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What the iPad Told Me

So. The Unicorn has arrived and everyone is busily playing. Apart from all the pros and cons – which are really noisy – what this means is that we have yet another way to search for and access books.

Anyone who doubts that most readers are searching for their next good book online is not paying attention. Review publications are shuttering. The Sunday book review section in your local paper – seen it lately? if I’m wrong, but I believe the New York Times Book Review is pretty much the only big consumer review still published on paper. (Except for industry-specific publications like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, which – as we know – are going through struggles of their own.) And of course all of these have websites and license their reviews to e-commerce engines.

So how do people find out about good books?

If they’re interested in trade books – fiction, genre books – they probably go to Amazon or B&N.com. They read the customer reviews. They also go to blogs – Dear Author, Smart Bitches.

If they’re interested in specific subjects – cooking, history, biography – they probably Google what they’re interested in (“Indian cooking”), and link out from those search results.

Online discovery has become the new book review.

Which poses a new set of challenges to publishers. How do you get your books to come up first in a search? How do you reach the right bloggers and get effective reviews out there? To many publishers who are grappling with this, it all looks like a crapshoot. And several small publishers I know have simply thrown up their hands rather than tried to understand the way readers are now looking for books (and consuming them).

Search is not easy to understand. Most of us type something into the Google box, and expect that what comes up will be appropriate, correct, the best resources out there on the subject. Librarians will tell you that this is a fallacy – there are plenty of things Google doesn’t pick up. Just because a searcher doesn’t find it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Much of that “findability” (and I know I beat this drum a lot, but it still, apparently, needs beating) has to do with a book’s metadata. Not simply title and author, but the BISAC codes, the description, the table of contents – anything that describes what the book is about. If a publisher is not paying attention to metadata, it will be much harder for readers to find that publisher’s books.

Another aspect of “findability” is how many times that book is mentioned on the web. Which means…bloggers. As a publisher, you want your books to be reviewed as often as possible on the web. So a crucial strategy for any publicity department is to create a roster of bloggers and get them review copies (many prefer these to be digital).

There are some fantastic tools out there for publishers trying to pinpoint bloggers – NetGalley is a great one. And a brand-new effort (by Brett Sandusky of Kaplan and Rebecca the Book Lady) just launched yesterday: an anonymous survey of bloggers which will cycle back to publishers and help them strategize their publicity approaches.

Regardless of the iPad’s hype, it is the latest of many horses to leave the barn (trains to leave station, cats to jump out of bag, genies to come out of bottle). Consumption is increasingly digital. Discovery is almost wholly digital. Publishers need to recognize this, understand it, and figure out how to make it work for them.
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