Rethinking Book Marketing: Why Discovery Matters More

Yesterday’s post showed us how savvy writers today can utilize the Internet to help them research, write and promote their books. Today we look at how the Internet has changed how readers find those books. In the quickly-changing publishing world—and the even-more-quickly-changing world of book readers—authors have to realize that sometimes the efforts they make to promote their books…well…simply don’t have the hoped for impact.

Why? Because these days readers spend most of their time in Cyberspace searching out information on their interests and seeking out the advice of experts and opinions of others. In the process, they may—or may not—discover you and your book.

My colleague Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, an ebook distributor, wrote this final guest blog post of the 2011 Write Nonfiction in November (WNFIN) challenge. In it he explains why authors might need to stop focusing so much attention on marketing and rely more on discovery—a new term for a new publishing age. He also explains why it can take longer for a book to get discovered than typically is given to a print book.

I see, however, how employing many of the tools we have learned in previous WNFIN guest posts about promotion on the Internet can actually make authors more discoverable. So, after you read this post, you might want to go back and reread some of the previous ones on websites for authors, blogging, social networking, etc.

And don’t forget to register for Wednesday’s WNFIN finale teleseminar with author and agent Michael Larsen on How to Become a Successful Writer in a Bottom-Up World at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. PT.

Rethinking Book Marketing: Why Discovery Matters More
By Mark Coker

Marketing isn’t as important as people think it is.  I know this statement might strike some as sacrilegious.

Here’s the problem:  Great marketing will raise awareness about your book and motivate readers to buy it.  But great marketing is expensive and extremely difficult to pull off.  We all know authors who invested thousands of dollars in marketing, never to earn the money back in book sales.

In the old days of print publishing, the author and publisher would launch their marketing campaigns to coincide with the book’s arrival at brick and mortar retailers.  Most conventional campaigns included advertising, radio interviews and book signings.  If things went well, the book would start jumping off shelves, stores would order more books, publishers would print more books, and everyone was happy.

Unfortunately, most books flopped, and stores would ship their unsold inventory back to the publisher for a full refund.  Many of these so-called flops were actually great books that simply weren’t given enough time to find their readers.

Marketing is merely a catalyst for sales.  Like any true catalyst, catalysts help start the fire but they can’t sustain it. The word-of-mouth spawned by passionate readers is what propels books to go on to become best-sellers.

With the rise of online retailers and their unlimited shelf pace, and the corresponding decline of brick and mortar retailers, the rules are changing.  With the advent of self-publishing and the democratized distribution to online bookstores enjoyed by self-published authors, books no longer need go out of print.  This means books have more time to build fans and readership.

In this new age of the immortal book, marketing will take a back seat to discovery.  What is discovery?  Discovery is the method by which readers discover your book.

A couple months ago, I ran a survey over at MobileRead, the popular online community of ebook readers.  I asked readers to name their single favorite method of discovering the ebooks they purchase.  I presented them with 12 options, one of which was “other,” and they were allowed to select one answer only.  The results were surprising, and the lessons gleaned from this survey paint an encouraging picture for authors, especially new, unknown authors.

I first published the findings along with a pie chart at the Smashwords Blog.  Here, I’ll summarize the key results:

  1. Readers trust their online communities more than immediate friends and family – 28 percent of survey respondents said they prefer to discover books by listening to the recommendations of their fellow online readers in message boards and blogs.  This contrasts with only 7 percent who said they prefer to learn about new books from immediate friends and family.  Why the disparity?  In the online realm, it’s easy to find hyper-focused online communities that share your same passion for your favorite genre.
  2. The author is the brand, and brand matters – The #2 method of discovery, cited by 18 percent of respondents, was readers searching for books from their favorite authors.  This speaks to the importance of author as brand.  Once you earn the trust of readers and they know you’ll honor their time with a great read, they will search out your other books.
  3. Random browsing is big – The rest of the survey’s answers were distributed across the remaining answers, with none garnering more than 7 percent of the vote.  However, if you look carefully, taken in the aggregate, you learn that 27 percent of reader answers relate to random discovery.  Readers browse for books.  They’re looking for something to grab them.  The following are all random browsing methods: I browse book covers, and if it grabs me I investigate further (7 percent); I browse randomly then look at reviews (7 percent); I read free ebooks, and if I like the authors I buy their other titles (5 percent); I browse paper books at brick and mortar bookstores, then search for the ebook online (4 percent); I’ll sample anything, and if it grabs me I’ll download/buy it (4 percent). Most other answers involve some element of random browsing.

My survey is not without its flaws.  As mentioned above, I posed the question in an online community, so their answers aren’t necessarily reflective of all readers.  I limited the options to 12 answers, and I didn’t allow multiple choices.  I didn’t give respondents the option to specify if their answers would change based on whether they’re searching for fiction or non-fiction.

My survey flaws aside, I think the results provide important lessons for authors.  It’s clear, for example, that authors can utilize multiple touch points to reach readers.  The results also indicate that much of book discovery is about the readers finding you, not you finding the readers (thus my argument that marketing is not as important as some think).

How you can put these survey findings to use:

  • Your book is your most effective marketing tool.  Write a book that touches the reader’s soul and the reader will market your book for you though online word-of-mouth and reviews
  • Target the online communities.  A large portion of readers look to their online communities – whether it be MobileRead, Goodreads, LibraryThing, Facebook, or a specialty community – for book recommendations
  • Distribution is important.  The majority of book discovery, for ebooks at least, is happening in the online stores.  If your book isn’t available in all the major online stores, then readers cannot stumble across it when they’re randomly browsing.
  • Book covers matter.  Your cover image should be as good or better than the covers from large publishers.  The cover image should represent your book, and appeal to your target audience.
  • Leverage free.  A small portion of readers read free books first, and if your book makes them happy, they will seek out your other titles to purchase.  If you only have one title, consider making it free for a limited time, like 30-60 days, so you can build readership and reviews.
  • The survey reveals the many triggers that cause a reader to download and sample your book, such as the cover image, the book description, etc.  Think about how all these triggers work in unison.  Each factor is an opportunity to draw the reader in.  But also think about the opposite.  There’s a warning here.  In the comments over at MobileRead, readers made it clear that the same factors, poorly executed by you, can squander your potential success and cause the reader to click away.  For example, an unprofessional book cover image is an instant turn-off.  Typos in a book description are a turnoff.  Books that are not well edited and proofed, another turnoff.

Bottom line:  consider all the things you can do to make your book more available, more discoverable and more enticing to readers.

About the Author

Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, an ebook distributor serving the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and the Diesel eBook Store.  Mark is also the author of the Smashwords Style Guide (how to format and publish an ebook), the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any book), The 10 Minute PR Checklist (PR strategy for entrepreneurs), and Boob Tube, a novel he co-wrote with his wife that explores the wild and wacky world of daytime television soap operas.

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  1. Excellent article. I have found this to be very true. Most of my books that sell are ones I am NOT marketing. And when I’m looking for a book to read, I pick an author I like or I browse for something that catches my interest. The synopsis and sample play the largest role in my final decision in those cases.

  2. I’ve certainly learned a lot these last few weeks,and understand the value of free as it has drawn over 600 downloads for My Half of The Story,and drawn lots of returning visitors.I guess the numbers who’ve downloaded from other outlets is not bad too,so after a very long wait,and some random luck there’s motion.

  3. Joseph Veramu says:

    Thanks for this excellent and very insightful article.
    I started a discussion thread on it on Amazon Authors Forum and it is attracting interesting responses.

  4. Hi Joseph, thanks for the kind words, and thanks also for the expanding the conversation over at Amazon. Good conversation. I agree with one of the posters over there that discovery, done well, can be part of the marketing. For example, choosing a good title, or creating a professional quality cover image, or writing snappy book descriptions that grab the reader and help the reader connect are all forms of marketing.

  5. I’m pleased to see that Mark Coker says quality counts most–I believe this too–books written from the heart—have a good response—so, I like the message–spend more time writing, polishing—perfecting–less on foolinsh marketing–thanks, Mark

  6. Excellent info. With so much to look at online, more people are definitely browsing for the hell of it. I’ve had a few people “stumble” on my books, too.

  7. Thanks for the great article. You make some excellent points. I have tried the free download when posting short stories, and have found that I see a definite upswing in sales of my other stuff when I do that. One thing I make sure to do when I have a short up for free is to put links at the end of the story to my other works so they don’t have to go looking for them. One of the things I like about smashwords is the invoice I get for sales show when someone has bought more than one book it’s all on that one invoice. Someone buys all the works in a series after the latest one goes up for its introductory free time, it shows.

  8. Great news! These last weeks as I have struggled with how to develop a Promotion/Marketing campaign for my newly published novel, I kept getting this feeling that it wasn’t really the way to go, and now I know why. I’m happy to find out that readers are more interested in relationship and the intrinsic value of your work than being made subject to a strategic sales pitch or marketing ploy. Now we writers can relax and be writers, instead of trying to turn ourselves into online marketers (which is so time consuming anyway, it doesn’t leave time for the pursuit of your passion!)

  9. interesting article…they never share the total amount of people surveyed which makes these very soft numbers. But it still raises a good point that more people are shopping online and browsing for their topics.


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