“The reading of books is growing arithmetically; the writing of books is growing exponentially.” – Gabriel Zaid
A piquant observation made in Zaid’s 2003 work, “So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance”. How prophetic he was.
Fast-forward 13 years, and we’re witnessing an alarming asymmetry between reader growth and book numbers. Across key formats, the number of new books released per year is not matched by a commensurate increase in readers.
The result? More books are competing for fewer reader eyeballs. Readers feel swamped by digital noise, creating a paradox of choice. Authors are deafened by this same noise, widening the gap between talent and opportunity. Millions of books are left undiscovered. Both ends of the publishing spectrum suffer.
If an overabundance of books weren’t enough, other factors have exacerbated this discoverability problem:
A scarcity of attention. Mobile and tablet readers are more time-squeezed than ever, so unknown authors have less time to capture and maintain reader interest.
Saturated genre categories. Many book categories have a surplus of books on every topic, particularly in the case of non-fiction. The resulting overlap makes it harder for individual books to stand out.
Poor user-experience. Annoying file downloads, restrictive DRM and awkward page navigation deters many readers from sampling books online. Unless readers can try before they buy, the likelihood of an impulse purchase drops significantly.
Recent attempts to tackle this book discoverability problem are missing the mark:
At one end of the spectrum, we have “set and forget” book promotion platforms. These are largely devoid of interactive features, preventing regular and worthy engagement between authors and readers. Browsing these glorified databases in the hope of discovering a new book is about as absorbing as perusing a telephone directory.
Do they make books “searchable”? Yes. After all, the simplest metadata can make a book searchable in seconds … if the buyer already knows of its existence. Do they make books “discoverable”? A resounding no. If a buyer wants to surrender to the tides of serendipity ― to chance upon an unknown book by an unknown author, bookshop-style ― display sites are not the answer.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have social media networks. No shortage of real-time engagement, but for self-publishing authors, the outcome is often unsatisfying. Posts are transient, with a half-life of several hours in the case of Facebook, to several minutes in the case of Twitter.
The result? Valuable writing time is spent topping up live feeds. If Facebook’s algorithms display a post to around 16% of fans, paying to reach the other 84% becomes an unsustainable necessity.
More insidious, perhaps, is the way generalised social networks fail to target actual book buyers. Page-views don’t buy books; engaged readers do. One can imagine a near future in which all tech-savvy authors are connected to one another, each talking up the virtues of their latest release, while sweetening the deal with feline photos. Unless the cat is the author, serious book sales are unlikely.
Then we have specialist “book review” sites. These platforms are inherently skewed towards traditionally published authors, financed by a well-oiled PR and marketing machine. Self-published authors appear several clicks away from the Homepage ― far too far ― and are often rendered anonymous by a bloated interface.
Comment boards aren’t deactivatable at the author’s end, so fake and abusive reviews present serious credibility issues. Then the broader question: do reviews sell books? Do they matter to book buyers? Not unless the reviewer is a thought leader in their field, and the review page is generating a slew of visitors.
Finally, we have “incentivised discovery” platforms. The process of rewarding book advocates with free or discounted copies may seem attractive, but its artificiality makes it self-limiting. Are readers really going to invest time in recruiting a dozen friends to buy a $4.99 book just to get it 30% cheaper? If so, would they do it again? And will their interest ― and their subsequent book review ― be truly sincere?
So what should the ideal book discoverability platform do? What form should it take?
If the ultimate aim is to connect authors and readers with ruthless efficiency, books, not clutter, should take centre-stage. In UX terms: all signal, no noise. Clunky toolbars, bloated menus and intrusive banner ads not only reduce dwell-time, but engagement quality. A clean, image-centric interface that recreates the serendipity of the bookstore would be appealing in its simplicity; a virtual rendering of a time-honoured discovery process.