THE CURE FOR DISCOVERY DISCONTENT: CHANNELS SHOULD HELP PEOPLE
Once upon an angst-filled Wednesday, on a crowbar-gray winter’s day in Manhattan, I was decompressing from a publishing conference with hyper-intelligent colleagues. Mood lifting by the second, glass of red vino in hand. And yet, I was trying to think of the first time I heard a buzzword that made me feel as if we were inventing problems rather than leveraging opportunity. Discovery: as in, the act and process of finding a desired book and then purchasing it; or, checking it out from a library, then buying it (or not).
See also its sister phrase, online discovery, which has evolved to imply, maddeningly, that books are by their nature difficult to locate across social networks and e-tailers, a slippery commodity with no free-existing recommending machine.
Presenters at Digital Book World last week in New York City inadvertently reinforced this idea with the framing of their statistics. Peter Hildick-Smith, founder and CEO of the Codex Group, got premium stage time Thursday morning, and Laura Hazard Owen’s write-up nicely encapsulates his message: “discovery and availability are being ‘decoupled’ online. In other words, readers are likely to go online to buy a book after having learned about it elsewhere.”
Key findings reported by Hazard Owen in paidContent:
Sixty-one percent of book purchases by frequent book buyers take place online, but only seven percent of those buyers said they discovered that book online, while physical book stores account for 39 percent of units sold and 20 percent of discovery share…
An overriding takeaway I heard in the wake of Hildick-Smith’s report was that we have to protect physical bookstores better (no argument there), but it would be stupid to ignore the opportunity embedded in a few other statistics, unsettling as they may be on the surface. According to Bowker, Amazon.com generated more than 25 percent of all book sales between January and September 2012 and 30 percent of dollars spent on books. At "Libraries: More Important Than Ever for Discovery," a panel I sat on late Thursday afternoon, George Coe, president of Baker & Taylor Library & Education, said that U.S. public libraries circulate upwards of three billion items a year—that’s a lot of eyes in a relatively calm corner of web real estate.
First, Amazon: for all of its sales dominance, it is (paradoxically to me) poor at sales conversion, according to Hildick-Smith. In other words, it could sell more books than it does, maybe if it weren’t for all the other stuff that it flogs and that the internet explodes with distractions (I always picture Ye Online Book Discoverer with three to five browser windows open, cat in lap, coffee steaming in one hand). My instinct isn’t to remake physical showrooms—because the best indies are nailing it, with the support of Kobo—but to shape and deepen power buyers’ and power patrons’ experience online, because only more people will join their ranks.
Which brings us to the library angle. The publishing industry should reconsider how little research documents erosion (I’ve seen none) as well as the potential of the OPAC, read: the online public access catalog, the database of all the materials a library loans. If you haven’t been in one lately, check out Baltimore County Library’s fully integrated (by 3M with Polaris) OPAC, pictured above.
This is a virtual space dedicated solely to story in all its formats. No Snuggies, no diet pills, no porn, no shoes. It’s about connecting people with information and entertainment, period. From Baltimore County’s OPAC, a reader can discover the print, ebook, audiobook, and film editions of a work, regardless of which vendor offers access. She can check an ebook holds list. She can opt for the audiobook (which perhaps she didn’t know existed before). She can admire the book jacket and throw it up on Pinterest. The point is it’s a seamless discovery experience as outlined by the ReadersFirst initiative.
What else could be done with this valuable bookish type’s short attention span, in this space and time? I’m not going to advocate for banner book ads (though some days, I think, “Why not?”). I’m going to advocate for a buzzword of yesteryear, enhanced metadata. This refers to information about a book that goes beyond title, author, publisher, page count, price, and ISBN. It would display along with those basic elements on e-tailer sites and OPACs and enable a reader to relate better to a book, or, said another way, to envision a relationship (because good books broker emotional bonds).
During “Libraries: More Important Than Ever for Discovery,” my recommendation was to eschew book trailers for publisher-recommended readalikes, and these readalikes should not be limited to titles from the publisher’s own catalog—they should draw connections to competitors’ books because, as I said (gratuitous self-quote alert), “readers don’t care about publishers; they care about authors and genres.” Taking a cue from Wendy Bartlett, collection development coordinator of Cuyahoga County Library, I also pushed for translating publishers’ fast-disappearing print catalogs into enhanced metadata. These have a way of conveying better than their online successors where new releases stand priority-wise. Is Title X in your top five? What’s the print run?
Better yet, share original publicity initiatives so people can go off the grid and get author face-time, then talk about the event online during or after. Note: marketing and publicity campaigns do not just interest booksellers. Power buyers and power patrons want to build the zeitgeist along with publishers.
A case in point came from my energetic co-panelist (and former bookstore manager) Stephanie Anderson, head of readers’ advisory at Darien Library, where they’ve created a program called First Look Darien. Two or three debut novels are chosen and given “the full press of everything the library has to offer.” This includes having the entire readers’ advisory staff read a book (and likely recommend it to the public), selecting a title for Darien’s popular book group program, arranging author talks, and bringing in the local bookstore for sales.
No lie, enhanced metadata means more work. It means more marketing, and more nimble marketing at that (let’s not call it “digital marketing,” please). It means someone has to enter this detailed information accurately and speedily into fields on a daily or weekly basis, and that vendor backends have to be capable of accepting and processing these frequent updates.
I say this without having worked with enhanced metadata. But I know I’m right, and the payoff, as Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media and Laura Dawson of Bowker have long argued (see the slides from their metadata workshop at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair), has to be more sales because publishers would be playing into a reality, not a trend. People live online, look for and buy books online, as the research demonstrates. But there’s no need to agonize about or undermine a behavior that could bolster the publishing industry.
Good news: I know that you know people who are gifted at finding books of worth online, without much guidance. They consult their Facebook besties; they glean their Twitter lists. They consider Goodreads reviews and browse bricks-and-mortar bookshops. They drop into Early Word to find out what’s generating holds. They ask librarians what they should read next (in another post, I will tackle the dearth of data linking library discovery to sales, though see Library Journal's first stab with Patron Profiles).
Publishers’ social media strategy should include knowing who these people are and talking to them about their search and purchasing habits. They sell books, not the channels.
My top-five, erm, online discoverers (and most trusted book recommenders) are mostly librarians, because I’ve had the luxury of working with them for 14 years as a journalist and now a marketer. My favorite at the moment is my good friend India Amos. I love this tweet. Let’s end with it, shall we, because it’s so beautiful and true.