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Discoverability, Still A Book’s Biggest Problem

I gave a talk as part of a panel in the Bookbuilders of Boston/Emerson College “Gutenberg to Google” series of presentations on the ebook r/evolution. I promised I’d put it online later for those who missed it, and here it is — my take on “discoverability” and how this key principle is behind three of the hot button issues facing publishers going digital, namely

1) the transition from physical retail marketplace to the online marketplace
2) the importance of social media and author involvement
3) Piracy! Yarrr!

I didn’t get into ebooks and place myself on the cutting edge of new book technology because I thought ebooks were really cool and I wanted to be where the action was. No, I was essentially FORCED to become an expert on ebooks or my company was dead in the water. I founded Circlet Press in 1992, way back before a little thing we refer to now as “The Returns Crisis.”

Circlet’s history is a turbulent one — we’ve been battered by every upheaval in the book industry since our founding in 1992. We survived the bankruptcy of Inland Book Company, then the demise of The LPC Group. If you looked at my list of Key Accounts from ten years ago, you would see a list of 50 wholesalers and retailers who have all either gone out of business, have stopped buying books, or who have drastically cut their orders, skipping our titles etc. Bookpeople is gone, Tower Records is gone, Lambda Rising is gone, and on it goes.

Exactly two of those 50 key accounts are still in business, and they are Borders and Barnes & Noble.

And what would happen if either of the two big chains decides not to order a title? We had no choice but to cancel it. Then it got worse, there were titles that BOTH chains were passing up, or ordering in such small quantities (100 or fewer) I had to wonder why they even bothered. At that point, in 2008, cash flow was down to nothing and Circlet Press was basically dead.

Since I had nothing to lose at that point, I started converting our backlist into ebooks and putting them up for sale on the Kindle store and on the Fictionwise site because I had to do SOMETHING. I had no money, but if all it took to start selling ebooks was sweat equity, well, that I could put in. I taught myself to format for the Kindle and jumped through the Fictionwise hoops and voila! Ebooks!

Sales were small. But given that the startup cost of publishing an ebook was essentially ZERO at that point, since I started with books I had the rights to already and just put in sweat equity, even small sales was better than nothing.

We then started doing ebook originals. Instead of just backlist conversion, we were producing new books for the first time in years. Circlet Press has always published a lot of anthologies of short stories, and I started making them into intern projects. In the space of a 12 week internship, I can guide an editorial intern through the entire process from sending out the call for submissions, to picking the stories, getting rewrites and editing, typesetting and designing a PDF, formatting it for Kindle and other ebook formats, and tadaaa!, the book is live and on sale before they leave my office.

A publishing company has two forms of lifeblood — money, and ideas. And all of a sudden we had a positive flow of both where just a few months before we had been dead as a doornail.

Two years later, we’ve turned a profit 2 years in a row (after 5-7 of losing money) and I now have a freelance staff of six developmental editors who are acquiring and editing ebooks in our niche, and at the rate we are going, this summer looks like we will peak out at releasing a new ebook title every week. Many of them will only sell a few hundred copies over the next 2-3 years, but each one will earn a significant profit over what was invested, and many will make for the authors more than we ever paid on printed books.

In that sense, our business has not changed at all. We take ideas and stories and transmit them to readers, and the readers give us money that we transmit back to the authors. It’s just the delivery mechanism for the story that has changed.

So, having made that transition from paper to digital, there are three hot button issues I want to address that all relate to each other, although they may not seem to at first glance. Piracy, social Media and the importance of author involvement in book promotion, and the transition from the traditional retail model to a digital model.

What do all three of these topics have in common? The key word and key principle to bear in mind is DISCOVERABILITY.

The number one obstacle most books and authors face is a lack of discoverability.

You may have written the best book ever, but if it isn’t on the shelf in the bookstore, how is anyone ever going to find out about it? All the publicists in the room know that in the traditional business model, if the book isn’t on the shelves when you get a major media hit, like a mention on 20/20 or major author appearance, then you lose the bulk of the sales blip you might get.

The old method of discovering books for the vast majority of readers was to go into the bookstore and wander around and see what was there.

This method is breaking down for a number of reasons. We have fewer bookstores. The stores we have, which in most places means chain bookstores, are often poorly curated, or poorly stocked. Borders at one point recently had a massive inventory reduction which meant fewer books on the shelves. Independent bookstores with great curation may still face inventory and cash flow challenges. But the number one reason we publishers keep selling books returnable on consignment is because the number one way to sell a book is to have it on the shelf for the consumer to see.

So what happens when there are fewer stores, fewer shelves, and greater competition for the shelf space that is left? You have to explore other methods of discoverability.

And of course with an EBOOK there is no physical store, no physical shelf.

In ebooks, we’ve found you do have to have the books in the online retailers where the traffic goes. There are a few exceptions–Ellora’s Cave and Torquere Press, two niche romance publishers–have both been able to build up huge direct to consumer business models. But for any general publisher, building up a brand recognition is a bit harder. It’s the AUTHOR who has the brand name, not Random House or St. Martin’s. So now you have to have your ebook in the Kindle store and at Fictionwise, and the Mobipocket store — the places people who want ebooks have already been congregating. What was foot traffic in the bookstores is now eyeball traffic on the major websites.

Where else can you go for major eyeball traffic?

You want to know where the most avid book-loving web surfers are congregating? On book piracy sites. Here’s the thing. People who pirate books are not people who hate books or who hate authors. It’s like Nietzsche said. The eagle who eats the lamb does not hate the lamb. He LOVES the lamb. These people are NUTS ABOUT BOOKS. They can’t get enough. That’s why they are hanging out on the pirate sites talking about their favorite authors in the forums and asking for people to share their copies of digital files, and even to CREATE digital versions of books that have no ebook version already.

There have been a couple of studies so far that have shown increased digital piracy of a title seems to lead to increased sales of the print version of the book. The jury is still out on whether a book that ONLY exists as an ebook is hurt or harmed by pirate distribution, but if what you are trying to do is sell printed books? Being pirated is one way to overcome the lack of discoverability problem. The more book nuts on pirate sites are talking about your book and recommending that others download it, the better — as long as you have a physical book to sell also, to capture the converts who then want the book for themselves, or to give to their aunt mary, or to keep in their collection because who knows if the digital file will still be readable 20 years from now?

And that brings us to my final point, about social media and discoverability. As an author I’ve published with houses large and small. HarperCollins, Avalon, Running Press, etc. In most cases, the publicity department in those places really didn’t want me that involved. There was an attitude that author involvement could somehow “ruin” the efforts of the publicist. Well, guess what? Now that the number of review outlets has shrunk drastically unless one counts book blogs, the publicist is in need of new places and new faces to pitch books to. But book bloggers don’t want to hear from the propaganda arm of a corporation. They want to hear from the AUTHOR. So all of a sudden, the author is the one who has to get involved in approaching blogs and websites for mentions and reviews.

We’re starting to see the rise of BLOG TOURS. The author writes a series of short essays and op-ed style pieces that relate to the book they are promoting, and posts them as “guest blogger” on the highly trafficked sites, always with links back to the author’s own website and a BUY IT NOW link for the book. Publishers, provide your authors with that little piece of HTML code. You used to arm them with a press release and the jacket of the book to hand out. Now give them the BUY IT NOW button.

This means more work for the author, of course. And we do hear gripes from time to time along the lines of “I already wrote the book, now I have to publicize it, too? Isn’t that the publisher’s job?” But the plain truth is most authors WANT to be more involved in how their books are publicized and marketed, and it’s time for publishers to harness that energy. (And don’t get me wrong, the authors still need the publishers. I could give a whole talk just on that.)

This means the author has to have their own website or blog, Facebook fan page, twitter feed, etc. If the author is a first time novelist, maybe they haven’t built up a following yet in the social media, but if they are a nonfiction expert in a topic? Chances are they’ve already got a social network of people in that field and they are involved in groups and organizations, etc. that relate to that field. And even novelists, if they’ve been writing in a genre at all, have probably been writing short stories, attending conventions, and so on, all kinds of things that bring them into contact with their potential readers. The people who are already following them are going to be the first ones to download their new ebook the second the author puts up a BUY IT NOW button.

Authors who are savvy about working their social media will get over the discoverability hump much faster, because they are already “out there” where they can be seen and discovered. They should be Google-able. As time goes on, this is going to be as much, or more, of a desirable quality in authors for publishers to acquire as their actual writing ability.

And of course by 18-24 months from now, the landscape might look completely different. But I don’t see any of these three issues going away anytime soon. Discoverability has always been the biggest challenge for authors (look at Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which had sold miserably until winning the Man Book Prize, after which it sold seven million copies) and for publishers trying to break new authors and new ideas. It was before the digital age and it still will be as new devices and ways of consuming literature and stories come along.

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