What’s really the problem with digital discoverability?

Publishers have been insisting for sometime that discoverability really is the biggest issue facing fiction publishing – particularly in the digital eBook markets. As Andrew Rhomberg, founder of Jellybooks, says, ‘Discovery has been and continues to be a regular buzzword at publishing conferences.’ It’s becoming harder and harder for newly released titles to sell moderately well, even with the increasing widespread use of eBooks by consumers. The UK eBook market is predicted to triple from £380m to £1bn by 2018; in the same time frame, print is meant to fall by a third to 912m.

So is digital discoverability really a problem?

Many involved in the industry suggest the problem lies with publishers. Brett Sandusky – a market professional specialising in publishing and media industries – says that readers have never had a problem in ‘discovering’ books, instead asserting that ‘[Discoverability is] a business problem, not a user problem.’ Rhomberg, concurs; ‘The reality is that there is no discovery “pain” for readers.’ In their argument, Discoverability is publisher’s problem in creating visibility they want for their titles on eBooks markets.

A brief account of traditional publishing.

Publishers’ traditional way of promoting new titles was heavily tied in with their retailers. By contributing some marketing expenses, newly released titles could be promoted and advertised by retailers (shop fronts, front tables and as a venue for launch nights etc.) Retailers like Waterstones were heavily tied in with publisher’s business models to create as much visibility for their new titles as possible. In this sense, before digitalisation, publishers had a very clear, hand-in-hand business model.

Retailers like Waterstones were heavily tied in with publisher’s business models. Sourced from: Immanuel Giel, Wikipedia.

But with eBooks, publishers’ trusted marketing strategies cannot be replicated. Most eBook sellers don’t accept payment for promotion, instead letting customers decide by using an algorithmic rating system. Plus, since the 1994 collapse of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in the UK, publishers cannot dictate the price of their titles to these retailers. This problem is doubly intensified when fewer, now more digital-savvy consumers respond less to their traditional methods.

Ironically, publishers’ slowness to the uptake may have accidently allowed their problems to happen. In being hesitant with the opportunities that the new technology offered and trying to replicate their ‘traditional’ marketing with eBooks, a multitude of problems have built up. Discoverability is one of them.

How much does Amazon now control online discoverability?

In a perfect world, publishers would have jumped on board with digital product development and marketing: working to create a single, unified format for all eBooks and streamlining services to allow multiple smart devices to open the format (i.e. a purchased eBook that opens on a customer’s mobile phone, Kindle, Ipad etc.)

But by being sceptical with eBooks, publishers have lost the opportunity to create such formats. Instead, online retailers such as Amazon and Apple have absorbed eBooks into their own businesses, selling them in a variety of different formats.

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 11.35.01

Screenshot of Amazon eBook revenue sales. Sourced from: Authorearnings.com

Amazon’s strategy has largely paid off; studies show that Amazon takes 79% of the digital eBook market. Amazon also opened the eBook market to self-published authors, whose books from July 2013-2014 accounted for 31% of Amazon’s eBook sales – despite only accounting for around 5% of the overall book market. The online retailer is also trying to address of discoverability by generating visibility. Amazon’s metadata is used within its unique category system to help narrow down search results; algorithms are used to calculate and identify bestsellers and popular eBooks. Amazon also charts a consumer’s buying habit for ‘personal’ recommendations, ensuring further visibility.

However, Amazon’s actions has caused a lot of animosity between them and publishers. Secretary General of the International Publisher’s Association (IPA) Jens Bammel noted, ‘The book industry is right to be wary of Amazon. The firm has its own strategy which is not bound to any third party’s survival and its deep pockets mean it can maintain low prices to dissuade competition.’ Furthermore, Amazon acquired Goodreads in 2013, which is seen by many as a long-term strategy to integrate Kindle and Amazon with the largest book review site currently online. Considering that a survey in 2013 found that 90% of consumers are influenced by online reviews, Amazon may have found a way to rig book visibility in their favour.

‘The book industry is right to be wary of Amazon. The firm has its own strategy which is not bound to any third party’s survival and its deep prices mean it can maintain low prices to dissuade competition.’

A recent dispute between Amazon and Hachette saw the publisher refusing to allow Amazon to take control of the publisher’s eBook prices. Previously, Amazon had also made demands to drastically discount their titles (among other widespread demands to both US and UK publishers.) While an agreement was eventually reached, Amazon’s aggressive actions prior to the agreement, such as ‘delaying shipment of some of the publisher’s titles for up to a month,’ caused a lot of polarisation; while self-published authors rallied behind Amazon, over a thousand professionally published authors accused the retailer of ‘using authors as hostages in their negotiations.


Image sourced from: Simon Steinberger, Pixabay.

This animosity caused friction between online retailers, publishers, authors, and consumers; Amazon’s behaviour toward publishers exacerbates the ‘problem’ of discoverability and makes it difficult to find a streamlined ‘solution.’

So what else aren’t publishers doing?

Other issues attributing to the problem come from internal failures. These issues are marketing problems; whether it’s online marketing or branding their authors. Time and time again, research has shown that the greatest influence of consumer book purchase is the author; a survey by Books and Consumers in April 2014, showed that 25% of consumers were motivated to buy a book based on its author – the same percentage as those motivated by ‘subject’. It can be difficult to build a brand from scratch, particularly in a declining market. However, impatient and non-savvy publishers are shifting this responsibility onto their authors; the more online presence an author has prior to the book’s release, the better.

YouTubers and online 'celebrities' the brand power that publishers value.

YouTubers, such as Zoella (pictured above) and online ‘celebrities’ have the brand power that publishers value. Sourced from: Gage Skidmore, Flicker.

For this reason, publishers like to publish those that already have a ‘brand’ – even attempting to broker deals with successful self-published authors. A very recent example is Penguin’s decision to have two-book deal with popular YouTuber Zoella – whose ghostwritten novel sold over 78,000 copies in the first week of its release, breaking records and becoming the highest selling debut novel ever.

While publishers are meant to allow these bursts of short-term profits to ‘trickle’ down from brand-owning authors – the figurative best-selling 20% reinvesting the mid-list and back-list – it rarely happens in practice; agent John Geller suggests the figure is actually 4% to 96% with publishers pouring marketing money into best-sellers. Such business methods mean publishers lose and risk alienating a trove of other potential brands. With smaller budgets, increasing the visibility of a mid-list title becomes almost impossible – especially as publishers stick to their out-of-date methods, rather than embracing digital innovation.

What publishers can do.

Publishers’ initial steps to address the issue is to decrease the rate they publish books on all platforms. From 2013-2014, the UK alone published more books per capita (184,000 new titles) than any other country, equating to around 2875 titles per million people. eBooks further exacerbate this as ‘Books don’t go “out of print” any longer. They now remain available as ebooks [sic] basically forever.’ While publishing an increasing number of titles may drive potential profits in both the UK market and for digital exports (the UK last year was one of the biggest eBook exporters), it bloats an already oversaturated market.

The UK alone published more books per capita (184,000 new titles) than any other country, equating to around 2875 titles per million person.

Georgina Atwell, a former executive at Apple’s iBook, suggests, ‘decrease our frontlist output and allocate Marketing/PR resource to each title.’ With more marketing power behind each new title, and fewer titles around for it to compete against, the greater the visibility of that title. Furthermore, by ‘Limiting the number of books published [Publishers] will assist in emphasising [their] vital role of gate-keeper,’ reaffirming to consumers the quality of written titles.

'Books don't go" out of print" any longer.' The now immortality of books adds to the issue. Sourced from: Webvilla, Pixabay.

The now immortality of books adds to the issue of Discoverability. Sourced from: Webvilla, Pixabay.

Atwell also suggests that publishers should ‘learn from indie authors’ and promote their backlists more – doing ‘anything to give their title visibility,’ with new incentives: linked reviews, discounts, or even cover redesigns. Such promotions help mid-list authors to build up their brand with older novels (whilst giving publishers a steady potential of profits) and give momentum to create brand recognition.

A new digital business model.

While mostly a marketing problem, Discoverability is also exacerbated by a navigation problem with both online and digital devices. Both publishers and retailers should look at creative ways to enhance the online browsing experience that replicate the satisfaction of offline browsing; streamlining browsing also raises the chance of ‘Serendipitous discovery’ on the reader’s part.

Publishers should look at creative ways to enhance the online browsing experience that replicate the satisfaction of offline browsing

While Amazon offers a multitude of sub-genres, it does not significantly whittle numbers down to a reasonable level – particularly in genres such as Crime. With too much choice, the chances of a title’s visibility decrease. Having a ‘self-published’ genre could benefit publishers – though this could invoke ire from self-published authors, who enjoy the ‘democracy’ of eBooks. However, separating self-published works from professionally published works ensures both sects a greater chance of title visibility.


All search engine sites use algorithms and metadata to sort out their results. Sourced from: SEOPlanter, Flickr.

Furthermore, as Porter Anderson states, ‘publishing is now a data game.’ Like Amazon, publishers should give greater priority to metadata (particularly enhanced metadata) and SEO – using online analytics to continually check the effectiveness of their input. The higher a title appears on search engine functions, the higher chance of serendipitous discovery.

Embracing digital means looking to big book blogs, or even to platforms like Goodreads for reviewers as way to both re-connect with consumers and gain visibility. After all, blogs are perceived as much more personal (being run by ‘passionate’ individuals rather than a paid team) and, with enthusiastic followings, their reviews may generate more ‘word-of-mouth’ discovery than traditional newspaper reviews. Not only that but the more interconnecting – ‘webbing’ – metadata from these blogs that a title gets, the greater its visibility on search engine sites and online retailers.


The cycle of effective SEO. Sourced from: Top Rank Online Marketing, Flickr.

Final words.

The problem of Discoverability has become shorthand for the amalgamation of problems the industry is currently facing. But by embracing the digital eBook platform and rethinking their marketing strategies, publishers may help ease their predicament.

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