Discoverability: The Key to Success

Mpepper/ January 5, 2024/ Writing Advice

Someone posted a question on Twitter (X) earlier that caught my eye: What do you think of publishers that don’t offer distribution to bookstores? My immediate gut reaction was, “Nope.”

Now, to be fair, my husband will tell you “nope” is my default setting. So I paused to read a few responses. Many requested clarification in that there is a difference between no distribution at all and digital-only distribution. Since I can’t imagine a publisher not offering any kind of distribution (are there such publishers? please tell me), I had assumed the OP meant physical distribution to outlets like Barnes & Noble. Which seemed to be the case.

What surprised me was that many people didn’t find a lack of physical distribution to be a dealbreaker. For me, it would be, and here is why.

There are a limited number of ways readers find books. Word of mouth is the big one. If you’re lucky enough to go viral on BookTok or BookTube or one of those other sites, congratulations. But this requires you to either already be a creator with tons of followers, or for one of the creators on those sites to find your work and promote it.

Barring a lucky break, your book needs to be where readers browse. Places where they go to look for books—where they are ready and willing and in the mindset to find and purchase. That means bookstore [and library] distribution. Because even the BookTok peeps are out hunting now and then for their next big thing. (Well, maybe not, since so much is being pushed at them. They may never have to actually shop for books.)

It is very difficult to find new books while browsing a site like Amazon, which is geared towards people already knowing what they are looking for. Yes, Amazon suggests similar titles and authors, but there is something tactile about the process of seeing a book, being intrigued by its cover, picking it up and checking the blurb, reading the first few pages… Amazon attempts to recreate these actions with a thumbnail and “read sample” option but it is not equivalent, and I would suggest most people on the site are not in the same mindset as when they are in a bookstore or library.

Therefore, I would want a publisher to put my books in places where readers browse. Where my books can be discovered. I recognize that I’d still be a small fish in a very full pond, but a bookstore or library is finite; my book would be one of thousands rather than millions or billions. Curious readers are simply more likely to find it, pick it up, try it.

I’ve worked with small publishers in the past, and I would say their lack of ability to get my books into physical stores and libraries was one of the greatest obstacles to profitability and success. It is almost impossible to be seen and heard amidst the noise online. In the relative quiet of a bookstore or library, the odds are much better.

In short, people discover books by:
1. Word of mouth from friends or trusted critics/influencers
2. Browsing in bookstores and libraries
3. Repeated ads and/or other mentions*

* It’s shown that a consumer must see a product mentioned 7 to 15 times in different settings before they are likely to finally try it. That means seeing the book mentioned, referenced, advertised, etc. that many times—and not just by the author’s repeated tweets!

A publisher is only worth their cut of your profits if they can sell your book better than you can yourself. That means more than just a cover design and proofreading pass. The publisher should be able to get your book in front of readers and sell it to them (rather than saying you’re responsible for your own marketing). Whether it’s a big publishing house that can buy table space at major bookstore chains, or a smaller publisher with savvy promotion tactics and niche contacts, any decent one should be able to get you reviews and place your book in stores and libraries. If they can’t, you’re really just paying them to slap their logo on your book’s spine. That may feel validating in the moment, but it won’t do much for you in the long run.

Personally, I would never enter into an agreement with a publisher who could not give me a marketing plan for my book. One that tells me they know who my audience is and how to reach it, and that they have the knowledge and resources to do so. And part of that plan would definitely need to be physical distribution.

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