Thursday, May 23, 2013

There Is No Discoverability Problem

As publishers struggle to make ends meet by selling books, buzz words and terms and strategies constantly pop up. Just like pretty much every business in the world, publishers bandwagon onto anything that looks like it will help them keep the lights on. (Since this is publishing, I'm not going to say “make a profit,” because most people in publishing just want to make rent and great books, so “profit” is far less of a goal than “sustainability,” but that's a different essay.) Right now, one of those terms, trends, strategies, is “discoverability.” Discoverability refers to the processes, forces, and techniques that introduce books to readers, that facilitate readers, “discovering” books. The idea is that by finding more ways to introduce more readers to more books, more readers will buy more books.

That. Is. Not. A. Word.
The core principle makes a lot of sense, and as a bookseller, reviewer, and blogger, I have a lot of personal investment in the idea of helping readers discover books. But I have problem with “discoverability” as a business strategy, primarily because, to readers, there is no discoverability problem. There are tons of ways to discover new books. Sure, we all think about GoodReads and how its purchase by Amazon will affect how readers discover new books, but every single one of the shmillions of book blogs is a “discoverability” engine. Bookslut, The Millions, BookRiot and The Rumpus are all “discoverability” engines, as are all social media on which books are discussed, as are any and all TV shows and movies that reference books as are any and all book coverage in the media (which has declined in newspapers, but authors are all over news shows and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report both seem to have one or two authors a week), as are all parties at houses with bookshelves, all public transportation people read on, all awkward breaks at business conferences whose miasmic silences are broken by someone asking someone else if they've read a book, as are all movies adapted from books, as are all book stores and booksellers, as are all of those other techniques and strategies publishers develop to increase “discoverability.” In a literate world, the world is a “discoverability” engine.

With the rise of ebooks, some of those traditional methods; those based on seeing book covers, are diminishing, and as I've said, I don't know a million times, fewer physical bookstores means fewer book sales, and newspapers and traditional media don't cover books like they used to (which, I mean, people read newspapers, which, I would think, would imply newspaper buyers are readers, so when budgets shrank newspapers decided to cut COVERAGE SPECIFICALLY FOR READERS, which makes about zero sense until you begin to wonder just how many marketing managers in other businesses read the books section at which point, wait, no, it is WAY too early for a cocktail...), but, if you take the time to look, the Internet is absolutely filled with opportunities to discover new books. And most people still get most of their book recommendations from friends and family, either in person or through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Ravelry... The nature of discoverability might be changing, but the fact of it is not.
Can't help you. This dictionary only has the "ENs"

I suppose there is nothing wrong with publishers spending money on creating new ways for readers to discover books, but given how many other discovery engines there are, their money might be better spent on programs and charities the create, motivate, and nurture young readers, or used to support physical bookstores (as some publishers are now beginning to do), or to increase the quality of their product by, I don't know, making sure every book with their name on it is well-edited.

That said, there is one discoverability problem.

For my store, the absolute most powerful discovery engine, except the store itself, is NPR. Pretty close to once a day, I personally help a customer find a book said customer “heard on NPR.” NPR is so good at selling books, the American Booksellers Association actually gave them an award. But if you go on NPR's website and click on a book to buy it, you go to Amazon. Same with Bookslut and The Millions and most other book blogs on the internet. That's because the Amazon affiliate program, the system by which websites are paid a commission for links to Amazon that result in a purchase, is much better than the IndieBound affiliate program. It's just the nature of the two different businesses, a single nationwide business is going to be better at selling nationwide than a network of totally independent small business. Pretty much every time someone buys a book on Amazon instead of from an independent store, the publisher loses a little money. (Same for every time a reader doesn't buy a book because of the clunky nature of the IndieBound affiliate system, but that's a different issue.) On top of all the other ways Amazon is able to leverage sales away from more sustainable venues, some of which are totally legitimate, others of which are predatory pricing that risks destroying the American publishing industry, nearly all of the new organically developed discoverability engines drive sales to Amazon.

In a world where Amazon is a just company, this is not a problem and more of an expression of the advantages and disadvantages of different business models. A national/international book retailer that can sell to anyone, anywhere with a click or two, is going to meet the needs of a buyer who just read about a book on a blog or newspaper website or whatever far better than anything that can be stitched together from thousands of different stores with different websites, POS systems, and online presences. But because sales at Amazon feed far less back into the publishing industry, the way in which readers act on this discovery makes publishing precarious at best and completely unsustainable at worst. (Or different worst, turns publishers into merely the “text based” arms of media parent companies churning out novelizations of movies, TV shows, and video games, which in and of themselves are fine, but you don't want them dominating America's literary landscape.)

I envy its ennui.
I know. I'm blaming Amazon. Again. For all of publishing's woes. But, here, an extended metaphor. Your village has a cholera problem, but you're not aloud to do anything about the raw sewage in your water supply and if you talk about it, you're whining. There are certainly things you can do to control the cholera problem that do not involve solving the raw sewage problem. For example, you could educate everyone in the village about the need to boil their water (that's the recent Buy Local campaigns if you're following), but, until you deal with the biggest source of the problem, nothing you do will be sustainably effective. This doesn't mean that cleaning the raw sewage will solve all of the villages problems (especially if they continue to insist on putting DRM on their ebooks even though DRM doesn't prevent piracy, makes it illegal for other retailers to sell ebooks into Kindles, and is extremely inconvenient for readers to move their ebooks from place to place) but it will solve a big one and it will render the village far more able to solve whatever problems and challenges it faces.

If there is a publishing question that warrants a hackathon, it's not “How do we help readers discover our books?” but “Why do we all know how to read, but so few of us want to?” Or to phrase this with a little more detail; “Why do so many of us conclude our decade plus of compulsory literacy and literary education with absolutely no desire to read for entertainment or personal enlightenment?” Readers will find books, but very few Americans are getting out of high school and college as readers. I've said before that if Amazon acted justly in its business operation, there wouldn't be a crisis in publishing; there would be struggles, of course, as there are in all endeavors, and there would be areas where publishers would need improvement, as there are in all endeavors (if you skipped the extended metaphor above, it's where I said that), but the stakes wouldn't be the potential collapse of the entire industry. But you could also say Amazon's unjust business practices would be much less of an existential threat to publishing if America were truly a nation of readers. Maybe creating a nation of readers is beyond the capacity of publishers, but every reader they could create wouldn't be just good for publishers, bookstores, and authors, it would also be good for America.

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