Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Discoverability alone does not a bestseller make

Using the term discoverability is all the rage among publishing aficionados. A lack of it is commonly cited as the cause of the industry’s various woes and ailments in the wake of the digital revolution. How do we fix publishing? Discoverability! How can authors avoid becoming the newest breed of starving artists? Discoverability! Why did Kristen Stewart cheat on Robert Pattinson? Discoverability! Make books discoverable online, and the publishing world will once again be in harmony.

word of mouth for books


But is more discoverability really the way to right the sinking ship? Readers are too much inundated with referrals, recommendations, and spammy marketing campaigns on the web to see any real value in them. In an effort to promote discoverability using our newfangled gadgets, we’ve exhausted the attention spans and patience of the book market and forgotten the tried and true method of discoverability: word of mouth.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Last week I finished reading a book I’ve kept on my “list of books I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read” for some time, Madame Bovary. I’m never more content than when I’m comfortably situated in the middle of a great book. So as I had approached the final third of the novel, that old, familiar anxiety started creeping up on me: What will I read next? How do I choose among the throngs of titles flooding my publishing industry news feeds and the bestseller lists on a daily basis?

I’m sure that feeling isn’t singular to my experience. I’m also confident that marketing teams ponder the answers to my questions every day in an effort to sell more copies of their books. How do digital natives like me discover new books? Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t through social media or “if you bought this, you’d also like this” type of recommendations. It’s through the referrals of trusted friends.

A couple of years ago a relative sent me a copy of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I’ll admit: I tried to read it shortly after I got it in the mail, but after a chapter or so of Ada’s apathy and general gloominess it was abandoned for the much more thrilling vampire and fairy adventures of Sookie Stackhouse. But the personal recommendation has stuck with me all this time. Whenever I happened to see it resting patiently on my dusty shelves, I would ask, why did my aunt think it was important that I read this book, so much so that after I saw her in person, not a week later a hardcover copy showed up on my doorstep? Lingering curiosity led me to pick Cold Mountain back up again when I closed Madame Bovary. And this time—without the lure of Eric Northman drawing my attention away—I really got into it.

Would I have been that motivated to see through with the recommendation if it came in the form of an Amazon referral or banner ad? Probably not. There’s something lacking in online discoverability efforts, and I think it has to do with sincerity. Because something about an in-person conversation with a real, live human sets the referral apart from what I find online. You can hear the excitement in your friend’s voice when she says, “you have to read this book.” You can see her eyes light up as she chatters away about the beautiful love story, and feel her sadness when she tells you how she cried for an hour after reading the tragic ending. It’s not easy to replicate that personalized experience on the web.

Perseus Books Group Chief Marketing Officer Rick Joyce talked about this kind of faulty discoverability in an interview with Digital Book World last May. He explained:

I think that the marketing strategy that is always the most cutting edge, most powerful is thinking. When it’s all spamming out campaigns that look like one another and aren’t grounded in the particular qualities and opportunities of the book, I think that’s bad marketing. Ditto, if its chasing some technological or marketing fad.  The thing we are trying to do is a lot of thinking about how consumers find what they want to spend time on, and to try to build organic ways to bridge the gap between them and the book.

It’s ever more important, now that we spend so many hours online, to reach readers in a personal, sincere way. And the best way to do that is to come up with discoverability strategies that encourage word of mouth. Joyce talked about ways his company is working to create personal interaction on the web using “social listening platforms,” which find existing conversations about Perseus titles on Twitter, Facebook, and blog comments and try to engage readers further.

Marketing consultant Rob Eager actually coined a phrase to describe the strategy Joyce discusses in that interview. In a blog post on Digital Book World last week, he wrote:

To sum up, discoverability is ineffective if it doesn’t generate spreadability (yes, I’m suggesting we add another crazy term to the marketing lexicon). The goal of marketing shouldn’t be to merely help readers discover new books. The goal should be to tell readers what’s in it for them, fuel the desire to purchase, and encourage them to spread word of mouth. Discoverability without spreadability creates a marketing disability.

This idea of “spreadability” could be what publishing needs to successfully adjust to the digital age, as it would substitute for the experience I had with the recommendation I got for Cold Mountain. Just getting the title “found” online isn’t enough. Perhaps online is where a book’s popularity begins, but it’s through personal recommendation that a book really gains momentum.

One comment on “Discoverability alone does not a bestseller make

  1. Pingback: Riffle offers a fresh approach to book sharing and recommendations « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2012 by in Culture and tagged , .

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