Business Musings: Discoverability in the 21st Century (Part Three )

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When this pandemic got underway, I filled my Twitter feed with information from actual doctors. I now follow many of them, who explain some things that I need to understand, send me down the rabbit hole of links on therapeutics and vaccines and other lovely science things, and generally keep me sane.

The morning I sat down to write this post, one of the doctors, Tom Frieden, who is a former director of the CDC, tweeted this:

BC = Before Covid.

DC = During Covid.

AC = After Covid? No time soon.

Frieden was talking about the disease. He could just as well be talking about the economy. He could also have been talking about the world we left behind.

The world we left is not one we will recover. The changes that we’re going through are vast. I dealt with some of those in the first post in this series. I will deal with many more of those changes as we go through them in the next year or more.

I also talked about the ways that these changes will impact the way that writers write. The conclusion, for those of you who don’t want to review, is simple: writers should write what they love.

Which begs the question: How can readers find your books in a world that’s constantly changing?

Yeah, I’ve said this before, including in my book Discoverability. I wrote the book a number of years ago, and while one or two of the methods described (usually as things to investigate, not do) are out of date, most everything in that book still applies.

It’s always been hard to find books. Always. Once upon a time, gatekeepers prevented us from seeing some books and helped us find others.

When I came into the business, paper book distributors were local businesses. My neighbor down the road owned a book distribution company. He specialized in finding books appropriate to readers in Oregon’s Central Willamette Valley. He knew what kinds of stores carried books, which books sold, and often what kinds of readers bought those books.

Back then, I also knew a man who owned (outright) a major science fiction book company and he could tell me which distributors sold what books. Writer A, for example, sold well in the Deep South. Couldn’t give Writer A’s books away in Chicago, though. There were only a handful of national bestsellers here in the U.S. What there were, then, were regional bestsellers.

Which regional bestsellers soaked up all the national press? Why, the East Coast regional bestsellers, of course. Because most of the bookstores that reported to the New York Times list were on the East Coast corridor. Funny, that.

But it didn’t matter, because there were major books columns in all of the major newspapers. Savvy publishers bought targeted ads in the book sections that appeared in all of those papers every Sunday.

This kind of discoverability only occurred for books published through traditional publishing. Writers who published their own books were seen as outliers at best, kooks at worst. Sometimes they pioneered great promotion techniques, but that was only because they couldn’t go through the established system. Bookstores wouldn’t take self-published books (as many of you know, even now), and no “reputable” newspaper would publish a review of anything self published.

Writers who weren’t college-educated, male, and white had a lot more trouble getting their books “discovered” or even published. The gatekeepers put African American books in their own section, even if the book had nothing to do with African American “issues.” And as for LGBTQ+ books? Well, until the 1990s, those were hard to find outside of stores that catered to feminists or the LGBTQ+ community or plain old sex shops.

So that whole idea of a uniform discoverability for each book was a myth, even back in the 20th century. It got worse in the 21st for a variety of reasons I don’t need to explore here.

With the explosion of ebooks published after the invention of the Kindle, it became clear to all of us who had been advocating for books that showed how diverse this country and world are that the market we believed existed was even bigger than we thought.

If you look at the early bestsellers in ebook, many of them were in categories not touched at all by traditional publishers. Many of those categories are still barely being touched by traditional publishers—not that it matters. Most of those traditional publishers are in serious trouble, which I will deal with in a future blog post.

None of that helps you get your book discovered.

That’s because almost everyone who writes thinks in 20th century uniform terms. They think that there is only one way to market a book, based on the belief that traditional publishers only used one way.

Granted, traditional publishers used variations on the one way of marketing a book, but they did use variations. And those variations usually changed by genre—once the regional distributors closed their doors. (Before that, the variations changed according to regions, emphasizing some books, going to certain influencers, handling certain topics and so on.)

Traditional publishers never marketed all of their books in the same way. The reason romance writers gained so much clout in the late 1980s was because those women took marketing into their own hands, visiting the regional distributors, bringing donuts to truck drivers (to make sure that they’d stack romance novels on grocery store shelves), and making sure that the romance novels sold well, even if they were marketed poorly through their publisher.

Eventually, the publishers noticed, but did they ever willingly send a romance novel to a newspaper for reviews? No. Did they ever willingly promote a romance novel to the supposedly secret New York Times bookstores? No. Did they ever willingly advertise a romance novel in The New Yorker? No.

Those perks (if you call it that) were reserved for “important” books.

People who worked in traditional publishing houses could hold more than one marketing strategy in their heads. Writers in 2020, it seems, cannot.

Some of that comes from the prevalence of indie gurus, who teach the wrong lessons. Those lessons usually are “here’s the one path to ebook bestsellerdom.” Some of those writers advocate major newsletter lists (the bigger the better) while others advocate some form of advertising that will goose algorithms, while still others will talk about writing to market (how old fashioned) or publishing every week. (See last week’s post for more on this.)

So how do you market your book? How do you get the most eyes you possibly can on your book? How do you goose sales?

Well…it depends.

Really, it does. Some books could use the algorithm treatment. If you want to promote a series of, say, ten books, then maybe goosing the algorithms on various etailer sites is a good idea. Only you goose the first book in the series, not the most recent book. You want people to read all of the books, right? Then make them start at the beginning.

Some things in indie are proving to be tried and true. A BookBub ad will return the cost of the ad plus for a book in a series. For a standalone, it’s generally not worth the money. Some of what many of us call “BookBub Lite” sites work in the same way. Some work best for romance. Some work best for LGBTQ+ and some work best for sf or mystery or whatever genre.

It takes work to figure all of that out.

In fact, a marketing campaign takes a lot of work. The work is worthwhile, generally for a series book and generally for a series with a number of books already finished and published.

Other things that work for series books in 2020? Some form of bundling. Right now, I have a Diving novel in a Storybundle, not in a space opera bundle, like you might expect, but a time travel bundle. I hope that readers who pick up the bundle because it also has work by Robert J. Sawyer or Michael Warren Lucas will read my standalone Diving book and get the whole series.

But that’s not the current Diving novel. The current novel will stealth publish in a few days. It’s one of those books I wrote to explain something to me, so it’s out of order and not what the fans are waiting for. That book will appear in February. We already did a Kickstarter on it so hardcore fans could get the book early.

I’ll be doing another Kickstarter in 2021 for a different series. The reason for that Kickstarter will be a literal kick-start to an older series, because I need a kick in the behind. I know it, and will use the Kickstarter tool for that particular project in a completely different way.

Discoverability is both easier and harder than it was in 2011 for all entertainment. We’re no longer working on the scarcity model (see the first in this series). Now, we can read what we want when we want it, and watch what we want when we want to. Think about the wealth of material on the streaming services; the tv and film industries are trying to figure out the same things the publishing industry is.

But the algorithms already “know” what we have never acknowledged in the literary community. We’re a niche business. We always have been. SF writers sneered at literary writers (and their small sales). Mystery writers craved mainstream attention. Romance writers worked in their own bubble. Literary writers went through their grants and awards and in-person signings, often with an eye toward some guest professor gig.

Writers “outside of the mainstream” (meaning not white, male, and straight) had their own publishing houses and their own distribution networks.

Many writers remained proudly in their subgenres and many others tried to claw out of them. Nothing worked. Because readers read what they want to read when they want to read it. You can’t really predict that a noir reader might also like very frothy Regency books—but I do. And I like many other things, as do other readers.

We’re not one-subgenre-and-done folks. And we never have been.

Nor, when we writers do what I recommended last week, are we one-subgenre-and-done writers. Most of us want to write in a variety of voices and genres. We want to explore and think about things in a variety of ways.

The writing part is fun and challenging and what we really care about.

The marketing we had once hoped to leave to our traditional publishers, not realizing that they wouldn’t do the work and if they did, they’d do it badly.

Now, the marketing is up to us. And mostly, stealth publications like the one I mentioned above are just fine. In fact, they should be the norm. It’s a big deal to the writer to have a new book out, but the world won’t stop because of it.

Just let your hardcore fans know through your newsletter and your website and your social media, and move on to the next project. (Oh, and your newsletter? In my humble opinion [and realize it’s just my opinion], you’re better off with a newsletter filled with hardcore fans than a newsletter filled with names you got off some list. The fans will buy your books; the names will delete the email unopened.)

Marketing should be strategic, as I mentioned above. If you have a series, do some promotion with that magical first book in the series whenever a new book comes out. Or, if you have standalones inside the series, use them for a variety of different promotions, like that Storybundle.

Experiment. If there’s a new tool out there that might work for marketing—and I have no idea what that might be; so many are invented all the time—try it with one of your books that doesn’t sell as well as the others. That book might not have found its audience yet. Help it do so.

The one thing I would recommend strongly is this: Go wide. The more places your book is available, the better off you’ll be. You have no idea how many readers you’ll find from the one reader who found your book through some tiny etailer in Italy.

Right now, Dean and I are sorting through our extra copies of our traditionally published books. We don’t really need 50 copies of a book we first published in 1995, especially since it is now out in a different edition from WMG Publishing.

So, we’re sorting through, keeping some, and slowly donating the rest to libraries for their library sale. We’ll also keep some for donating to various charity events and other things—that don’t require us to put the books in the mail. One paper book usually has a minimum of five readers. If one of those readers becomes a fan, then the donation more than pays off.

If you always remember that your goal as a marketer is to get one reader at a time, hoping to build a fan base, then putting yourself into an exclusive market like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited is a bad idea. Yeah, you might end up with a lot of Amazon readers—and, at the moment, Amazon is the biggest marketplace in the U.S. and U.K, but what happens to you if Amazon decides to shut down Kindle Unlimited? Hmmm?

That’s an old argument, though. The better argument is this: why are you limiting your audience to their audience. The name of the site is Kindle Unlimited not Your Author Name Unlimited. Not every reader goes through that site, and not every reader wants to.

So if some reader hears about your book from a book blogger, say, and goes to find the book on Kobo and can’t, learning that the book is exclusive to Amazon, well then, you don’t have a new fan, you have a vaguely pissed off reader who not only can’t buy your book, but doesn’t want to even consider your work anymore.

Besides, a lot of the cool marketing tools that exist now are for places other than Amazon. A lot of the successful marketing that we’ve done has been in Amazon’s competition, building our readership there.

In addition to niche readership, there’s niche marketing. We are in the midst of a Kickstarter for the second Holiday Spectacular, and we funded in four hours—which we did not expect. Why? Well, some of that is the success of last year’s Spectacular, but some of it is because we’ve been building a community of readers on Kickstarter, readers who get the books directly from us.

Experimenting with Kickstarter has been a project of ours for more than a year now. It’s a cool idea that we’re having fun with, and it’s slowly paying off.

When you finish a book, give a marketing campaign some thought. Figure out if you want to stealth publish, as we are doing with the latest Diving novel, or if you want to put some money and time into promoting the new book.

Figure out what you will gain if you do so. If you’re only going to gain $50 or so in sales, then it’s not worth your time. If you’re building to something larger, then go for it.

Pay attention to current events. WMG Publishing did a BookBub promotion over the summer for my Kris Nelscott book, Days of Rage, because the book is (sadly) timely, given the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. That book has been out for about ten years, and yet it got new readers and a real boost because of that promotion (which was not my idea, by the way, but something the folks at WMG came up with on their own).

Pay attention to the changes in trends…not so that you can write them. But if you’ve already written in that trend, jump on the bandwagon…if you have time.

What you have to get your brain around, for 2020 and beyond, is that we’re never going (back) to that (mythical) world of uniform marketing. There isn’t one audience to grab, but hundreds of audiences that produce thousands (if not millions) of fans.

Find your niche, but don’t stay there. That niche might exist for one type of book. You might have a separate niche for another type of book. Or you might need to think about your books in more than one way.

I never think of the Diving novels as time travel books, even though they have a huge time travel component. Yet, one is featured in a time travel bundle…that I curated. I thought outside my writerly box.

When you decide to do promotion—and it is always a decision, never a requirement—make sure you approach that promotion from a wide variety of angles.

Remember one thing, though. Anything that takes away from writing and publishing needs to return a lot of…something…to your publishing business. Note that I didn’t say money. Sometimes you do these promotions for reasons other than money. Building a readership maybe, or simple experimentation to see how something works.

But your primary job is to write and publish. All the rest is noise.

This is true now, During Covid, and it will be true After Covid. Maybe more so, when we all bust out of our homes without masks.

The world will be different, but readers will still want something to read. They might be used to finding the books in those niche markets by then. They certainly won’t be finding many in bookstores, as bookstores are literally vanishing.

It’s long past time to think outside the box—because the box is going away. (If I want to extend the metaphor, the box has been disassembled for recycling; the box is now being used as a cat tree; the box is…oh, you get the idea.)

The more I think about the future of writing and publishing, the more excited I get. I love the idea of more content, rather than less. I love the idea of more opportunity for all of us.

I’m also happy that the old world—BC—of traditional publishing is being up-ended. It was out of date twenty years ago, but it was hanging on by a thread. Now that thread is fraying badly.

The rest of us are already building a new world for writers and readers. We just have to recognize that world for what it is.

We also have to realize that our niche might not suit another writer. Our niche is ours. Time to own it. Time to focus on what we bring to the table as individuals.

Readers will find us—if we let them. We just have to be patient, and respect the process.


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“Business Musings: Discoverability in the 21st Century (Part 3),” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / AZALIA.

8 thoughts on “Business Musings: Discoverability in the 21st Century (Part Three )

  1. So if some reader hears about your book from a book blogger, say, and goes to find the book on Kobo and can’t, learning that the book is exclusive to Amazon, well then, you don’t have a new fan, you have a vaguely pissed off reader who not only can’t buy your book, but doesn’t want to even consider your work anymore.

    This may apply generally, but in LitRPG you’re in Kindle Unlimited or you go unread. And at eighty percent (supposedly) of the ebook market, I’d imagine there’s a few other niche genres out there like this.

      1. So what happens to that writer’s career if Amazon decides to discontinue Kindle Unlimited?

        Good question. And I’m honestly not sure. I think the subgenre is now popular enough that if everyone is on a level playing field at least some authors, the most popular ones, would continue to do fine. But I suspect discoverability for new authors would be much more difficult. The other issue might be, given that the main audience for LitRPG is young men,…I suspect there’s a higher tolerance for sailing the high seas. Meaning former readers via KU might simply go that route.

        There’s a very popular LitRPG-adjacent author who was banned for life from Amazon (not just KU) and Audible who is now funding everything through Indiegogo and Kickstarter, sending out ebooks via bookfunnel, and releasing audiobooks through Bandcamp. Not quite sure of the relevance to the topic at hand, but there does seem to be life after Amazon in some cases. But, of course, he was popular BEFORE he was banned, so what will be interesting to see is whether his initial success post-Amazon sticks. I honestly have no idea how he will attract new readers, but the success of his current campaigns surprised me enough that I’ll admit I was wrong there and very well might be wrong with what happens moving forward.

  2. “…you’re better off with a newsletter filled with hardcore fans than a newsletter filled with names you got off some list. The fans will buy your books; the names will delete the email unopened.”

    People who did newsletters in the 80’s and 90’s worked constantly to keep their lists clean and current. Duplicates, bad addresses, and people who really didn’t want the newsletter anymore were a waste of postage.
    Now it’s basically free, so the financial incentive to make sure that your email goes only to the people who really want it are gone. I’ve seen comments from writers that don’t mind that 90% of their mailing list is chaff. But to me that’s the standard: if you had to pay a dollar per newsletter to send it, who would you send it to and who not? Do you know who those people are?

    If I sign up for a newsletter, I’m hoping for something that speaks to me as a fan, not something that is sent en mass to the unconvinced who simply wanted a free book.

  3. Thank you, Kris.

    Do you feel it’s a bad idea to give away a book 1 in a series to new email subscribers or even just keeping book 1 free on the stores?

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