It’s Time to Ditch Discoverability

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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. 

Singular.

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.

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