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Here’s the problem with book publishers’ discovery problem

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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.

20 Responses to “Here’s the problem with book publishers’ discovery problem”

  1. shakawimber

    But for the writers is it perfect!
    I can’t see the problem here. The publishers are a golden link between the writers and the readers. And with this discover ability it is doing good for these two which are the most important. A problem we could have in the future is exclusive titles to only one device, which we also see in the game industry. That would be really bad! So i hope they don’t go that way too much.

    Shaka Wimber

  2. txpatriot

    Laura: I’m not a publishing “insider”, just an avid reader and book collector, but I very much enjoy reading your columns about the publishing industry and the challenges it faces.

    You’re not like so many other bloggers who delight in bashing “old media” and take every opportunity to talk about how “new media” (i.e., the Internet) is the only way to go. Although I enjoy physical books, I also enjoy listening to audiobooks on long drives, and I’m not opposed to the occasional e-book.

    I know digital is the future, but I also hope physical books survive. Thanx for letting me share my thoughts.

  3. Our goal at BookGirl.TV is to have readers turn on their TVs (or whatever device they use to consume video) and shove books into their hands. Readers who typically read 6 books a year can easily read 2 or 3 more books a year if those books – and their authors – are made appealing enough. This is the video age, and writers and publishers have to meet readers where they are to give them compelling reasons to forego alternative media in the interests of their own well-being. Video will never be a substitute for a good book, but people who care about books have to think anew about how to reach readers.

  4. I would argue book and music industry are alike and yet publishers are repeating the same mistakes. There is no Spotify or YouTube or Pandora for books. With all the copyrights and region rights, it is not possible to even solve this “discovery” issue now. Free new books for reading? Impossible! (I don’t consider 10-15 preview sample pages any useful for ebooks). Yet, this is how new musicians and the music industry is re-connecting with their audience, successfully!

    Many would agree IF B&N would build a stronger local reader/writer community via their stores “re-connect” with their readers and hence improve sales…as if, they are losing as ton of money via poor book sales…on the contrary, B&N is in such a bad shape because they are continuing the bad digital strategy of putting all their money in one basket, the NOOK. If anyone is following B&N results, digital is where they are bleeding cash the last few years and fast.

    Unless some form of Spotify or Pandora solution is available for ebooks, we wont see this issue go away anytime soon. Amazon has become the iTunes for ebooks, so at least that solution is already here. For discovery to happen, you need to transform the way publishing works today, with is still print first workflow and treating ebooks as after-thought file conversion production, which leads to a host of other issues.

    • David Thomas

      Recent analytics derived from e-reader use data suggests that the ‘free excerpt’ and ‘free book’ approaches are futile. Yeah, there are a ton of downloads, but the vast majority are left untouched by the consumer. A book, btw, is vastly different from a song (see my comment above) — think of passive versus active consumption. The spotify/pandora model exists in the 3D world (libraries) and content about books and authors is available in print and web services 24/7. Ever watch TED talks on youtube? Most of the speakers have current books out and they’re giving you a quick synopsis. The transformation you ask for is here and has been in the works, well, since the emergence mozilla and internet social network communities of the mid-eighties (the Well, as example).

      • As a self published writer, I don’t find offering free downloads useless. It’s not as successful a technique as it once was, mostly because so many writers are doing it, but it’s not useless. It works best when the work being given away has a sequel or is the first in a series. I currently have a book that is free on Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and a bunch of other retailers. What I have found is that the number of copies of the sequel I sell is about 5% of the free copies of the first book. So, yes, many people don’t read the free book, but some do. The hard part is getting big enough free numbers to make an impact on book 2. So far, Kindle is the only platform where this happens.

        My other books have been free from time to time but because none of them have sequels the most direct benefit I get is a few Amazon reviews.

      • Keep in mind how data is interpreted. You may see only a small 5% gain, I might see that as something is working. So instead of saying something is useless, figure out why that 5% is working and find a different approach to improve that further. If B&N reports a 1-2% gain from their stores, everyone cries doomsday. Whereas when Amazon does it and never report any of Kindles sales numbers, their stock keeps going up. The data and how we interpret them matters. There are simply too many factors that can affect that data. To say “free” or .99 cents ebooks is useless is foolish. What you are after is that “good” word of mouth to spread not the $0 you see.

        If Spotify or Pandora isn’t the solution for books, nor is social networks. Have you seen data supporting wild success from Facebook, Pinterest or Tweeter for a mass of authors? I think “discovery” is simply the tip of an iceberg, issues runs deeper into publishers’ print first workflow, where editors can’t or don’t plan for the digital version ahead of time so that the ebook can compliment the printed book or vice versa. Simply blogging or tweeting or like a book on the internet isn’t going to help you sell more books and connect with your target audience. One more thing, social networks relies on ads, if anything, I see that as a distraction.

        I’m a big fan of TED, love it! Do you see them help promote each speaker’s book? Hardly, that is because TED isn’t about promoting any one speaker or author, rather their ideas. You never find a direct book link for purchase at TED’s website.

        All I’m saying is we are no where near a solution for publishers, good thing most can survive on backlist books for now.

    • We’ve written about this a little bit — but there are a few reasons why a “Spotify for ebooks” is a lot harder than a Spotify for music (which, I guess, is Spotify). Part of this is the way that publishing contracts work — most author contracts simply wouldn’t allow a book to be included in a Spotify-like system, and it’s unclear how the authors would be paid. There are also other differences between book and music consumption — books are a lot longer than songs, you can’t “read a book in the background,” etc.

  5. For most of my life I have collected books. Not because of the pretty covers or the publisher’s name, but because I wanted to be able to read them in the future, and — having watched first-rate books disappear from bookstores and library shelves, never to be seen again — the only way I knew how to do this was to retain physical possession.

    Finally, after thirty years, eBooks are starting to reach the point where it’s safe for me to assume that a book I want to read will be available at a fair price whenever and wherever I want to read it. That makes a tremendous difference, because now I don’t have to buy a paper copy and store it away. I don’t particularly care where it comes from or what company I buy it through; why should I? The actual reading is a fairly short process and very similar regardless of the platform. And I don’t even really want to keep a copy any more. What I DO care about is that it should be available when I want it next time.

    Make that a certainty and you have my custom.

  6. Has anyone ever done a study of reading speed versus number of books read? I think one reason some people don’t read as many books is that they read slowly and it takes them a couple of weeks to finish a book. I also think one reason people report reading more after they get an ereader or tablet is the sheer convenience of it makes it easier to finish the books they start reading.

    • David Thomas

      Yep — this is a very interesting point of discussion. To cite the obvious: the book as a consumable media is quite complicated, requires sophisticated skills and sustained effort to absorb by comparison to either video/film or music. The digital reader use data is collected and some portion of the market is monitored by a company called hiptype, which provided some insights publicly. Time and attention — or, more accurately, distraction — are some of the greatest foils to reading.

  7. At bottom, the problem of discoverability is a problem for writers, not readers. How does the work of new writers come to the attention of readers? With vastly diminished shelf space in bookstores, with far fewer bookstore clerks making recommendations, with much less media space devoted to professional reviewers, how does it work? Brand name writers don’t have this problem, but how does the new and unknown get read?

    You need not go and find out what film to see next, because films have huge marketing budgets. Publishers can’t spend princely sums on new writers. They depend on new work being reviewed, recommended, and thus found.

    The disruption of the book and media businesses breaks up the established channels for new work to find an audience. You may want to interject here with examples of online and social media that are stepping up to take the place of those old channels. Publishers look at the numbers and are not convinced.

  8. Great article, Lauren. I agree, it’s very difficult to get some people to just sit down and read a book when there are much more visually stimulating and moving pictures going on in front of them. I would say I’m in between an average reader and an avid reader. For the most part, I discover a lot of books through best seller lists/editor’s picks, friends and colleagues, and as I randomly stroll through the ‘new book’ sections in the stores. But the problem with that is that all the best seller lists and editor’s lists have similar books, most of which are still in the ‘new book’ sections.

    I do think these book discovery sites are helpful (I’ve only just recently discovered the benefits of Bookish and GoodReads), and agree with JDB that brick and mortars do not do enough to engage readers. I don’t sign up for many newsletters, which is probably another issue in itself, but it’d be great if maybe these places would have notifications on their website.

  9. Good article. You’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about the issues you’ve mentioned.

    I read (or listen to audio books) quite a bit, probably close to a book per week, but I don’t go to brick & motar bookstores very often. If I do, it’s usually in response to something that I’ve heard about on the radio, read about on line, or was recommended by a friend.

    Brick & motar stores aren’t giving me a reason to go visit them – and they’re missing out. I haven’t counted them, but I am confident that I puchased over fifty books last year.

    Price is one factor. Kindle daily deals will sometimes spur me into purchasing a book that I may be considering.

    Author lectures will reel me in – but I am never aware of these, for the most part. When our local library has an author visit, the librarian will often send out invitations to people known to be interested in that genre. (I was surprised to find out that she knows what books I read, but she does keep track of it.)

    My local bookstore has never contacted me with an invitation to a book signing or an author lecture. Every time I visit their store, I am not made aware of upcoming events or any specials or promotions. However, every time I purchase an item, I am asked if I am a book club member.

    And that’s it. I’m asked if I’m a member and nothing more. I reply in the negative and am told the amount of my purchase. I’m not asked if I would like to be a member, nor is there any attempt to educate me on how a membership would be a benefit.

    This is possibly because they charge a fee to join, so they have gotten some negative feedback or resistance from shoppers. That’s a problem with their marketing model – people don’t tend to purchase memberships unless there is an immediate benefit.

    I don’t own a Kindle and probably won’t, but Amazon gets most of my money when it comes to book purchases. The Kindle app is available for every device I own, and it syncs across all devices. Those features have me hooked. I read many books on my phone while waiting in line, or at the doctor’s office, etc.

    Bottom line, instead of looking for ways to protect brick & motar stores, publishers need to figure out a way to make them relevant again.

    • David Thomas

      JDB: sounds like you’re visiting an independent bookstore, perhaps in a second-tier market? Most have an email list and you should offer yours to them. The ‘book club’ question is being asked because you’re buying a book that is used by an area club they service, and an extra discount off the price of the book. Author events for bookstores are a contentious business — the stronger booksellers compete for the top tier authors on tour and often times the secondary markets are not on the schedule (it costs a publisher in excess of $2000 per day to finance an author on tour). Try asserting some engagement with staff yourself — ask for a recommendation. Bookstore staff are very attuned to accommodating client experience wishes, and you’re probably giving off signals that you want to browse without interruption. If you’re ever in the Chicago area check out Unabridged Bookstore or the Bookstall at Chestnut Court (ask for Javier).

      • David Thomas: Thanks for the advice. My local store is part of a corporate chain that sells the Nook, here in the Dallas area. :)

        I’m the customer and they are in the business of selling books – something I buy frequently. Never have I been asked if I would like to receive notice of promotions or other events via any method at all – including email.

        I had no idea that they offer such a thing, until you mentioned it. I did check their website and you are right – I’m now signed up. Thanks for the tip.

        As it relates to this article, brick & mortar bookstores are needing paying customers, so much that publishers are needing to protect the bookstores. However, I am a person that buys a fair number of books each year, and no effort is being made to cultivate that relationship on the part of the bookstore, in spite of my visiting their store 4-6 times a year for several years – maybe a couple of decades.

        IME, the bookstores don’t need as much protection help from the publisher as they do protection from their own poor management.

  10. David Thomas

    LHO: first, bravo. Excellent summary of the key issue and where the problem really lies. When I started in publishing in the mid-eighties, the notion was that every book had a reader and the dilemma was getting the book in front of the full market potential of readers. I think your summary also reinforces the notion that all media is not consumed in the same way.
    The walled garden, as a metaphor, I thought applied to grand goals of certain dealers which, consequently, was extended to the devices promoted by those dealers. The successful emergence of the non-dedicated tablet device in March 2010 pretty much killed the walled garden as an issue insofar as a consumer issue. I think it remains a problem on the dealer side, however, because of precious data certain dealers do not share with producers of content.

  11. I am so incredibly happy that you address reader’s concerns. I’ve long had issues with the publishing industry being so focused on publisher’s needs and not reader’s needs. (cough, Google Plus is totally geared for publishers and not readers)

    You also did a great job explaining why book discovery is a publisher problem and not a reader problem. You are so dead-on with this. Perhaps it’s as simple as that there are a bajillion books out there. There aren’t a bajillion songs. Or a bajillion movies. Or a bajilliion tv shows. Certainly there are lots of songs, movies, and tv shows; but their quantity pales in comparison with the number of books.

    I do love goodreads for book discovery. Publishers should really consider that as a viable platform. I’m not 100% sure how publishers can engage on that site. But it’s a site that has huge potential for people who love books.