Here’s the problem with book publishers’ discovery problem

Conferences are most useful when they shift your thinking in some way. Those moments are rare, but I got to enjoy two of them this week at two separate conferences — Book^2 Camp, a book publishing “un-conference,” in New York on Sunday and the much larger O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference on Wednesday and Thursday. I came away with some new thoughts on discoverability and walled gardens — concepts that have been thrown around a ton in the past year or so, including sometimes by myself.

Discoverability is a problem for publishers, maybe not so much for readers

This post on why online book discovery is broken and how to fix it got the most comments of any post I’ve ever written, and a couple commenters complained that the solutions I offered in that post were aimed at publishers, not readers. That might be because discovery is more of a problem for publishers than readers: It is in publishers’ best interest to help readers find a not-so-well-known book, but it is not necessarily in readers’ best interest to read that book. It’s also unclear whether the average reader is really having all that much trouble finding the next book he or she wants to read.

A Book^Camp session led by Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Schinsky of BookRiot focused on the “average” reader, a person who reads at most a few books per year. (Recent Pew data shows that of the 75 percent of Americans who read at least one book in 2012, the median number of books read was six.) This session was, not surprisingly, filled with bookish people who read at least a book a week, so I suggested that we think about areas of media consumption in which we, ourselves, are average.

For me that’s music and movies. I’m an avid reader — I spend a lot of time thinking about what I will read next and searching for books and talking to people about books — but I don’t put that level of effort into finding which songs to listen to next or which movie to watch. Instead, I kind of wait for things to rise to the surface. When something finally breaks through to the point where I’ve heard about it enough, through various internet and non-internet sources, I consume it.

This is why I saw Argo three months after it was released and will maybe get around to watching Zero Dark Thirty some time in 2014. It’s why I mostly listen to the radio on Spotify. I’m not really proud of this, but I’m not that embarrassed by it either. If I put as much effort into consuming movies and music as I do into reading books, I would have way less time to read. I’d rather read, so something’s gotta give.

There are a lot of people like me — big readers who spend a lot of time thinking about what they are going to read next. Book publishers do not have to worry about these people. At the same time, getting average readers to be interested in book discovery — getting average readers to visit Bookish, for instance — is going to be difficult, because you are also going to have to require these people to make big shifts in their behavior and in their media consumption patterns.

Are these people really not reading more because they don’t know what they should read? Maybe. But it’s more likely that they have plenty of things they’d like to read, and just don’t have time, or, like me, there are other forms of media that they care about more than books, and if they were to shift into reading more books, they would have to give up things they really like instead.

As Brett Sandusky points out, “Most people who read books read for pleasure. They will have gaps in their reading before they pick up something else. Yet somehow, we’ve decided, implicitly, that the normative reading behavior, which discoverability facilitates, is shotgun style where readers are reading book after book after book after book.”

It’s hard to change people’s behavior patterns — that’s a challenge for any industry, not just for book publishing. Book publishers have to continue to focus on getting their books into new readers’ hands, but it is unclear whether algorithmic solutions like Bookish are going to be of interest to anyone but the people who are the most avid readers already. Since publishers can’t physically enter people’s living rooms, turn off their TVs and shove books into their hands, they may instead have to focus on retail and, as Guy LeCharles Gonzales writes, work on their direct relationships with readers.

Walled gardens are permeable

At Tools of Change on Wednesday, Goodreads CEO Otis Chandler presented the results of a survey of 1,500 U.S. Goodreads users. (His full presentation is here.) This is, of course, a survey of those avid readers I mentioned above — not only are they on Goodreads but they are willing to actually sit down and take a survey about their ebook reading behavior. Nevertheless, check out this slide:

Goodreads platforms
Goodreads / “What’s Going on with Readers Today”

There are way more questions than answers here, but the results appear to suggest that readers don’t see platform lock-in as an insurmountable problem — or in fact as something that’s actually locking them in. Instead, they’re reading across different retail platforms.

These results “made us scratch our head,” Chandler said. The company didn’t delve further into which devices readers are using to read ebooks across platforms, and so it’s unclear how exactly this experimentation is taking place. For example: Are people confusing “iBooks” with iPad — so that someone reading ebooks on a Kindle is also reading them on an iPad Kindle app, but somehow counts that as reading on iBooks? Or are readers using multiple retailers’ tablet apps, and also buying ebooks from multiple retailers? Or are they actually breaking DRM so that they can buy a Nook book and read it on a Kindle? It seems possible that tablets actually break down walled gardens because readers can have multiple ebook vendors’ apps on a single device.

Disclosure: Goodreads is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True Ventures.