, that takes care of the marketing. If you have any further questions, you should consult Joanna Penn’s book.
Now the hard part, writing. Concentrate most of your efforts here. Writing is a craft. It has to be learned, practiced, polished, criticized, revised, and practiced some more. It has to be wild and free on one side, yet disciplined and structured on the other.
Yes, you can write for pure pleasure, that’s fine. You don’t have to sell in big numbers if you don’t want to. But if you’re serious about gathering readers in ever increasing numbers, work at the craft.
Beethoven had to work at his music.
Picasso had to work at his painting.
Pete Rose had to work at baseball. He became one of the greatest hitters of all time with less than all-time talent. His problem was that he thought gambling was easy.
So here is your lesson for the day: Work on your writing and don’t gamble.

Are you stressed out about marketing? What are you doing to counteract that? How about a writing self-improvement program?
0

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.

0

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. 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.

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.

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.

0

“Discoverability”


Continuing Jim’s great discussion yesterday, I heard a term last week that I think sums up one of the challenges in this new e-book publishing revolution – “discoverability“. It’s one of the things a traditionally published author would look for in a publisher – their ability to get your book noticed. “Discoverability” is about being able to rise above the noise out there in e-book land and, for me at least, I think it represents a real and ongoing challenge.

While I agree that we authors should view this brave new world as a marathon not a sprint, I also think its hard enough already to juggle writing with all the publicity currently demanded. This marathon could, for so many writers, become a marketing slog to the detriment of honing their craft. For me, therein lies the dilemma. While I would love to be putting out independent e-books as well as traditionally published titles, I worry about how I am going to fit in all the marketing and publicity I need to make both a successful endeavour. Likewise I see the vast wave of self-published e-books and worry how will my books be noticed amid all the flotsam and jetsam.

So just how can a writer increase their “discoverability“?

First off the quality of the writing needs to be there – that’s a given…but then what?
  • Social networking sites, websites, blogs, twitter feeds etc. are all necessary components but there is still a lot of ‘noise’ (and a lot of writers hawking their wares!) out there in all of these;
  • Advertisements (in all print, media and digital forms) – although I think many authors have had mixed results when it comes to traditional forms of ‘advertising’;
  • Word of mouth – the most powerful of all and the driver of almost all successful novels. I suspect however that ‘discoverability‘ is an important precursor to getting this;
  • Reviews and review sites (by industry, readers as well as peers) – definitely an important component of any marketing plan – but nonetheless there remains the age old problem of books that receive great reviews but still fail to garner much in terms of sales or recognition;
  • Personal networking opportunities – still, I suspect, as important as ever, but with book tours falling by the wayside, writers have to increasingly use social networking media to achieve this.
What else should be added to the list?

Do you think that despite the revolution, traditional publishers may be able to regain an upper hand by offering more opportunities to achieve this elusive “discoverability” (and the jury is out on this one as many publishers paid little attention to getting their authors noticed anyway!).

So what does “discoverability” mean to you? How are you going to try and achieve it?


0