The New Ways to Reach Readers

readingKevin Smokler has an excellent op-ed at Publishing Perspectives on how authors and publishers need to think in order to reach readers. I don’t agree with all of it, but the basic message is right on target: “Don’t ask readers to buy a book based on trust. Find a compelling way to preview it for them, and mass produce that.”

What we need is the equivalent of an “MP3 format” for fiction: a modest snack-sized dabble of new books and stories, capable of the same ubiquity that the MP3 has brought to recorded sound. Say what you will about how hard the 21st century has been for the music business, it remains an unparalleled golden age for music fans where exploration, discovery and kaleidoscopic fandom has never been easier nor more culturally encouraged. That record labels have not found a way to stay in business despite this bounty is both their own fault and a mistake book publishers should not repeat.

Now I’m not one to claim that multimedia is the way to go. There are few things that turn me off from a book than a movie-style “book trailer” (heck, I don’t even like trailers for most movies). Likewise, I don’t really care if you’ve documented your book with a behind-the-scenes photo shoot or have written a series of witty limericks that you accompany on your banjo.

Books’ main strength always has been–and continues to be–that they are unique in our entertainment universe because they are almost universally composed of nothing but written words (and other associated typographical symbols). If you look around, that’s a pretty unique asset these days. It’s clearly reason why I like reading so much. In terms of previewing books, marketers need to figure out how to work with this, not against it.

As to how to best do that, this, in my opinion, is great advice:

The hard reality of our time and our business is that there are a lot of books, and they compete with a lot of other attractions (and distractions) for your customer’s time and money. Plus, your best customers — avid readers — are actually less hungry for “shiny new books” than you think and already have more than enough books to fill their reading lives, most likely, until death. Given how many great books most people already own, ”new” and “fresh” by themselves are not alluring, and “new” without “why” is mere ballast.

This is absolutely true. I already own way too many books, but I’ll always buy another book if the book really excites me. If I can be convinced that this book in my hands has the right to jump to the head of my to-be-read pile because I really, really want to read it right now, then at that point the price of buying it new becomes just an afterthought.

But all the time I read marketing pitches that don’t come close to giving me this sensation. It’s true: they just trot out the cliches of the new and the fresh without giving me any sense of why I would want to experience that particular title.

From my own experience, I can say that Google Book has been very effective in serendipitously recommending me book that I not only browse but also end up purchasing. If a marketer could figure out how to harness my search terms to give me previews of upcoming books, I think that would be powerful indeed. By that same token, well-written, trustworthy criticism often is a much more powerful draw to new books than anything I get from marketers. That’s not to wholly discount marketing or to say that there aren’t marketers out there who do excellent work, only that there are other avenues than the standard techniques being used right now.

Though I’m generally on Smokler’s wavelength in this piece, I disagree rather strongly with this contention of his:

Trust: There is now an entire industry of online services, radio shows, MP3 blogs and music festivals, designed to expose like-minded music fans to new artists. We in publishing don’t have this, at least not as formally. Most readers trust book recommendations from friends long before those from publishers, editors, critics or even booksellers. Thankfully, the technology now exists to make those relationships both visible and workable. It would require significant investment from many competing interests, but imagine what a Netflix or iTunes of fiction could do for the reading experience, where books are put in play with other cultural interests — film, music, television — and you can quickly discover that a love of Mad Men might be a strong predictor for a love of Walker Percy.

Publishing quite definitely has an online collection of taste-purveyors that is at least as formally entrenched as the film or music industry’s. One of the biggest compliments I receive on this site is when people tell me they bought a book because I recommended it, or when people tell me that they’ve discovered countless new books through this site. And I know that this blog is far from being the only one that provides this service for readers.

Beyond blogs and other sites that have sprung up from the grass roots, we book-lovers also have more formalized taste-recommendation engines. Smokler is right to say that these engines have helped consumers discover new music, films, etc, but I disagree completely that we don’t also have this for books. The major online booksellers and other interested parties are clearly already doing this. If we don’t have one that is as widely recognizable as NetFlix is for movies or iTunes is for music, that’s because no one single player has managed to dominate the industry, and that’s a good thing. A world where Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, Borders, and Google Book all compete to recommend the best books to me is a much better one than one in which just one of these entities dominates the taste-recommendation market.

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Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. I think there’s a lot here to take in that I hadn’t considered.

Regarding Netflix/iTunes etc. I guess what I was looking for was some kind of giant marketplace of snakcable book bites, paired with collaborative filtering which would say “You like x author you haven’t heard of before because I see from your Goodreads account that you love Toni Morrison.”

Does that exist and I don’t know about it?

Hey Kevin,

And thank you for the great editorial. I agree that what you’ve outlined in your comment isn’t really available at the moment for books in any one place, though I do think that you have something similar to that in the aggregate. Probably the closest one thing to what you’re asking for would be Google Book, insofar as some publishers are beginning to put up significant previews of new books. I also think there’s potential with Scribd, if someone can figure out how to link a taste recommendation engine to the growing number of previews going up via that technology.

But assuming someone managed to combine the best elements of the various rec. engines into one place, I suppose my question would be whether the benefits of having all the info be outweighed by subtracting the independence of the voices?

Hmm. Could you last question be answered by having certain voices (like say those you “favorite” or “add as friends”) weighed more heavily than others?

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