Discoverability of Books is one of the last great remaining problems in Books and Publishing.
- We had the problem of book production speeds and costs. Which Gutenberg solved, perhaps too well.
- We have the problem of Gatekeepers not letting authors publish and keeping them separated from readers. Which eReaders and eBooks are in the process of solving.
- We have the problem of book replication costs and storage and shipping and handling costs. Which, again, eReaders and eBooks and the Internet are in the process of solving. Perhaps this problem, too, is being solved too well.
What does that leave?
- Monetization. To be precise – How do we prevent the current monetization model from falling apart, as we shift more and more to ebooks and reading devices?
- Discoverability. To be precise – How do readers find ‘the best next book for them to read’? How do authors get discovered?
- Platform. Who’s going to provide a platform/ecosystem for everything to happen on/in? There are contenders and Amazon is obviously the strongest one. However, Amazon is pushing for an Ecosystem and not a Platform. An Ecosystem might not be the best solution for authors. It might not be the best solution for readers either.
- Quality. First Aspect: Ensuring Quality Books are available. Second Aspect: Discovering Quality Books out of All Books. The Second Aspect is actually Discoverability. However, these two are intertwined. Publishers are the natural candidate to solve the problem of Discoverability. However, because they also ‘publish/sell’ books, they have a conflict of interest.
- Sustainability. How do we create a model that’s sustainable? Will a closed ecosystem controlled by one entity actually sustain books? Will a totally open ecosystem sustain authors and readers and quality?
There are a lot of aspects to consider. Today, let’s focus on Discoverability.
Why Discoverability is Important
- Discoverability has always been crucially important. Authors who got promoted by Publishers, got more visibility. This, in turn, meant they sold more and factors like sales rankings and word of mouth kicked in. It’s why Publishers controlled Books for so long and why they still do (though their grip is slipping). Readers can’t buy your books if readers don’t know they exist.
- We’re moving towards a world where people are, unfortunately, more and more conditioned to ‘Press the Easy Button’ and go with what’s offered. In the past, readers might have browsed the shelves of the nearest bookstores or browsed through a website for hours. These days, more and more frequently, a large percentage of readers won’t go beyond the Top 100 and ‘Recommendations’.
- The New Gatekeepers are making it tougher, perhaps on purpose, to ‘discover’ new books. Ever wonder why all these large companies can’t devote a few hundred thousand dollars out of their billion-dollar R&D budgets to Discoverability? Why they can make Cloud Computing and Smartphones but can’t make finding books and apps and movies easier? The only company that seems to be making a genuine effort is Netflix. Interestingly enough, Netflix doesn’t have a conflict of interest. No matter what movie you watch it’s the same to Netflix.
- If you have a Great Book, you need Discoverability for people to find out it’s a great book and spread the word.
- If you have a Terrible Book, you need Discoverability so that readers (the ones who pay for your books) can tell you it’s terrible and can give you feedback. You can’t even fail without Discoverability – you’re just stuck in a void of ‘not knowing if your book is great or terrible’.
It’s a dangerous combination. Readers only choose from amongst the books they are exposed to. Readers are getting more and more used to ‘Easy’ options. The New Gatekeepers are breaking Discoverability and replacing it with ‘Buy What We Tell You to Buy’.
For Authors, and even for Publishers, solving Discoverability becomes the #1 Problem to Solve.
- Authors – If you leave yourselves at the mercy of a store, then the store will marginalize you. They’ll cut you down until you’re happy to give out free copies and hope to get 100-200 ‘borrows’ and ‘sales’ a month on the side. That strategy just sets you up for permanent obscurity. Remember – Free is a good marketing strategy until there are 100,000 other Authors exploiting it.
- Forget the days when Publishers controlled Discoverability. Now, if Publishers don’t solve the Discoverability problem, they’ll go extinct. The Stores and Platforms will make Publishers’ books invisible.
We have all these readers who are looking to find a good book to read. The missing part is the ‘Discovery Engine’ that gets them a book that’s worth their time and money.
Unfortunately, it suits neither Publishers nor Stores nor Platforms to make an Excellent Discovery Engine. If they do, they weaken themselves as Gatekeepers. What they are making are Pretend-Discovery Engines that route users to the books that create the most profit and control for Publishers/Stores/Platforms.
Why Discoverability is Solvable
We still have a lot of the older methods of discoverability – bookstores, book critics, word of mouth, online reviews.
We have added brand new methods of discoverability – blogs, forums, platforms, social networks, crowdsourcing, book networks.
What’s missing is something that unifies everything. Something that shifts from ‘What to Buy’ and ‘What We Think You Should Buy’ to
- ‘What to Read’ and ‘What’s Best for YOU as a READER’ and ‘What’s Worth YOUR Time & Money’.
A truly efficient Discovery Engine would treat each available discovery source as a data stream. It would combine these data streams to create a composite. Then it would use a neural network (or an evolutionary algorithm) to process your past purchases and the past purchases of customers like you.
The end result would be a very efficient list – Books that you will love to read, and will finish. Books that are guaranteed to be a good use of your time and money.
The Stores don’t want this. They actually want – Books you will buy and not necessarily read. Books that will get you to move on to buying other books.
Seriously – What percentage of books bought in the Daily Deals do you think are actually read? Why aren’t the Daily Deals personalized?
The Publishers and New Gatekeepers don’t want optimization and efficiency in readers’ reading and spending. They actually want to sell users books out of the books they control and/or make a lot of money from. They want to keep selling users books, whether or not the readers actually read them.
It’s all about conflicts of interest. The Store and the Gatekeeper can’t run an efficient Discovery Engine – because then they’d have to be anti-profit companies. An efficient Discovery Engine would reduce profits.
Who can Solve Discoverability?
Anyone who actually tries hard and then sticks with it until it’s solved.
The problem is that people who set out to solve Discoverability get distracted along the way -
- Discoverability is a really tough problem to solve. Much easier to point readers to ‘Deal of the Day’ and to ’New Free Books’.
- Discoverability means discovering and collating all the books yourself. This is a tougher problem than you might imagine. There’s no easy way to get a list of every book available. If you start considering that there are multiple stores to explore and build from, then it becomes downright horrifying.
- Lots of other problems. If you set off to solve Discoverability, you find a lot of side streets that are far more welcoming. Some of them also happen to be very lucrative in the short term. The net result is that the tougher problem of Discoverability gets forgotten and/or ignored.
Perhaps the real reason Discoverability isn’t being solved is that no one realizes just how powerful solving Discoverability will be.
Part 1: If you solve Discoverability, then ALL readers will come to you. It’ll be like Google with Search.
People might point to the ‘ease of use’ of the stores. However, the stores are ‘easy to use’ to ‘not solve the problem’. They aren’t solving the problem, so you can’t compare them to an Actual Discoverability Engine. If a site comes along and says -
Instead of spending $100 and 20 hours to find 2-4 great books, we’ll ensure you spend just $25 and 5 hours.
Please Note: If you only read $1 to $3 books, just replace ‘$100 and $25′ with ‘$20 and $5′.
Then a LOT of Readers will go to that site first. Again, it’s just like Google with Search. You help people find what they are searching for and you are set.
Part 2: Once all the readers start coming to you, you control EVERYTHING.
Keep in mind that ebooks don’t need middlemen. You can send readers straight to Authors’ websites, or straight to Publishers, or you can sell books to them yourself. If you get control of the Starting Point then it’s game over.
Do Publishers have the wrong incentives when it comes to Discoverability?
Publishers push for Discoverability for their own books. Among their own books they push for Discoverability for books that are already doing well and books that they think should do well.
This is the single biggest problem with depending on Publishers. Publishers, by their very nature, discriminate against books not published by them. Add to that a second type of discrimination – against books that aren’t ‘commercial successes’ and against books that aren’t ‘what Publishers think readers should read’.
Let’s assume that the ideal reading list for Reader A is -
- Book A from Publisher 1, Book B from Indie Author, Book C from Small Publisher, Book D from Publisher 1, Book E from Publisher 2.
- What will Publisher 1 show Reader A? Book A, Book D, Some Books that are wrong for the reader. Just 40% of the best choices.
- What will a Store show Reader A? Book A & D from Publisher 1 and Book E from Publisher 2. Because these generate the most profit. Perhaps, eventually, after showing 50 more profit-generating books from Publishers, the Store will show readers Book B from the Indie Author and Book C from the Small Publisher.
This example illustrates the fundamental problem with Platforms and Gatekeepers controlling Discoverability. Platforms optimize for their own profits. Gatekeepers optimize to sell their own books. They show users a mix of ‘What’s Best for Users’ and ‘What’s Best for Platforms & Gatekeepers’. This is completely OK. It’s capitalism.
However, it means that we haven’t solved the Discoverability Problem via Gatekeepers and Platforms, and we won’t. Not as long as Platforms and Gatekeepers are the ones assigned the responsibility.
Do Amazon & B&N have the wrong incentives when it comes to Discoverability?
Yes, even more so than Publishers.
Amazon and B&N in the eBook World handle -
- Services to Indie Authors and Publishers, including selling marketing spots. Note: This is the long-term end goal. Understand this and it will explain a lot of their moves.
- Store Aspect.
- Platform/Ecosystem Aspect.
- Social Network Aspect. Amazon has taken this to an extreme by buying Shelfari and GoodReads, and by owning a share of LibraryThing via its purchase of AbeBooks.
- Publishing. Again, Amazon is a lot more aggressive here.
- Selling eReaders.
- Selling Reading Tablets.
There are so many Conflicts of Interest, the Conflicts of Interest are conflicting with each other.
Q1 Does anyone really believe that an AmazonCrossing title, or a Montlake Romance title, won’t be given ‘Special’ Discoverability?
If you do, you should keep an eye out for the sort of promotions that were done for The Hangman’s Daughter. Amazon does a lot for its published titles (always including them in Deal Lists and such).
Q2 Does anyone really believe that if a reader’s best fit is - $1 indie book, $5 small publisher, $10 Publisher, $2 indie book. That Amazon or B&N will show the reader those exact books first?
If you do, then you’ve missed the whole ‘secret handicapping’ of $1 and lower priced books.
There’s a ridiculous amount of power in the Platforms. By combining the functions of Store, Distributor, Curator, Publisher, and Service Provider we get two monsters that can pick and choose which books they turn into successes.
There are three critical conflicts of interest (these aren’t the only ones), that pretty much guarantee Pure Discoverability will be sacrificed -
- Amazon can’t let its own published titles suffer. That would destroy its delusional goal of replacing Publishers completely by 2057. Note: Along with Hollywood and the TV Networks and Federal Reserve (Of course, no one can lose money as fast as the Fed, so Amazon has zero chance there).
- Amazon and B&N can’t let $1 and $3 titles take over. That would destroy the profits and make a mockery of the billions of dollars of investments each has made in ebooks.
- Amazon and B&N can’t allow indie authors to take over. That would highlight what the long-term future for both companies is, if they don’t control Discoverability – Dumb Devices selling cheap zero-profit ebooks to readers.
The long-term goal is to build up a gold mine that’s one of only 2 or 3 gold mines in the entire world. Then, to slowly sell gold to readers. Look – Shiny! Shiny! Hand over Island of Manhattan.
Indie Authors are standing with their pans with tiny gold nuggets shouting. Hey! Hey! It’s cheaper here. What can Amazon & B&N do? Make it seem that their mines are the ONLY source for real gold. Make the other sources of gold ‘disappear’ by hiding them OR make them seem low quality.
Who does that Leave? Is anyone going to solve the Book Discoverability problem?
Well, we’re in a bit of a bind.
- The reward for solving Discoverability in Books is a long-term reward. It’s so far in the future that only large players might be able to go for it.
- The Large Players are better off if they don’t solve Discoverability. By solving Discoverability they turn the tin, which is what Indie Authors’ collective work seems like, into gold. Thereby devaluing the gold they control and sell.
- There are Large Players that aren’t already invested in the system, and thus become good candidates to innovate and disrupt. Well, they either think people don’t read any more (Apple, Google), or they think Books isn’t a big enough market (Microsoft, though that might be changing).
We have a massive, massive reward – To become the ‘Search Engine for Books’ and effectively control all of books.
Yet we have huge risks – the incumbents, the value of the market might get destroyed by a truly effective ‘Discovery Engine’, large time and money costs, long wait for the payoff, the possibility that the Platforms match/undercut you.
We have a dearth of companies that are trying to solve the REAL problem. Yes, there are lots of people offering Authors and Publishers marketing services and other band-aids. However, the real problem isn’t 1-day boosts and temporary jumps.
We need someone to solve the real, underlying issue – connecting readers with authors efficiently.
Discoverability in Books is one of the biggest problems holding back a Golden Age for Readers and Authors. Solving it would also mean gaining control over the Future of Books and Publishing. The only thing missing is someone willing to focus on Book Discoverability and solve it.