Friday, February 22, 2013

Discoverability, Part I: What the heck is it, and why does it matter?

It seems like one of the outcomes of the various conferences and seminars we attend throughout the year is hearing ad nauseum the next big catch phrase in publishing. A couple of years ago it was “vertical is the new horizontal,” and I spent weeks trying to wrap my brain around what that actually meant for the agency, our clients, and the future of the industry.

Over the last six months or so, I have attended a veritable alphabet soup of conferences from BEA (BookExpo America) to DBW (Digital Book World), with In Re Books (New York Law School's “conference on law and the future of books”) thrown in for good measure. The big catch word this time was “discoverability.” At the top of everyone's list of challenges facing publishing was “the problem with discoverability,” or how to connect readers with their “next great read.”

At a DBW panel called “Closing the New Book Discovery Gap,” I heard the challenge described as follows: “Discovery is audience development, and engaging that audience at the times and in the ways it wants.” Panelist Matthew Baldacci, vice president and associate publisher of St. Martin's Press, pointed out that doing this well has always been difficult for publishers.

For most of the last century, discoverability was handled by booksellers and driven by traditional review sources like The New York Times Book Review and Kirkus Reviews. Publishers would send their sales representatives into indie bookstores and national chains to present their lists of upcoming books, and the head bookseller or chain representative would order copies of the books they thought would be a good fit for their customers. Booksellers would then either hand sell those books to customers or set up displays to showcase them in their stores.

With the rise of online book buying through companies like Amazon and the advent and adoption of eBooks and devices like the Kindle, the iPad, and Barnes and Noble's Nook, much of that personal interaction and hand selling was replaced with algorithms based on “if you like this, you'll probably like that,” or “other people who liked this also bought that.”

A way to allow for better discoverability involves the meta-data of these algorithms, which are tags publishers assign to each book. Meta-data includes the obvious tags like “title,” “author,” and “cover image,” but also “similar titles,” “genre,” and “reviews.” Without proper and thorough meta-data, a book will not be findable when someone is specifically searching for it, let alone “discoverable”--meaning a reader won't be able to stumble upon it when looking for something similar.

Yet algorithms have not been shown to be as effective as publishers and online bookstores had hoped. In his recent blog post “Is Discoverability Even a Problem?” publishing and product development consultant Brett Sandusky explained this issue as follows: “Reading patterns are a) not linear, b) not logical, and c) not algorithmic.”

Another way to allow for better discoverability, then, involves publishers creating more direct relationships with their readers. The shining star in this arena is Harlequin. Harlequin has an identity its readers can recognize even when they are not 100% sure they are choosing a “Harlequin title.”

The challenge in the broader publishing market outside of Harlequin is that imprints are often nebulous in concept and identity. Until I started working in publishing I couldn't name a “Big Six” publisher, let alone one of their many imprints. Now that I have been in the industry for a number of years, I often cannot define what makes something a Crown title vs. a Knopf title besides the editor.

One of the ways publishers are working to develop direct relationships with readers and drive them to their “next great read” is Goodreads. Launched in 2007, Goodreads has grown to over 14 million users who have added over 460 million books to various “shelves” on the site. In “Closing the New Book Discovery Gap,” panelist Allison Underwood, senior marketing manager at Open Road Media, pointed to the fact that most people, including most readers, are influenced more by their peers than they are by an algorithm that can be manipulated to affect the book suggestions shown. Goodreads, driven by peer-to-peer book recommendations, offers a way to utilize peer influence online.

In his post, Brett Sandusky again hit the nail on the head when he said,
When someone recommends a book to you, you subconsciously analyse what you know about that person and their tastes in relation to your own, you determine based on their tone and description of the book whether you think it would be a good fit for you, you interpret, without conscious thought, body language which can influence how you feel about the recommendation. You also dip into your deep memory vault and remember the last time that person recommended a book to you and you hated it, so you are not going to take their recommendations seriously.
Or, perhaps the opposite: you loved her/his last recommendation, and so you decide to buy the next book she/he recommends. While sites like Goodreads haven't invented a way to incorporate body language into online forums, they do allow for natural, analyzable recommendations between peers to occur, as Sandusky describes.

In order to truly address the discoverability issue, publishers need to develop relationships with their readers in the places where readers are congregating to discuss books. They need to develop identities that will help readers make logical connections between their books, like, “I loved THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters, published by Riverhead, so maybe I'll take a chance on THE LAST NUDE by Ellis Avery, because Riverhead published that as well.” Publishers ought to facilitate a dialogue between readers, authors, and themselves so meaningful relationships, book connections, personal recommendations--and discoverability--can thrive.

Image courtesy of CUMMINGS105 on
Discoverability: Just like finding a needle in a haystack
...except there are words involved, too

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