Tuesday, May 14, 2013

3 Suggestions for Solving the Problem of Discoverability

Ask any writer (with the possible exception of Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen) what the single biggest hurdle in their career is, and chances are you'll hear the same answer over and over again:

So many pretty distractions...

Discoverability is not a new word, though Blogger underlines it in red in a vain attempt to convince me otherwise.

A hundred years ago, Websters defined the word as "the quality of being discoverable." Duh. A hundred years before that, Scottish sociologist Thomas Carlyle used it in reference to the Buddhist belief that once every generation is born "a Greatest Man; that he is discoverable; that, once discovered, we ought to treat him with an obedience which knows no bounds. This is the truth of Grand Lamaism; the 'discoverability' is the only error here."

Today, the thorny problem of discoverability has less to do with locating the perfect human than with helping the perfect reader locate your book.

So many pretty distractions clamor for attention that one can hardly blame readers for buzzing like starving bees only around the pollen of titles penned by tried-and-true authors. It doesn't matter that others might create something they would enjoy as much as -- if not more so -- than the writers they know. They don't have unlimited time to waste searching for something to satisfy their literary cravings. So they will continue to read the authors they know... even long after those authors have ceased to surprise or inspire them.

Now, if someone they know, someone they trust, someone who is familiar with their tastes and preferences recommends a title, chances are they'll embrace the opportunity to add to their stable of "approved" authors. The problem isn't that readers are averse to reading an author they've never tried before; it's just that too many don't have the time, inclination, or sheer dogged determination to plow through the tens of thousands of titles looking for something that strikes their fancy.

Discoverability, it would seem, drops the problem of the infamous slush pile of unsolicited submissions at the reader's feet. "You have a computer? Here's access to every book on the planet!!!" ~maniacal laughter rings~

So the readers do what most people do when confronted with too many choices and too little direction: they sidestep the problem entirely and stick with same-old, same-old. (It is this trait, fer instance, that keeps me ordering the same thing every time I visit Starbucks.)

How to find the right one?
The plague of Discoverability is something publishing --  both traditional and indie -- has known about for years.

It's the reason non-fiction writers need a solid platform before they can sell a book project. ("Built-in audience and awareness! Score!")

It's the reason self-published titles need to have sold several thousand copies in a relatively short time span before a publisher will make an offer for acquisition. ("People already know about it! W00t!")

Trouble is, no one really knows how to combat it. Which is not to say that people aren't trying. Many writers -- and publishers, too, for that matter -- clog up their Twitter streams with 140-character tweets of desperation that implore people to give their books a chance. Facebook pages flog books and articles. And don't forget the book trailers on YouTube and elsewhere. One of the more ingenious, though misguided, attempts I've seen at making a book discoverable involved a 5 minute advertisement that ran before the featured film at our local theatre.

The Perseus Books' Group, in an effort to address the problem, is hosting a 36-hour Publishing Hackathon this weekend, hoping that getting a bunch of bright bulbs together to "develop new approaches to digital book discovery" will create the right marketing juju. This is a Big Deal. How big? The winners get $10,000 cash and the opportunity to pitch their idea to Ari Emanuel, Co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor.

That big.

I'm no marketing guru, but I have some thoughts on cracking the code of discoverability, in the (admittedly selfish) hopes that someone will employ one or more of them and introduce me to more writers whose works I fall in love with.

Idea I: Steal a Page from Hollywood

One of my favorite parts of going to the movies and renting videos is the previews. While growing up, one could always tell the caliber of movie playing in my hometown theatre by the number of previews before it. For some reason, the more previews, the better the film. Now, I'm not suggesting that we put book trailers up on the big screen (see my previous note of disdain re: the 5-minute self-pubbed ad), but I AM wondering what would happen if publishers would routinely include the opening chapter, say, of two or three soon-to-be-released-titles in each book.

I know; often I'll get a teaser chapter from the author's next book. But it's as if each author is a closed shop -- I rarely see the writing of other writers within those sacred covers.

Here's the thing: movie previews don't just showcase a single director, actor, or writer. They show what's up and coming that should appeal in some way to the feature film's core demographic. Previews exist to expose an already committed audience to new material. Publishers could learn from this.

Idea II: Revamp Publishing Pros' Websites for Reader-Friendliness

It never ceases to amaze me how off-putting many publishing pros' websites can be. Both big and small presses have sites that lean more toward hard-sell storefront than enticing entertainment.

If the first thing site visitors see about a title is its hardcover price, with no blurb regarding content, how does that encourage them to dip into the book?

Some sites waste valuable homepage real estate on things like outdated news in miniscule fonts. Others make you jump through hoops just to find out what titles are available. Most front load their sites with their bestsellers, but don't capitalize on the bestsellers to drive readers to new authors. And practically all cram so much content on the page that it's rendered a meaningless jumble of visual noise.

Most publisher's sites are guilty of the writer's deadly sin: telling instead of showing. They tell people about their books, but show little of each one. If you already know what you want to buy, a publisher's site is fairly easy to negotiate (but Amazon is usually cheaper).  If, however, you love one author and want to see what similar books the publisher has available, publishers could learn a lot from emulating Amazon's "Customers who bought _____ also bought _____" tactic.

Idea III: Take Safety in Numbers

I don't know why, in the world of publishing, every author is an island, trying to make it on his or her own. It would make so much sense for publishers to consider the advantages of fielding "teams" -- especially of debut and midlist authors.
We're stronger & last longer when we stick together!

In much the same way that a studio promotes a new film by sending multiple cast members, as well as the director, out as ambassadors, a publisher could send multiple authors within a genre out to promote not just one book, but several.

In the same way that film buffs go to more than one movie a year, or TV aficionados watch more than one show, readers are willing to shell out hard earned cash for more than one book. They just need to know what's out there. See, each author is not in competition with every other author. Rather, each author is competing against the sheer overwhelming odds of getting noticed.

Sending a debut author out to a booksigning is generally regarded as a boneheaded financial decision because said writer does not yet have the clout or the cache to draw big crowds: the very definition of lack of discoverability. But why not throw a genre-specific team of rookies together with someone launching their sophomore title and package it as an event? Live or online, such things make sense, bringing a cadre of new authors to the attention of readers hungry for more of a particular genre, helping to raise the visibility of several of the publisher's newbies, rather than casting them adrift into the vast sea of titles to see who can swim.

I'm not certain any of my ideas would solve all discoverability issues. But I do think they'd be a start.

What about you? What's your solution? Here's hoping that someone somewhere cracks the discoverability code... and soon.