Thursday, March 13, 2014

Discoverability: How it Works.

Louis Shalako

Much has been written about passive discoverability for books. 

The same theories would hold for other products.

The basic premise is that a good product will sell, even without promotion. Sooner or later, if you publish a book, and make it available in as many venues as possible, it will sell one copy.

That would be the first copy on any given platform.

Selling that first copy easily doubles the chances of selling the second copy. Without selling a single copy, your book has no ranking at all on Amazon. When I sell one copy in a given category, my ranking might be, as I saw recently, #116,567 in the overall sales rankings, in (or on) Amazon. That would be book sales and not lawn mowers or sheepskin coats. Rankings are by category.

The trouble with promotion is that it can be spam, and it can simply go on too long. It can be over-projected at too small an audience, who quickly tire of it because they’ve seen it fifty times. Other more active forms of promotion, such as a newsletter, are labour-intensive, as a newsletter requires actual news, content, games, contests, all kinds of stuff can go in a newsletter.

How big is your email list? Mine is composed exclusively of magazine and book editors, a half a dozen writers, (maybe,) and my sister and my mother, maybe an aunt or two. It’s not a big list, and why in the hell anyone would want to be bombarded by a constant stream of news by some unknown guy is a mystery.

How does passive discoverability actually work?

If someone is browsing in a genre, and you have a book in that genre, if they keep looking long enough, your book will be presented to them, based on its numerical ranking. It might take days or weeks of browsing, but it will eventually show up.

Ah, but retailers like Amazon also know their customers as individuals. They have their previous browsing and purchase history, which is used to tune that product-presentation algorithm we keep hearing about. If your book is in a genre they like, the odds increase for that customer and your book to come together.

This is why giveaways are so important. Someone who has taken a free copy of your book is much more likely to be presented with another one of your books, one with a price on it, the next time they come back to the store, or at some point in their future browsing.

It’s almost too easy to set a price for free on Smashwords, and let the book get down through all the distribution channels. At some point, a free book, in this example a new release, will be ‘purchased’ on another distribution platform. Smashwords added Baker-Taylor Blio, for example.

Very few of my older titles have gone out the door, even something set at perma-free. When Smashwords (somehow) sent them 200,000 titles, there was no way what was mostly backlist, would show up in the ‘just released’ stream that all book-selling websites have. They were merely added to the catalog. The new releases are on the front page of the website, where searches will land prospective customers. It’s a good place to be, right?

Want some customer to ‘discover’ you? And your backlist? Publish something new. It must show up in that new releases stream. And if they look at your book and then click on your name, then they will see your backlist on that website.

I bring this up, because on those sites—unless you actively promote each and every title in your backlist, for each and every site—Kobo, iTunes, Diesel Books, etc.—then those books must be relying solely on passive discoverability.

What this (I guess) represents is an experiment of sorts.

How long will it take for the first unit to sell, on a new platform, whether it’s a catalog-addition (say my backlist title Heaven Is Too Far Away, the first book I ever published in Sept. 2010) or a new release?

That depends on the number of people using that site, i.e. store traffic, the length of the store’s list, category-by-category, and other factors of desirability, such as the cover. Some genres are more popular and there is the product description, and then there is price.

A whole bunch of factors go into the decision to buy a book, and outside factors such as the economy, or a customer’s employment status, (or what sort of mood they’re in,) all beyond our control, also play a role.

I’ve found it pretty easy to use the system unthinkingly. For example, on Smashwords, I set up a story for free, and then basically just forgot about it. That book might fly out the door at first, but after a while, the ‘sales’ of that free book drop off markedly. If I was going to set a price on that book, the best time to do it might have been while it was still hot. The trouble with that one is that it’s the first one in a series. I could set a price on it and try and make a few sales, and set another one in the series at a promotional price. That takes thinking, planning, and hands-on running of the publishing machine.

Everything I say about algorithms is pure speculation, but some authors have reported a ‘bump’ in sales after using Kindle Select. It works far better if you have given away 10,000 copies of a book in one day as opposed to a guy like me giving away forty copies a month for a couple of months, or even years at a time. 

That’s what they mean when they say ‘velocity.’

That book is going out faster than mine—it has more velocity. In future browses, no matter who it is, more people are likely have that book in their history than mine—that author’s next book will be more likely to be presented to them than mine.

I have noticed, if you slow down and stop publishing new titles, (say the Louis Shalako books) the older titles can drop right off. If you never promote, your titles will fall to some natural level, and this is the land of pure discoverability. Someone’s really going to have to love books or feel that they simply must have a dig in the crypt!

But it’s tough sometimes to sell maybe three copies of a new book and then watch it slowly plummet into infinity. This is the single biggest reason why everyone wants to promote.

It’s a natural and compelling urge.

I say that because at the rate new books are being added, the sales rankings will quickly involve, in the next five or ten years, fifty million titles.

It could go to a hundred million pretty damned quick.

An American or a Canadian author (or publishing house) might quickly lose interest if all they’re making from a long list of books is thirty or forty bucks a month. That might represent real money to someone subsisting in another part of the world, and we all find the notion that we might somehow get lucky and strike it rich pretty insidious. I’m sure they feel the same way.

The competition will only get fiercer, ladies and gentlemen.

So, four years after getting Heaven Is Too Far Away into the iTunes store, I sold my first copy of the book, at $5.99, which results in a pretty good royalty after retailer and Smashwords’ cut.

Selling that first book on iTunes more than doubles the chances of selling a second book. Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery has a ranking on iTunes. That took years. In the last four years I probably did ‘promote’ those books by tweeting out an iTunes link or something, but that particular sale of Heaven Is Too Far Away, is almost certainly by passive discoverability.

Unless the customer somehow knew my name, knew the title of the book, or searched some key word like Red Baron, or WW I, or some other key word in the metadata for the book.

A combination of factors, including the cover, the blurb, the preview, key words in metadata, the number of customers in the iTunes store, the genre, it somehow all came together to sell one single copy of that book in that particular store, on that particular day.

The other thing is simple popularity of the genre. Parody WW I memoirs are only going to interest so many people, whereas the latest horror novel by the King of the horror genre will interest a lot more folks.

There’s not much I can do about that except write some horror and get in there and compete.

(Horror's not my thing, so that's kind of an empty threat.)


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