“Word of mouth at the speed of electrons.”
This is how I think of book discovery in the digital age.
The Time Before The Interwebs
Already hard to picture, isn’t it? Social media has radically changed the world in just the last few years. Add in the rise of ebooks and self-publishing, and you have an industry completely upended in the blink of an eye. All of these things are joined at the hip – it’s easy to see how self-pub couldn’t exist without ebooks, but less obvious is that indie publishing wouldn’t be a viable career path without one major shift: digital book discovery.
Before, the main ways of book discovery included boots-on-ground methods like browsing bookshelves at the bookstore and libraries, reading reviews in the newspaper, and all the “push” marketing of endcaps in bookstores and old media marketing like newspaper ads.
Push vs. Pull Marketing
“Push” marketing is essentially tastemakers (like the book reviewers in newspapers) and publishers (via editorial discretion) deciding which books would be “pushed” out to the public as the next big thing. Those endcaps at the bookstore? The face-out placement? Paid for by publishers, for the select titles they had bet the farm on (in terms of advances to authors and spending on marketing). When you walked in to browse the bookstore, you saw those first. They were selected by others, not by what you wanted to buy or might be interested in, but by what the publishers (and bookstores) wanted to sell. Libraries are also “push” marketing, although in this case by the curation of the librarians, who have an interest in displaying books they think their patrons will enjoy. Still, they can’t read your mind (to know what you want), and everyone is different. You can’t reshuffle the displays at the library, tailored to each patron who walks through the door, can you?
Actually, yes you can.
“Pull” marketing is exactly that. Every time you log onto Amazon (or check your email when Amazon sends you tailored email suggestions), you are shown exactly the titles that Amazon thinks (based on your previous purchases and views) you will be most interested in purchasing. They provide many (many, many) other means of book discovery as well: bestseller lists based on books actually selling at that moment, Highly Rated lists, Hot New Releases lists, etc. Amazon has raised list making to a tailored art. And that doesn’t even count the also-boughts that makes sure the books you’re mostly likely to be interested in at least pass by your eyeballs.
(One of the reasons why other retailers trail behind Amazon in sales for indie books is precisely because their algorithms are still more like “push” marketing than “pull” – they’re slowly realizing it’s better to match the reader with what they want to buy, not what the retailer wants to sell, but they’re still lagging behind Amazon in understanding this fundamental principal.)
The Future Is Now
Those are just the ways that Amazon markets to you (although without it, indie publishing as we know it would not exist). The hyper connectivity of the rest of the interwebs means that you don’t have to browse shelves anywhere anymore. You can go to Goodreads and see what your friends are reading or join a virtual book club. Or follow your favorite book blogger and read their reviews. Or shop straight from your ereader. Or just hang out on facebook for more than two seconds and trip over a book advertisement. Or sign up for Bookbub, or a dozen other email lists that are designed to send you (again tailored at least by genre) lists of books on sale right now. If a book is hot, word about it spreads – like I said, at the speed of electrons.
It’s a radical democratization of the book discovery process.
Indie publishing obviously allows books to be published that the “tastemakers” and “gatekeepers” haven’t selected. But this would count for nothing if there wasn’t a way for those books to be discovered (and delivered) to the public at large. New Adult is Exhibit A of a genre that was entirely driven from the bottom up – writers were writing the works, but publishers weren’t publishing them. Until indie publishing did an end run and gave people something they wanted to read. And boy did they want to read it! Now it’s the hot new genre and publishers are scooping up New Adult titles. But they’re market followers now, not market leaders.
What Does This Mean For Authors?
Authors tend to think they have to be on every social media site under the sun, as if their books will go unnoticed if they aren’t present on those sites. The truth is you will do well to be on some social media sites, or at least have a presence somewhere in the online ecosystem, but you don’t have to be everywhere. In fact, it’s better (in several ways) if you’re not. The important thing is to be somewhere fans can find you and interact with you. The connection that readers have with authors in this new “speed of electrons” environment is tremendously fun for readers and writers alike. And helps authors to keep fans happy.
Reading has become social and authors are part of that equation.
This is what everyone wants. The good news it that the system is already built to take good things and spread them around – again almost the entire premise of social media is the idea of sharing cool stuff (this is why cat videos go viral so quickly; and an object lesson that “cool stuff” is in the eye of the beholder). This also means that you can’t “force” discoverability (the effectiveness of “push” marketing decreases with every bookstore that closes): you can buy ads, do blog tours, and hope that people like your stuff enough to share it. If you’ve done a good job on book packaging, the book will sell itself (as opposed to you hand selling it to every single person who buys it). Part of the magick of the internet is that people are drawn to the things they enjoy most, even if it’s armadillo pillows or hand-crafted gnomes or quirky literary stories about goats (Midnight’s Tale is still one of my favorites – go buy it!).
See what I did there?
I haven’t read that story in a year, but I still talk about it, because I love it. Here you are in the middle of a book on indie publishing, and I just made a book recommendation to you. That’s how word of mouth moves at the speed of electrons, and it’s the key reason why indie publishing is a viable career path for writers now.
So worry less about getting “discovered” and worry more about making good art (love you, Neil Gaiman!). The magick of the interwebs will connect you to the people who find that art awesome.