what is (book) discoverability, and why do readers need it?

12 Feb

Before I put my thoughts out there, let me preface by saying:

There are a number of ways to describe this concept, and I’m sure that my definition will not align with everyone concerned with the issue as it regards publishing.

Also, I’m going to be citing blog posts by two people who are not only smart, relevant and incisive, but friends of mine.

Guy LeCharles Gonzales and Brett Sandusky have recently posted articles arguing that “discoverability” is a problem primarily for publishers and industry professionals trying to get people to buy the books they are marketing. Conversely, readers are “just fine” because of the plethora (love that word) of book recommendation resources (goodreads being an excellent example).

In other words, there are so many books and so many places to get online reviews and recommendations, readers have more reading material than they could ever consume at their fingertips (literally, if you’re using a keyboard). But to me, this is what constitutes the problem.

It’s not a lack of available sources to discover and acquire books, it’s too many. The “noise level” is so great, with so many new contenders for the readers’ attention, it’s difficult to filter it all. Especially for new authors, getting attention paid to the introduction of newly published books is daunting, and oft times doomed.

(I’m inserting an addendum here.  In response this post, Guy tweeted that my “noise level” point is still a publisher problem, not really one for readers as “filters” favor readers.  To me, this is like saying noise is only a problem for the musician, no the listener.  That’s not really a fair analogy because it’s too literal and doesn’t account for filters, but I couldn’t resist.  Instead, let’s take the cable television model, where the consumer has literally hundreds of channels and thousands for programs to choose from.  Channels and reviews provide filters, but they only work when there is an established audience and a body of reputable reviews.  The viewer can “find” what he already knows he’s looking for, but not that which has yet to be discovered.  Search engines are smarter, but if we are relying on them, then we’re back to metadata and algorithms, the very technology that fails to account for taste and affinity.  Currently, the existing filters make popular that which is already popular, based on rising popularity.  Which does nothing to help me or any other reader find new authors or their works.)

It’s not enough to be good, or even recognized as such. The writer/publisher/marketer must, at some point, have access to a community of scale. Of course, that’s no guarantee the book will be well reviewed, reader adopted or financially successful (each a distinct phenomenon) but without that exposure, the best book is very unlikely to find an audience, or looking at it from the other side, it’s unlikely that receptive readers will find it.

Yes, cream rises to the top and people win the lottery and lightening strikes twice. And sometimes, if you build it, they will come. But not often. Not most of the time. Even the best writing needs to be made more “findable” than the needle in the proverbial haystack. Anyone who has ever tried to gather an audience for their blog knows how difficult this can be.

Just look at the number of well written blogs with followers numbering in the double digits. Let me make it clear that I agree… quick fixes or one size fits all solutions are as non-existent as unicorns (or as rare… I’m not sure there isn’t a unicorn out there somewhere looking for a home…).

As both of my peers astutely observe, automatic devices like SEO, metadata and algorithms alone are not going to make a book get noticed, much less sold. As a matter of fact, this is part of the problem… algorithms tend to lift the most searched and most popular books to the top of the list. And, alas, so do reviewers and recommenders.

I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution, or that it’s easy to make a book findable (as opposed to just ‘available’). Brett has it right when he says that relationships are the key: engagement that leads to these relationships is always personal and unique. But to engage effectively, we must be able to find readers and get their attention. And they must be able to find us.

I agree that most readers do not line up books for constant consumption, and those who do are not making entirely predictable choices. I happen to be the kind of reader with a TBR pile. But the fact is, I still have difficulty finding new authors I enjoy. My friends, in both the physical and digital world, tend to recommend the same currently popular books over and over again (of the same old nuts I’ve already read). If I go outside my circles, I get too much information which in many cases I find too unreliable, agenda posted reviews posted by friends or enemies of the author being a good example.

My scenario here is general and anecdotal, but I think it makes my point. And besides, if I have to work that hard to research a likely book to add to my TBR pile, then it’s not very findable.

There is an understandable confusion between making a book findable and closing the sale, or making people buy what publishers wish to sell. But even in terms of sales,integrity based marketing is all about connecting people with the products and services they need and want (not manipulating or coercing them into a sale). If that’s the case, then making a book findable is a service we owe readers, and one with they will value (I would).

There is no easy answer… issues of organization, findability, marketing and sales have been greatly disrupted by the access and choices available to us via the internet and its technologies. But while these issues have been aggravated, the haven’t disappeared.

Though a one size fits all solution is not attainable (or even desirable, I would argue), there are workable principals and strategies that can be used as the foundation to foster better user experience, community formation and reader engagement.

So while I disagree with some of my friends’ definitions of findability and its relevance to the reader, I agree with their fundamental points. Technology, programs and even better formatted information will not provide an easy panacea to the book seller. But it’s a two way problem without a simple solution.  Engagement models and strategies are possible and necessary to motivate reader engagement, make the process of finding a book (which isn’t already a best seller, or just another piece of hack writing thrown in the users path) easier, more intuitive and more fun.

I think that’s what the issue of “findability” is, regarding the reader. Or at least, it should be.

By Gabriel Paul

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An eBook is an Experience

6 Feb

I’ve been thinking about a point which has been made over and over again over the past few years:  namely, that an eBook is a legitimate book.

While I believe that eBooks are legitimate, the truth is that I don’t think they are books at all… not truly.

A book is an object… a nearly perfect object I once read somewhere.  Stories existed before alphabets and writing, script existed before printing.  But the difference between a story and a book was that the book consisted of pages on which the narrative was recorded.  This is what made it a book.  It’s a brilliant, self contained object that serves one purpose… it is a physical container for the narrative which is permanent and transportable. It exists as it is, until it is destroyed.

An eBook, on the other hand, is an experience.  It may be a way of recording the same narrative, but its form and format are of a different nature.  For one thing, it has no solid form.  For another, while the code exists, it is communicated as data through digital devices.  It is amorphous, and just because you are reading it on a screen does not mean that you possess it, or even that the digital product is local.

The eBook is the shadow of the code, cast by the digital device.  It’s little more than an illusion that in some ways resembles a book.  A book is a book even if you never open the cover.  An eBook only exists as an experience on a digital device.  It requires no cover.  It can include moving images and music.  The type can be altered or animated, the format is often amorphous, dependent upon which device you use to view it, along with the limitations of that device.

Calling an eBook a book is like calling a photograph a painting.  Photos and paintings are similar in that they both represent images, or pictures.  But a painting requires paint in order to be itself.  eBooks and print books are similar too.  They both communicate a narrative.  But a book is a highly specific kind of container for that narrative.  The eBook, though a legitimate container for the narrative, differs in that it lacks that physical presence.

It is more temporal in nature and format, and exists as a narrative only when viewed.  Otherwise, it’s  little more than an idea… a series of ones and zeros waiting in the dark.

However, it is this very lack of constraint that gives the eBook such potential… in that it allows for animation and sound, linking layers and multimedia connections and representations.  eBooks allow for different ways and dimensions in the telling of a story (or communication of information).  Indeed, it allows for entirely different kinds of stories to be told.

This is important, because it requires a different way of thinking…  just as a story is designed to be told in print, or as a movie, or on television (different kinds of stories told in different ways), an eBook narrative should be designed to maximize its format, not taken from a print book and altered (or merely translated) as an afterthought.

An eBook has a series of parameters, possibilities and limitations that are different from those of a print Book.

Not better, not worse.  But not the same.

On Returning from the Dead…

4 Nov

Yes, the time has come.

On October 31, 2012 we announced our new project, UNDYING LOVE: A Collection of Teenaged Zombie Love Stories.  We’ve spent almost a year on getting this project underway.  Sorry for dropping out, but sometimes our diabolical plans are best accomplished in the cover of dark…

UNDYING LOVE heralds a change in direction for Diabolical Toy, as well as a sort of second life.  We began by promoting some of the best authors in YA fiction (well, promoting their books, anyway).  We’ll continue working with our favorite clients, but we’ve begun to produce our own entertainment properties in animation, video and text.  Stay tuned for other changes in our website, and find out how you can become involved in our Kickstarter Project by clicking on one of the many links of this page (all roads lead to Rome, if you know what I mean 🙂

Click on the image above to see the premier segment to be featured as part of UNDYING LOVE.  You can find out more about the world of the undead girls who inspired the project at the Undead Girls Online Support Group.

 

 

Traditional Publishing or Self Publishing: The Smart Choice for Writers

18 May

This is going to be just one of a series of  either/or posts… this will be the second, as some time ago I wrote about whether writers were after readers or money.

Now I’ll weigh in on the Traditional or Self Publish argument.

This is interesting to me, because a year ago, there was no argument.  J. A. Konrath had just announced that he would forsake traditional publishing in favor of self publishing, and the some quibbling had begun about the digital rights to books whose contracts preceded ebook technology, but really, if you asked anyone in the industry whether it was wise for a writer, especially an unknown writer to self publish, there was only one answer.

No.

Not if you ever hoped to find a traditional publisher for the book, much less an agent who would even read it. Not if you wanted to be a real, published author.  Not if you wanted to find real readers for your book. Not if you wanted to be taken seriously…

But what a difference a day makes.

The same week that Barry Eisler walked away from a half million dollar advance for a two book deal with St. Martin’s Press, the same publisher announced that Amanda Hocking had accepted a two million dollar advance on her forthcoming four book Water Song series.  It was a very good month for Ms. Hocking, as she had just sold her millionth book on the Kindle Store.

Her millionth self published book.

When J.A. Konrath decided to go the self-publishing model, he already had an established fan base, readers who followed his best selling Jackie Daniels series.  Barry Eisler has also been successfully published via traditional means.  But Amanda’s story is, well, completely different (sorry, perhaps I should keep calling her Ms. Hocking, but she strikes me as more of an “Amanda”).

She built her fan base on her success as a self publisher.  After years of rejections from agents, she is now represented by one of the best agents on the planet, with one of the sweetest advances made for fiction this year. Though her “Trylle” series has recently also sold to St. Martin’s, at the time of this post, the first book remains in the Kindle store at its .99 price.

I think Amanda is smart, as is her agent, for leaving the books to be sold online (for now).  Because I think that out of the three of them, the one who is really getting it right is Amanda.

What’s the right answer? The answer to the question I ask in the title of this post?

Both.

Amanda Hocking has built a fan base on ebooks that are inexpensively sold via Amazon.  At this point, every book she sells is another potential reader for her next series.

Seth Godin recently addressed another either/or argument about free vs. paid… with a brilliant solution.  Rather than do one, do both… give something away for free (or at very low cost), and create fans who will be willing to pay for your next endeavor.

SWITCHED, the best of her books, according Hocking, goes for .99 in the kindle store.  Amanda gets her readers hooked, and then up-sells them to the next books at a $2.99 price.

A great deal of marketing for a book is now accomplished online.  How better to market the author than to have her work available and circulating digitally?  I think we’re going to see more and more writers using the eighteen months between signing a traditional book deal, and release of said book on the market to promote themselves by building a community around their fictive worlds.

Writing a serialized story that parallels or leads up to the story of the actual book would be a great way to accomplish online world building, while building a platform as well  (the viral campaign for Andrea Cremer’s NIGHTSHADE was a good example of this).

For established authors, making previously unpublished works available, or releasing related short stories that support the world of their upcoming books would be great way to keep readers engaged, and build interest and engagement in their yet to be released works.  In turn, the print books can then help to promote the online offerings for readers who want more.

Smart writers will start looking at how they can capitalize on their strengths in marketing and platform building: that is, writing.

If’ they’re not already, the should.

Have you seen any examples of this?  What are you thoughts?  Send me a comment and let me know.

What is a Mere Book? Twitter Conversation #6

16 May
For this week’s twitter conversation, I’m going to take a statement made by @ColleenLindsay, former agent and bookish bon vivant, in a brief about books vs. content.  Warning: I go far beyond any implications the original context would justify.
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ColleenLindsayI’m not sentimental about books as objects; I’m only sentimental about the content contained in those books. #sosueme

johnandrewhall@ColleenLindsay Well the content of a book is its object. Anycase what about something like this … http://twitpic.com/4y4xkv

ColleenLindsay@johnandrewhall Illuminated manuscripts are a work of art and a piece of history; not just mere books.


So, as you may have guessed from the title, Colleen’s last statement got me wondering: what is a mere book?  Is the content in a book equally transferable to all forms, or “containers”? Is an eBook intrinsically less satisfying because of it’s digital format: can it present a more fulfilling experience than it’s printed counterpart? Is the printed book, in it’s tree consuming, space eating, wrist strain inducing form, ever preferable over electronic books?

First, I have to admit, I’m a bit of a paper fetishist.  Which is ironic, as I make my living marketing books, both “p” and “e”, almost exclusively via an online, digital platform.

That said, I think many books have little relationship to their format… a beach book, whether romance or thriller, will seldom be kept or remembered for the paper it’s printed on, and is more likely to be find it’s way to a garage sale bin than onto a book shelf.

Similarly, many eBooks, produced as a series of static, .pdf like pages, are not creating a unique digital experience.

These sorts of books, their formats and the marriage of the two is once of convenience and availability, determined by the tastes and access of the reader.

But while the illustrated manuscript is indeed historical and a work of art, it must be noted that when it was produced, it was a just a book… all books were to some degree artful, as they were copies, illustrated and bound by hand.  None were historical when they were originally read.  That perspective only comes with the passing of decades and, in the case of illustrated manuscripts, centuries.

But it’s true, you can’t have the same experience of this book digitally, even in the best electronic simulation.

Conversely, Alice for the iPad provides is a unique experience, with no corollary to a standard print book, no matter how well illustrated, no matter what quality the paper, or beauty of the binding.  An enhanced cookbook with video demonstrations will provide a different experience than the most beautifully photographed print version.

We’ve all seen movies that didn’t provide anything close to the books they were adapted from, and some excellent movies have become mediocre books.  I make this point because there are many sorts of media, and while certain content may be duplicated in both print and digital, they are different media, have different strengths and weaknesses, as with film, audio, television, digital and print.

None is necessarily superior, though for specific projects, they may provide a uniquely superior containers for their specific content.

Content, and the experience of its consumer, changes with the format in which it is expressed.
While I agree that content and form are not the same thing, I have observed that when a concept is artfully explored, content and from can be inextricably melded to produce a format specific experience that could not be duplicated in other media.

What do you think?  Do you have examples of media/platform specific narratives?

Let me know…

How to Use the Internet to Promote a Book (without really trying).

12 May

Alright.  The title is a bald faced lie.  While there is always the possibility that a new author might experience some accidental, viral internet fame for, oh I don’t know, writing silly captions for cat photos, or posting the worst music video ever, it’s far more likely that she’ll be hit by lightening.  Twice.  And survive.

And of course, nothing beats writing a good book.

So let’s say you’ve written a good book.  You’ve got a year to eighteen months from the time the book is acquired until it hits the shelves – or you’re wondering how to get attention in the self-publishing gold rush. Keep in mind, the key time for social media marketing is at least a year before the book hits the market.  Much of what I’m saying can be applied to both traditionally and self published books, but obviously, strategy must be revised… but there is no substitute for that pre-launch time.

That said, there are some great, unexpected ways you can build an online platform, and promote your book… by doing something that is not directly related to your book.

Here are a few examples:

John Green had already successfully published LOOKING FOR ALASKA, and AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES when he started Brotherhood 2.0, better known as the Vlogbrothers project, in which John and his brother Hank agreed to cease all “textual” communications for the year, and instead converse via video blogs, which would be available to the public.  Of course, John and his brother are brilliantly funny, but I’m pointing to a fresh, exciting way the author John Green built a brand that keeps him in the viral eye.

In 2009, Kay Cassidy began The Great Scavenger Hunt Contest, involving YA and Middle Grad authors, in a trivia contest sponsored by libraries.  The participants choose from a list of over 200 books: if they can answer 8 out of 10 questions correctly, they are entered into a nationwide drawing for a $50 gift card to a bookstore of their choice.  Coincidentally, in 2010 she came out with her debut YA book, THE CINDERELLA SOCIETY.  For $600 a year, Kay is building positive relationships with librarians, authors and readers.  That’s probably the best $600 she could have spent on a promotional budget.

Scott Sigler started podcasting his books for free in 2005.  In 2007, his trade paperback ANCESTOR briefly hit #1 on Amazon’s SciFi and Horror charts, #2 in overall fiction.  Subsequently, his manuscript for INFECTED was purchased by Crown in what in what became a five book deal, and a film option.  In 2008 he had a fan base of 100,000 when he decided to self publish a high end, hard cover book in a limited press run which sold out in a matter fo days to long term, diehard fans.  Too find out more about how Scott created a kind of perfect self publishing/traditional publishing storm, click here.

While extremely different in focus, duration and execution, here’s what they have in common.

Self Containment: none of these initiatives dealt directly with SELLING the author’s next book.

Low Cost: these initiatives could be sustained with very few resources, time being the key requirement.

Duration: each project or initiative built the author’s platform and reputation over time (100’s of hours over months or years), creating mass.

Uniqueness: each project was based on the unique talents, concerns

Passion: Each author chose to do something that they could commit to, and enjoy, regardless of the outcome.

There’s an adage in social media, which played a key role in each strategy: be interesting (or conversely, don’t be boring).  So while bookmarks and blog tours and trailers are all standard, and may produce results, do something unique and interesting to produce breakaway results.

Do Bound Books, eReaders, iPads Determine Content? Twitter Chat #5

10 May

I drew inspiration for this week’s Twitter Chat post from a conversation I followed a while back between my friend, (and one of the most forward thinking about all things bookish) Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, repeat offender Susan Doerr (indeed a smart girl/reader/publisher) and Peter Turner (at the tail end, but with an insightful point of view).

The conversation began with Guy’s assertion that print vs. digital is an irrelevant argument, and implying that digital devices were merely containers for content.  As ever, I both agree and disagree with each participant in the conversation:  my comments appear after the end of the conversation.

@glecharles The container is NOT a business model. The print vs. digital debate is tiresome. Content + Context = Value. #fullstop #dbw

@susanmpls @glecharles Disagree. Content is what people want, yes, but containers can be a biz model, i.e. Amazon & it’s Kindle.

@glecharles @susanmpls The container’s nothing w/o content. Kindle wasn’t first ereader; Amazon’s success was value to readers via content + context.

@susanmpls @glecharles Disagree. Content is what people want, yes, but containers can be a biz model, i.e. Amazon & it’s Kindle.

@glecharles @susanmpls If it were all about containers, Smashwords would be Amazon. Or Apple.

@susanmpls @glecharles I didn’t say it’s all abt containers, just that containers are a biz model, though, as @brianoleary says, not for publishers.

@glecharles @susanmpls If your workflow is container-centric, so is your business model. @brianoleary‘s advocacy of “agile workflows” is where it’s at.

@PeterTurner @glecharles Agree: content+context=value but container can and should shape content. #dbw

@glecharles @peterturner Yes, the container shapes (contextualizes) content but it shouldn’t define it; ideal content flows into multiple containers.

***

So I have to say, it was Guy’s comment that got my attention.  I only follow Guy on Twitter, so it took me a minute to find the conversation that followed.  But I do think that Guy’s statement that Content + Context = Value.

And I do not believe that the “container”, in this case eReaders, iPads or even printed bound books are synonymous with a a business model. Though I think we can agree that the container will influence the business model… Amazon dominates the eBook model not only due to the low cost, high service sales model they champion, but because of it’s strong online presence, and the early introduction of Kindle to the market.  It’s a different model than the traditional publisher to printer to warehouse to distributer to retail store to reader model.

So far, so good.  But here’s where I’d interject my own assertion.  The container not only contextualizes content, but content must be shaped for the unique capabilities of the container.  Because when you’re talking about something like the iPad, or even a smart phone (cell phone novels are big in Japan, for instance), you have a different set of capabilities (and limitations) than you’ll find with the beloved print book which was one of the only devices through which long form content could be delivered.

A bound book requires no power source, it’s easy on the eyes when reading by daylight, and is ideal for engraved illustrations. A backlit screen requires a battery, makes reading long chapters more difficult, but you can incorporate illustrations that move (video, animation).  While a Kindle emulates the functionality of a book (Instapaper and inanimate graphics), it still has enhanced capabilities that might shape the formation of content (annotation for example) in new and interesting ways (book clubs? school based reading initiatives?).

These containers mean nothing without content… but the funny thing is, we’ve never really wanted to pay for content.  We’ve always paid for the container, ro means of distribution: the paper a book is printed on, the cable service that delivers TV, the cinema that allows for a giant screen and a group experience).

So while I agree that content is what gives value to a container, the container will promote the success of different kinds of content.  And content should be created with the method of distribution in mind.  This is how containers and content succeed… in that differentiated, symbiotic way.

New containers allow for new and more varied kinds of content.

Those are my thoughts, anyway.  What do you think?  I’d love to know.