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Authors: How To Reach Readers In The Age Of The Algorithm

Authors: How to Reach Readers in the Age of the Algorithm

“It's a marathon, not a sprint,” says ALLi's US Advisor Jane Friedman, in this comprehensive article on how online search algorithms are changing the challenges of book marketing for self-published and trade-published authors alike. This piece is substantially longer than our usual blog posts, but is well worth reading for its detailed insight and advice.

Advice for Authors including Indie Self-publishing Authors

Jane Friedman, US Advisor

Last year, thriller novelist Jamie Freveletti signed with HarperCollins to write a novella in three parts after she noticed that Amazon was selling serializations. The novella featured a protagonist she’d already established in earlier novels, Emma Caldridge. The first installment of the novella launched in September 2012; the second, in November. Not long after the final installment was released in February 2013, “someone at Amazon flipped the switch,” Freveletti says. Her fall 2012 full-length Emma Caldridge novel, Dead Asleep, was selected as the Kindle Daily Deal. As of this writing, Dead Asleep holds the record as the second largest Kindle Daily Deal ever for HarperCollins. Freveletti’s novel became the number-one bestseller at Amazon, and remained in the top ten for several days.

Freveletti says this success came as a complete surprise; her publisher had no involvement in securing the promotion. She speculates that Amazon’s algorithms were tripped—that there was something about the sales behavior of her work that indicated to Amazon it could break out big if given special promotion on the site.

The success of Dead Asleep illustrates the fact that online promotions like the Kindle Daily Deal now have the power to turn a title into a bestseller overnight. Until recent years, when sales lightning struck, it would do so in the form of a favourable New York Times book review or a call from Oprah. But the increasingly dominant role of Amazon—and the ability of readers to discover a book through online retailers and Internet search—is changing what it means to successfully market a book.

Meanwhile, as this transformation in book marketing has taken shape, publishers have pushed the responsibility for marketing books onto authors. As breaking out becomes increasingly reliant on metadata and algorithms—the alchemy behind online book discovery—how relevant will traditional book-marketing techniques be to an author’s success?

Word-of-Mouth World

Given that publishers, authors, and agents tend to talk informally about book marketing being a crapshoot, what does it mean to successfully market a book? Publicist Leslie Rossman recalls, “My old boss, Stuart [Applebaum], used to say we don’t know if getting the word out about a book will sell the book, but we know they won’t buy it if they’ve never heard of it.”

The importance of word-of-mouth in marketing is one of the only things nearly everyone in publishing agrees about: sales are built by people talking about books with other people, and the conversation has to start somewhere. According to a 2012 industry study by Peter Hildick-Smith from Codex Group, 13 percent of readers recommend to 38 percent.

There are time-honored ways to generate word of mouth or conversation—such as bookstore events, traditional media, and reviews—and there are relatively new methods (some proven, some not) that use online tools. Most publishing professionals agree that what works is not a strict focus on one or the other, but a combination. (For more about effective, basic strategies in traditional book marketing, see Book Marketing: The Basics.)

Shifting Responsibilities from Publisher to Author

Traditionally, publishers shouldered, or at least shared, the responsibility of marketing their titles. But in the last decade (and possibly for longer), publishers have offered less marketing support and muscle to authors than ever before, in part because of the increasing number of titles coming through the pipeline. They’re not sending most authors on tour, they might not secure much traditional media, and there may not even be a marketing budget. Publicist Dana Kaye tells me, “We have worked with plenty of authors where their publisher has told them they’re doing nothing for the book.” Furthermore, authors are on their own when it comes to developing their websites and social media presence.

Even if an author understands at contract stage that the burden of marketing her book is mostly on her shoulders, such work is rarely a back-pocket skill she’s just been waiting to pull out. So authors often turn to their agent for insight, muddle through based on advice from author friends, or try a Google search. Some spend thousands of dollars on a publicist or PR firm in hopes of generating that elusive word of mouth. Many authors are discovering they’re good at self-marketing, while agents and publicists are adjusting their services to better serve authors who aren’t naturally skilled at spreading the word.

Whether fully their choice or not, writers have slowly been convinced to get out of their garrets, to put their writing aside—at least for a short time—and enter the commercial space to market their work.

Ttraditional marketing isn’t necessarily what makes a book break out; as in Jamie Freveletti’s experience, algorithms, metadata, and other online discoverability tools—arcane or even impenetrable to the layperson—could be the most powerful marketing tools of the very near future. And Amazon and Google aren’t exactly sharing their secrets.

Given that analyzing the data soup is typically an activity even less accessible to authors than PR outreach, how will the author-publisher partnership evolve to ensure books get discovered by the right readers?

Out of the Co-op and onto the Web

Traditionally, one of the biggest values publishers have offered authors is the ability to get their books into stores. It’s a value that goes beyond simple distribution; bookstore placement acts as a marketing function, particularly when the book is selected for front-of-store display, or has cover-out placement rather than spine-out placement. The more visible a book is, the better the chances of a reader stumbling upon it—and the better the chances of that reader talking about it with other readers. (Bookstore employees often add to this word-of-mouth cycle, serving as a key driver of discussion and recommendation of displayed titles.)

When books are placed on display, it’s called co-op. Not every book can get on display, obviously, plus publishers have to pay for play. The importance of physical bookstores—and just how much publishers should pay for using them as a showroom—resulted in an eight-month dispute in 2013 between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster, reportedly about how much the publisher should be paying in co-op fees.

As a result of the conflict, Barnes & Noble limited how many of the publisher’s titles it stocked in-store.

However, as more and more book sales happen through online channels (see this eye-opening research from Bowker), co-op is being replaced by discoverability—a buzzword that simply refers to how readers discover new books to read and buy. If fewer people are browsing bookstore shelves, publishers can’t count on the serendipity of the bookstore visitor bumping into a front-of-store display and taking a chance on a new author. Algorithms—the computing equations that drive searches and recommendations on Amazon, Goodreads, Google, Apple, and other sites—and promotions like the Kindle Daily Deal will play an increasingly important role in how readers discover and decide what to read next.

Since it’s impossible to know exactly what goes into the secret sauce of any algorithm—or how those algorithms will change over time—most digital marketing isn’t about gaming that system or knowing the algorithm, but rather helping algorithms “see” books or content.

Book publishing and marketing veteran Peter McCarthy—who recently announced he is forming a book-marketing business with Mike Shatzkin—has developed a digital marketing process that looks more like corporate market research than the usual media outreach efforts. McCarthy starts before the book launch with an analysis of consumer data. He uses a subset of 100 tools—made up of Facebook and Twitter insights, search-engine optimization tools, and other supporting analytics software—to plan and execute a campaign. He might start by looking at Google Trends, or how people outside the publishing industry will search for things related to a book, then complement that with Amazon autofill (how Amazon auto-completes your search on topics) to better understand how the consumer searches for books. That understanding then informs the search keywords associated with a book’s marketing campaign—which are part of a book’s metadata.

When Shatzkin and other experts talk about optimizing books to be “seen,” metadata comprehensiveness and strategy is a big part of what they’re alluding to. Metadata can be a confusing term, since its meaning can vary by industry and context, but generally, it means everything that is not the content itself, but how we describe and classify that content. At a BEA panel this year, Phil Madans from Hachette said that the original form of metadata in publishing was the book jacket. Now, it’s the information and keywords on a book’s product page on a website, and it requires the same care and attention as the cover. Metadata includes such information as cover image, author bio, excerpts, reviews, region codes, prizes or awards, target audience, tables of contents, and more. One Bowker study that’s been frequently cited at industry conferences shows that when a book’s metadata improves, online sales can lift by 11 to 28 percent.

Noah Genner of BookNet Canada, also speaking at the BEA, advised publishers that keywords are, well, key:

Everything gets indexed to discover keywords. Get keywords into your excerpts and reviews. Sit down with editorial and marketing, and the author if you can. Ask what is important to this book. Get those words into the metadata. It’s one of the cheapest and easiest tools for getting found. … Put in everything because someone might want it. It’s a missed opportunity if you don’t.

But whose opportunity is it? Since the responsibility for carrying out most book marketing efforts has largely shifted to authors, can authors really be expected to create the type of system McCarthy outlines, or even pay a consultant to do it for them? Publishers know there are far more potential readers for each book than are actually reached, and they’re also hearing that—currently—they aren’t necessarily the best at connecting authors to a readership. Even though there’s a powerful opportunity here for publishers to wrest some power away from tech powerhouses by offering authors the insights they desire but don’t yet have, it’s impossible to find any major publisher visibly considering that kind of author-focused strategy.

Brian Napack, the former president of Macmillan and currently an advisor at a private equity firm, said during a BEA interview that, right now, publishers are focused on acquisition, curation of content, and reaching audiences. In the next phase, they have to prove to authors that they’re worth what the authors pay them.

Catch Up If You Can

Authors who have succeeded on their own as self-publishers before signing traditional deals have been able to make greater demands on publishers when it comes to digital marketing. Bestselling author Sylvia Day, speaking at a 2013 industry conference, said she expects a comprehensive marketing plan that covers everything she’s not doing herself. To pass muster with Day, a publisher’s plan must hit a market she’s not already reaching. “[Publishers] need to find me a new audience, to broaden my audience. As far as digital is concerned, [publishers] cannot compete with what I’m doing on my own. You have to knock my socks off with a brilliant marketing plan to be my publisher.”

Everyone knows that megaphone and bestselling authors receive support and resources from their publisher, but what about debut and mid-list authors? Do they secure the support they need? McCarthy says much of it boils down to the author’s attitude when approaching the publisher for assistance or guidance, and that the common quality he notices in bestselling authors—those who sell more than a million copies—is that publishers love working with them. Rather than asking questions phrased with suspicion, or with a “what have you done for me lately” mindset, authors should ask straightforward, specific questions, and seek ways of collaborating, McCarthy recommends.

But authors shouldn’t rely solely on collaboration; as Day’s experience shows, an author in command of her own audience growth can outperform a traditional publisher in book marketing efforts, regardless of Amazon’s hidden levers and buttons. That goes for authors with traditional deals as well as self-publishers. Authors who have cultivated a direct connection to their readership—through their website or blog, e-mail newsletter, social media, or other online tools—can communicate with their readership between and during book launches to maximize sales and word of mouth. Authors who track and analyze their efforts, and make adjustments over time to maximize their impact, have more direct access, control, and insight into their readership, keywords and all. That’s something publishers sometimes can’t deliver, whether they want to or not.

The Long-Distance Author: It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

An unforeseen consequence of the digitization of reading and publishing is that the immediate gratification of discovering, downloading, and reading a book can lead to increased demand for an author’s work. Both traditional publishers and indie authors have discovered that writing and releasing a new work is one of the best and most reliable marketing tools for boosting sales of previous books and future works. This phenomenon can be so pronounced that high-profile and established self-pub authors have counseled newcomers to all but stop marketing efforts (except when it comes to optimizing metadata, of course), and instead focus on producing new work. Freveletti, too, mentioned the potential role of offering new titles in her own Kindle Daily Deal success; during the staged novella release, other works she’d written were also being launched, so that she had new work available frequently in a short window of time. She feels this boosted sales of her work across the board.

Write more, sell more? This phenomenon could be a dream or a nightmare scenario, depending on the author, and highlights a potential divide between commercial fiction authors and literary novelists in how they approach the marketing of their work. While it may be to an author’s benefit to release more work and be ever-present and discoverable online, a literary novelist is often far more concerned about preserving mystique, solitude, and time to labor over a work of art.

Of the general shift in marketing from publishers to writers, Bridburg says, “What worries me is that literary types and those who care deeply about the craft are going to get lost in the shuffle, because they’re very intimidated by [marketing] and they tend to have very introspective personalities.”

Another unintended consequence of the rise of the digital marketplace is that the practice of the book launch itself may be outdated. The idea of the book launch originates with traditional publishing, where the first few months of sales can make or break a book in terms of its physical placement in stores. There’s only so much space available, and if your book doesn’t sell, it has to clear the way for something else. But in the digital age, where online shelf space is unlimited, your book doesn’t have to hit immediately.

Independent authors who publish e-books through Amazon and other online retailers have been aware of this phenomenon for a while now. Author Joanna Penn writes, in How to Market a Book, “Launch sales are generally disappointing compared to what happens once the Amazon algorithms kick in and you get some traction around reviews and reputation.” Likewise, novelist Hugh Howey, who signed with a traditional publisher after succeeding on his own, said during an industry conference in May, “I don’t have a timeframe for a book to do well. I let readers be the one to discover it and tell everyone. They can do it with a level of excitement that’s more genuine than me. It’s a real slow burn.”

A longer version of this article appears in Jane Friedman's new magazine, Scratch, The Bottom Line for Writers. Members can download a free copy here: http://scratchmag.net/free-preview-issue.



This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. Jane,

    Congratulations on your success and thanks for a great review of where we stand. I know the impact of Amazon ranking and the focused effort it takes to achieve success. Breakout novels have always required a zeitgeist moment too,which is why the publishers cover all the numbers on the table with bets.

    It is good to see you setting the best seller bar at a million sales, though that alone won’t determine whether we like a novel in this era of the long tail.

    As ever we are left in a landscape of great opportunity, heightened competition and formidable challenges. I wish you well in your advisory role.

  2. Hi Jane, thank you for sharing your wide experience and insights into how independent authors can reach more readers. I’m greatly cheered to hear about algorithm – a revelations for me! My debut crime novel, Hacked, went on sale on Amazon November 1st 2013 and I’ve been struggling to get to grips with the promotion and marketing aspects. I’m getting there but i’m going to make your quote my watchword : “it’s marathon not a sprint”.

  3. In 2008 I released my first novel for free. In 2009 I put out one for sale. In 2010, and every year since, I’ve released three new novels.

    I focus on writing the best books I possibly can and on being available to and in contact with my readers (in that order), and I do not get stressed (much – I AM human!) about exactly how well each book is doing and whether I am promoting myself enough. In fact, I don’t promote much at all. I chat with readers, sign up for the promo sites that look good, and take that to be enough.

    I’ve now sold over 170,000 books, given away over 450,000 more, and am seeing only good things in the future. The slow burn DEFINITELY works. It takes time (years, for me) but it works. As long as your books connect with readers, it works. Eventually. 🙂

  4. I’ve just watched Jane’s interview with Orna and this post reinforces the messages there. Profound thanks Jane. The slow burn and new work method is what I’m doing and I sincerely hope it works. The meta data thing needs more study but I’m on it now thanks to this guidance.
    Great advice.
    David Rory O’Neill.

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