Here’s the main problem with book discovery online: Right now, it doesn’t really work. New research shows that frequent book buyers visit sites like Pinterest and Goodreads regularly, but those visits fail to drive actual book purchases.

Figuring out how to get their books discovered online isn’t a new problem for publishers, but it’s one that is becoming more pressing as channels and competition proliferate. New research shows that frequent book buyers visit sites like Pinterest and Goodreads regularly, but those visits fail to drive actual book purchases.

Sixty-one percent of book purchases by frequent book buyers take place online, but only seven percent of those buyers said they discovered that book online, while physical book stores account for 39 percent of units sold and 20 percent of discovery share: the stats come by way of new research from Peter Hildick-Smith, the founder and CEO of the Codex Group, which tracks frequent readers’ book-buying behavior. At the Digital Book World conference in New York on Thursday, he said that discovery and availability are being “decoupled” online. In other words, readers are likely to go online to buy a book after having learned about it elsewhere.

This wouldn’t be such a problem for the publishers and authors who want their books to be discovered if readers weren’t migrating their book-buying (both print and digital) online, but they are. Amazon.com accounted for over 25 percent of all book sales between January and September 2012 and 30 percent of dollars spent on books, Bowker research in another panel showed. Further, former Borders customers shifted their book-buying online and primarily to Amazon — not to other physical bookstores — when Borders went bankrupt. All together, this means that readers who would once have discovered a new author by browsing in a physical bookstore might never encounter that author now. (The shift to online buying presents particular difficulties for nonfiction: Twice as many works of nonfiction are sold in physical stores as online.)

“Something is really, chronically missing in online retail discovery,” Hildick-Smith said. But what might that something be? It’s not as if book buyers aren’t using online sites like Pinterest, Google and Goodreads — they are, but as the slide below shows, those sites simply aren’t converting to actual book purchases. (Note that apples aren’t compared to apples here: Amazon is compared to “Internet booksellers,” for example, and Goodreads is compared to “book-related websites.” What this is means is that the actual percentage of book purchases driven by any single site are even lower.)

© The Codex Group 2013, reproduced with permission and not for reproduction.

So how can book discovery improve and what can publishers do? A few ideas presented throughout the day:

Publishers should do more to protect physical bookstores

“Physical retail works if you protect it,” Hildick-Smith said. “Movie producers do [protect movie theaters]. I would argue publishers are not doing enough to help bookstores.”

In another panel, Michael Cader, the founder of PublishersMarketplace.com, noted that a lot of online book discovery (especially through Amazon) is driven by sales like the Kindle Daily Deal. “Price has been a big driver for online and particularly for ebooks,” he said. “Price innovation is what’s driving those markets. We haven’t seen price innovation at physical retail. Where are the daily deals in the physical bookstore?” He suggested that publishers, authors and retailers could work together to provide those deals.

New players in book retail

Simon Lipskar, the president of literary agency Writers House, imagined a possible outcome of the Random House-Penguin merger: “I would be totally shocked and actually completely disappointed if this merger did not lead to a serious entry into book retail,” he said. “We should not be surprised if that is physical retail as well as online retail.”

Hildick-Smith separately warned that entering digital book retail is very, very expensive. “The bar has been raised stratospherically high,” he said. “It’s big-stakes stuff. The biggest companies on the planet are wrestling for our little piece of turf.” But Random House Penguin might be large enough to stand a chance of competing against Amazon, Apple and Google on ebooks.

Amp up the reader reviews

As bookstores go away, “we need more powerful book reviewers online,” said Matthew Baldacci, VP and associate publisher at St. Martin’s, in a panel on discovery. He was referring not to professional reviewers for outlets like the New York Times but citizen reviewers with a role similar to “the role that booksellers used to take…if we’re forced into a situation where physical bookstores are going away, then we have to have these people who are help us sell our books.”

Allison Underwood, senior marketing manager at Open Road, underscored the importance of online reviews for books. The company has run “what we considered to be really strong online promotions,” but if the reader reviews on retail sites aren’t there to back the promotions up, they can fall flat. “You can have a really grand online campaign that gets the user right there, but then [a lack of reviews] can shut them down really quickly,” she said, to the point where “a red flag goes up and says, ‘Maybe you don’t actually want to buy this book.'”

For more on book discovery, see this follow-up post: Here’s the problem with book publishers’ discovery problem 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Borys Shevchuk

  1. I rely increasingly on Twitter – I am connected to the writers I like directly – we all chat away and I am connected to my own readers – the reader/author link is very powerful

  2. So we need a better Goodreads since the site is pretty basic.
    User reviews are fine but you need expert reviews too.
    Book “trailers” could help where the author and/or critics could talk about the book.
    The ability to browse through the book,read a few pages wouldn’t hurt but it has be be easy to do so,not download a pdf or go through 100 clicks to get there.
    A mini forum for each book (IMDB style).
    Obviously recommendations can always get better.
    Link to interviews with the author,the author’s blog, merchandising (guess few books have that).
    Online stores could even do live Q&A and reading sessions.
    Top sales,top favs,for the day,month,year,all time would help discovery too.
    If i can come up with that in a few minutes,i’m sure the industry can do a lot better.
    Youtube should do something similar for music.

    1. Hi JJJ, great ideas, we are actually working on some of these suggestions that you made. let me know if you are interested in learning more about it : abhi@genzmag.com

    2. Nearly everything you suggest is actively in place.

      1. That might be,i am not very familiar with the online book ecosystem ,can you link to a site that does it?

  3. How about publishers and authors getting behind an agnostic, unconflicted portal, like Wikia (created by Wikipedia co-founders Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley)?
    Wikia is already getting to be the go-to site for video gamers and comic book readers, so reader-generated book review hosting is right up its alley.

  4. Very frustrating. As an agent this is our toughest hurdle. Helping our authors find their readers. Especially if they are an unknown.
    I hope you are right about the Penguin merger. That would be nice.
    Thank you for the graph. A real heads up.

    1. I believe the answers, or pathways, are to be found in data analysis. Unfortunately the biggest player Amazon has that all locked up for themselves.

  5. Thanks for the article. Writing as a reader, I completely agree w your conclusion. Trying to discover new reads on Amazon is a very frustrating experience and even worse on the kindle. Top 100 Best seller/best rated lists, even by category, fall short when there are millions of books. Amazon is failing its original claim of helping find books in the long tail. Worse, self-published, hardly edited Kindle-books rank artificially higher on the lists because they are cheaper and are rated on price performance rather.

    1. @Frustrated Reader the “funny” part — not so funny for frustrated readers, of course — is that, according to this research, Amazon (and other online booksellers) are doing a fairly GOOD job in terms of driving discovery of books…at least, compared to all the other options! Note, in the chart above, that 6.6 percent of respondents first learned about the last book they bought from an online bookseller, and that’s far above the other options. Clearly, though, it is not enough.

      My pal Jane Litte over at Dear Author has also pointed out repeatedly that the search on book retailer sites is really bad. (Search at BN.com is especially bad; I actually think Amazon’s search is OK, but I’m usually searching by title or author, not theme.)

      1. I concur with the frustration but I’m not sure all readers want to be shown what will give them a nearly identical experience as the last book they’ve read, or the last eight books, or whatever. What I do think is that the metadata could be constructed for any and all searches for the actual experience offered by the book — and when discovery does lead to purchase, the reader finishes the book (we hope) with satisfaction and gains confidence that the producer/dealer can be trusted.

  6. Trudy Kuipers Friday, January 18, 2013

    Sorry, I don’t get the logic of your story. Recommendations and reviews help conversion after promotions. Ok I get that, but that is no solution to the discovery problem you refer two. Two things get mixed up here. Interesting research though from Codex.

  7. Aisha Washington Friday, January 18, 2013

    I think a general flaw with this kind of research is that its almost impossible to attribute the action (a purchase) to a single driver or point where the purchaser ‘first’ heard about a book.

    For example, I bought two books last week ‘The Granta Book of the African Short Story’ – I’d been reading some essays by Chinua Achebe, I wanted to read more African writing and had googled The African Writers Series, from there I think I found something about Helon Habila and when searching for him on Goodreads found he had edited the Granta collection. I saved the book to read later, and a few days later purchased it online from Waterstones to collect instore. While instore, I also picked up a copy of ‘Gone Girl’. I think I first heard about that when I saw it reviewed in a magazine. I continued hearing buzz about it, including that it was the most rated book on Goodreads in 2012. Eventually I bought it instore. Had I just seen the article, I would likely have forgotten about it.

    Discovery doesn’t generally come from a single point, but from a lot of inter-related and repeated interactions. It’s the whole ecosystem that matters,

    1. I think that’s a great point, Aisha — that in this extremely digital age, where we are all kind of surrounded by streams of information all the time, it may be hard to remember exactly where we first discovered a book. The question, I guess, would be exactly WHICH discovery point ultimately converts us to a sale — but it’s clear from your experience that buying “The Granta Book of the African Short Story” was really the result of discovering that book in a variety of different places.

      This gets at Trudy’s point above, too, where she mentions that discovery and conversion seem mixed up. I think that in some cases, one thing — like a review — can be both a point of discovery (where someone learns about a book for the first time) and a point of conversion (the thing that actually drives someone to buy the book).

      I’ve asked Peter Hildick-Smith, who is the author of this great research, to stop by the comments, and I think he’ll be able to respond to some of these questions.

      1. Aisha’s noted the fundamental flaw in Hildick-Smith’s study, one that’s plagued digital marketers for years: last-click attribution. Here’s a good overview of the different models publishers will need to get familiar with: http://bit.ly/SVv4AY

    2. Ms. Washington & Ms. Kuipers are focused on the right issues and questions. The other missing component is how the rate (that’s what really is being looked at in the study) of discovery to consumption compares to other media. Crucial differences between the media, such as complexity, effort and time to consume may lend a lot to understanding and evaluating the analytics offered here.

    3. Thomas Womack Friday, January 18, 2013

      I also bought ‘The Granta Book of the African Short Story’ a couple of weeks ago; it was on offer from Amazon for £1.19, and at that price it’s worth picking up on general principle. Haven’t read it yet.

      Amazon’s lots-of-cheap-book promotions probably work as well as well-stocked second-hand bookshops (which is high praise indeed) for finding random stuff; there’s obviously been some degree of underlying curation, but it’s not based on books I’ve bought recently so it cuts down the self-reinforcing effect that Amazon recommendations offer.

  8. Andrew Rhomberg Friday, January 18, 2013

    Most publishers fundamentally still only care about sales an marketing is about geerating sales.

    The problem about how readers discover books and how to create an attractive online book discovery experience is something publishers generally don’t care about at all.

    You will notice that when publishers talk about book store discovery, they talk about the techniques that are understood to work well for promoting specific titles: displays, end-caps, caps, ladders, promotions, etc

    For publishers it is always about how will *their* books be discovered (typically latest releases)

    It is certainly a lesson we learnt the hard way at jellybooks.com – I am not saying it is wrong (publishing is a business), but it was very revealing when we finally understood how the mindset works.

  9. Libraries?

    1. Libraries as a source of discovery weren’t mentioned in this particular presentation but, in my own personal experience, they are a great place to discover new books. I am not sure how much *purchasing* they drive. I’ll look for some more stats for you on this, but you might want to search the #DBW13 hashtag on Twitter, because there WAS a panel on library discovery later in the day.

  10. Online book browsing is a miserable user experience. Programmers have no clue how to make it friendlier and sites like Amazon could care less as long as sales are hot. Some things simply don’t translate well from the physical world to the cyber world. Leisurely browsing in a bookstore for an afternoon is one of those things. The other aspect is that you have an age gap. Young people don’t mind doing everything from a pc, older people still like to get out of the house and touch things. As for Goodreads type sites, again it’s a lame attempt to emulate the real world and it falls flat. I don’t want to chitty chat with people about some book that I had to find using keywords, I just want to look at a shelf full of colorful covers and go from there.

    1. “Online book browsing is a miserable user experience.”

      Speak for yourself, Rick. I’ll take Amazon’s Look Inside and Search features–plus the convenience of having my browser open to Google anything else I want to know about the book and author in question–over stumbling through a poorly-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore any day.

      1. Rick, you get at one of the challenges here — whether book recommendations should be social (driven by friends, based on what your friends are reading, etc.) or whether it’s better to recommend books based on things that people have read before.

        Startups like Zola are attempting to recreate the bookstore’s handselling experience by allowing curated virtual shop windows and recommendations that way. Goodreads makes it easy to add friends, but there’s not a super-easy way to compare the books on your Goodreads shelves with those of other users so that you can find those who’ve read a lot of the same books you have. I like and use Goodreads to track my own reading but I think it needs a serious interface update.

      2. Laura, after reading and commenting on your recent post, “Here’s the problem with book publishers’ discovery problem” I thought to come here and read the comments to see what people say about goodreads.

        You bring up a good point about comparing the books on your shelf with other’s. That would be handy. The primary way I use Goodreads is that I bookmark the homepage and check the stream of what books my friends are reading. Part of the problem with that is 95% of the books I’m not really interested in. So it could be more efficient. But I’m find with wading through the stream every day. Plus, it’s fun to hear people’s comments about other’s posts and books.


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