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What’s the Key to Solving the Book Discoverability Problem?

Laura Fredericks, founder, Describli

Laura Fredericks, founder, Describli

Editorial by Laura Fredericks, Founder and CEO, Describli

If you’ve been paying attention to publishing news, chances are you’ve heard the term “book discovery” thrown about a great deal. Unfortunately that’s not because it’s the latest trend, but because it’s broken. The number of books available on the market has skyrocketed, and for readers it’s getting harder every day to sift through the “noise” and find the books that they’re interested in reading. We need a new solution for book discovery, one that takes into account the way that we used to find books in bookstores.

The main factor contributing to the problem of book discovery is the sheer volume of books out there. Anyone with a computer can now self-publish a book. But because the number of books published every year is growing dramatically, especially in the digital space, authors have more competition than ever before. This ultimately leads to a book discovery problem for readers, and an audience discovery problem for authors.

Now, I don’t for one second believe that I’m the only one to have noticed this problem, or tried to solve it. Industry leaders have recognized that the problem of discovery is begging for a solution. Attempted solutions have mostly focused on the idea of recommendations. The main avenues for this are trusted friend recommendations, stranger recommendations, and software algorithms. But each of these avenues has its own special problems to accompany it.

I have some really great friends. I trust all of them, and I value what they have to say. But if we all liked the exact same books, I would have a pretty disappointing group of friends. Trusted friend recommendation sites assume that if all my friends jump off the proverbial book-buying bridge, that I will choose to do the same. I value my friends because of the diversity of their opinions, and the idea of buying a book because one of my friends liked it is a still a bit strange to me.

describlismallSo, if I don’t trust my friends to recommend a book, I should just trust the crowd, right? Maybe not. The problems with sites like Amazon for book recommendations is that authors can pay for reviews, readers can gang up on an author, and it’s been shown that up to a third of reviews are fake. Like also tends to beget like in the book review space. If there a lot of five star reviews, then the five star reviews keep rolling in. Insert a few one star reviews, and the ball rolls in the other direction. Mob mentality is no way to choose a book.

Ok, so friends and mobs are out, but what about computers? Computer recommendations are largely based on keywords; the name of the author, the subject or genre of the book, or the demographic that it sells to. If I read one vampire book (like Dracula) and loved it, that doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy another vampire book (like Twilight). Until algorithms are smart enough to recognize writing style and wit, they won’t be able to make really great book recommendations.

Instead of mining vast amounts of data or listening to a chorus of friends, we need to return to the way people found books in bookstores – read a little bit of what the author has to say.

If you open up a good book and start reading, chances are you’ll know if you like what you’re reading within the first few paragraphs. Great authors hook us, draw us into their worlds, and never let us go. That ability to connect with a reader, to show off their style and abilities in just a few words, sets truly great writers apart from the masses. Across genre, subject matter, characters, and styles, the great writers are those who can make a connection with a reader. They form relationships with their audience through every page. If we could create relationships directly between authors and readers, then suddenly this book discovery problem might not seem so bad.

Social media allows for direct, individual connections among people who normally would never get the chance to meet or speak. This direct channel to others has caused huge changes in the publishing industry, but as a book discovery tool it has a long way to go. Authors can reach out to a very small, very targeted niche of readers, but often struggle to know what to say and fail to create lasting relationships. Few authors have mastered the technique of creating relationships online, and many end up yelling their book titles into the ether, hoping for some book sales. Relationships, rather than veiled book pitches, create trust.

We need an easy way for authors to connect directly with their readers, forming relationships with their audience and understanding the people who are reading their work. This means providing small samples of writing to readers on a continuing basis, allowing them over time to fall in love with an author’s style. It’s like dating for books, and it’s the next big step in discoverability.

Laura Fredericks is a two-time entrepreneur, an advocate for self published and indie published authors, and is passionate about getting great books in front of their perfect audiences. She is the founder of Describli (www.describli.com), a new site that lets readers and writers connect directly through great writing. Describli is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo – head to the campaign to support the site and get great prizes. You can find Describli on twitter @describli and at facebook.com/describli.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted November 18, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Describli has an interesting take on this problem Laura. I watched the video on your URL. Can I ask how Describli differs from other story sharing sites? There seems to be a focus on short works and competitions. Is that right? Being an ex-bookseller, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a role for people who have some experience linking readers with writers. As you point out, putting the right book in a particular reader’s hands is not a simple business. I look forward to seeing how Describli develops.
    Kind regards
    G.P. Field

  2. Posted November 18, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments G.P., and for taking a look at the video.

    While a lot of the other story sharing sites focus on work that has been written and edited beforehand, we focus on putting all writers on an even playing field and seeing how they compare for readers. The daily writing prompts are only up for that day, so authors must choose how they will respond and publish on the same day. Everyone gets the same prompts, and the same group of readers seeing those responses. We like to say that this shows off an author’s ability to “describe ordinary things in extraordinary ways”, as well as to think creatively and show off their writing style. The responses are also significantly shorter than other sites, as you mentioned.

    There is definitely a role for those who have experience linking readers and writers. In future versions of the site we plan on including targeted search and discovery tools for literary agents, booksellers, and publishers. Those users will be able to search for new talent based on the types of people who are interested in the work, demographics, subject area, and their following on the site.

    Thanks again for taking a look!

    Laura

  3. Posted November 18, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t Amazon already handle this through it’s sample process? I always have a flip-through the first few pages of a book, and then download the sample if it looks promising. I don’t think this is the ‘bookshop’ experience that’s missing. Someone must have studied the behaviour of customers in bookshops – and if the haven’t, somebody should soon! However, I think what they’d find is that the actual ‘discovery’ process depends largely on the position of the book in the shop, the quality of the cover, and whether the spine or the cover is visible on the shelf.

    Perhaps what is missing is the analogy of the bookshop as a filter. Which books are displayed where is decided by the shop itself, and the popularity of a bookshop is determined by how interesting their selection is to its customer pool. Perhaps what’s needed is the Web site/blog equivalent – sites owned by people who’s choices we like and trust. The problem with Amazon is that the bookstore paradigm is not there – there’s nothing between the unfiltered mass of books and the unfiltered, and often untrustworthy, opinions of its readers. Just a thought!

    • Posted November 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      “We need a new solution for book discovery, one that takes into account the way that we used to find books in bookstores.”

      Or we need bookstores.

      I agree with Matt, curation made visible in space and attended by knowledgeable people who can respond individually to each customer, is what good bookstores offer—not a chance to peek inside the pages of a bunch of books.

      Sorry, but this seems like a product promotion that has already decided the answer lies in software.

  4. Posted November 18, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Matt,

    Thanks for reading!

    I think we agree on some of these points, and on the others we’re just thinking of it in a different way. The bookshop as a filter is a key part of the discovery process – and we want to bring that type of “intelligent filter” to online discovery. We’re not designing a program that just looks at keywords, we’re creating a dynamic and interactive community where readers can help each other to find talented writers. The people in the budding Describli community have already have shown themselves to be smart, insightful bookworms with high standards for quality and style. When faced with their choice of thousands of writers, I’m confident they will be able to encourage and support the most talented ones to the front of the line.

    The other thing to consider is the prompts themselves. Instead of reading samples of books in wildly different genres, with varied demographics of readers, you are instead seeing all the writers responding to the same prompts (although likely in very different and exciting ways). Each day there are 5 to choose from, and at the end of the day they’re gone. Now, of course this is just our opinion, but we really think this puts writers on an even playing field (something you don’t see often in the writing world). In an apples to apples comparison, you can decide who you like based on their flexibility, creativity, ability to describe ordinary things in extraordinary ways, etc. The writing on the site serves as the appetizer to get you interested in the main course, i.e. the author’s books.

  5. sheri
    Posted November 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    answer to discoverability??one word– BOOKSELLERS! IN STORES!

  6. Posted November 19, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Great Article Laura,

    It’s true the market is flooded from the self-publishing and Kindle boom – a good book is now like a needle in ten haystacks. People are piling into the space with hopes of easy money. Many are internet marketer / algorithm gamers types not authors. The reality is it takes quality writing and, as you point out, time to build relationships with a base of readers to truly make it. I am new to self-publishing – but I started as an author and writer first. I fell into the fairytale of writing a book and putting it up on Amazon and selling tons of copies by writing a good book description and choosing categories properly. The truth is, those Gurus who had quick success already had an establish platform and mailing lists before they made any significant sales. Ultimately, the market responds to sales and will weed out the weaker players and leave a strong opportunity for those still standing with quality writing, established platforms and email lists. I have only been at it for less than a year and I am not getting noticed at all. After getting to know more about the business I can see I am not alone and my slow start is typical. I now assume that the new self-publishing landscape would follow most other businesses taking 3 – 5 years to stabilize. At least thats what I’ve come to believe. Managing expectations is essential for sticking it out through the early going.

    I am interested to check out Describli to see how you can help get Authors in front of readers.

    Sam Edge

    • Posted November 19, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      PS You’re link to Describli at the bottom of the article is corrupted.

  7. Posted November 20, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Hi Laura,
    Very nice and interesting article… specially to me, since at 20lines.com, a startup which I co-created about 1 year ago in Italy, we do pretty much the same thing!

    We’re a community where writers and readers create, read and share short collaborative stories. Having already engaged with the likes of the top Italian publishing houses such as RCS Group, Mondadori, Giunti to name a few, we currently have an active community of about 35.000 registered users, that grew rapidly in the last months.

    In fact, what we offer is an innovative way to socially promote publications by involving and giving authors exposure to new digital audiences!

    I look forward to hear your thoughts, it would be really nice to have a chat!

    Best,
    Pietro

    Tw: @About_Pietro

  8. Posted November 21, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Sam,
    You’ve very eloquently described the problem, and I think you’re right that it will take some time for the industry to stabilize. I still worry that once it does, you’ll have a lot of people going after the dream who are either not writers, or who are jumping in before they are ready.
    Some of the targeted search and curated tools we are planning for publishers will really let them dig in and find great voices within their niche, so that will give some of the best Describli authors the option for a traditional publishing contract. The platforms of those authors should also grow significantly from exposure, so that if they decide to go the self publishing route they should have more success.

    We’re excited to see how everyone uses it!

  9. Victor
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    So you expect a bunch of authors to sit on Describli every day and respond to writing prompts. You know, just get up in the morning and bang out a few hundred words based on what Describli wants that day. And somehow you’ll get a bunch of readers to check in every day and critique and rank these random musings by random authors responding to random writing prompts. And after analyzing the prose and literary flair of enough random writers, these random readers will at one point say to themselves, “Gee, I really like Author X’s visual metaphors and deft use of alliteration in response to these daily writing prompts. I think I’ll buy his book. Heck, it doesn’t matter which genre it is in or how little spark I feel after seeing the cover. I’ve seen what he can do with writing prompts. No way he’ll let me down in a 80,000 word novel.”

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