Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Readers Find Books (These Days)

One thing I hear a lot, when I tell people about search engines and Google Juice and how the internet is helping readers find books, is this:

"But I never search for books on Google. How could I search for a book I haven't even heard of? Who are these mutants who find books that way?"

Well, yeah. Nobody searches for books they haven't heard of, at least not with a search engine. It's impossible. You have to type in what you're looking for.

And yet, Google helps readers find books they've never heard of.

To understand how, you first have to think about how readers find books at all. There are many ways, but I'm going to start with the one that's a lynch pin to the others:

No matter how you find a book -- browsing at the store, or mentioned on a blog, or in a review -- most people notice and buy a book first because they've heard of the book or the author. Even when you aren't intentionally looking for familiar names, if you browse a shelf in a bookstore, you are naturally attracted to the the titles and names which look familiar.

And odds are, most of the time, the books you buy are by authors you've read before.

So the more familiar you are with an author or book, the more likely you are to recognize it, pick it up or click on it, and check out the cover, blurb and maybe sample, and then buy it. Any of those other things may be the trigger which actually prompts you to buy, but familiarity is what gets you to that point.

Advertisers have an old rule of thumb that a consumer has to be exposed to a product seven times before it registers on their awareness. Note, I didn't say "before they buy," I said "before it registers awareness." It's only after that point that most of the rest of the sales factor kicks in -- an attractive cover or description or whatever.

So what advertisers are trying to do is not really sell you on the product, but just make it familiar to you. And 90 percent of marketing is just finding ways to get the product where people will see it.

Of course, this is one of the reasons why word of mouth is so much more important than any other kind of advertising. It isn't just your friend's opinion. It's the fact that you hang out with your friends, so you will be more likely to come in contact with things your friend owns. If a friend has a book in his living room -- on a shelf or side table, you're going to see it more than once. And you may well hear about it more than once.

And they do say that even if you ask your friend about it, and he shrugs and says "it was okay" -- you are still more likely to remember the book and check it out because you had a personal interaction regarding the book. (Not because that interaction impressed you, or even that you remember the interaction consciously. It's just that your brain will hold on to bits of that interaction because it was personal.)

There are some people who literally never browse for new books by authors they haven't heard of.

I've talked to a number of such people, and some are adamant, they NEVER read reviews or look at best seller lists. Some even claim they never talk about books with their friends.... and yet they are avid readers and don't have trouble finding books.

How does this happen?

Because, even though they don't read reviews, they do see headlines of reviews in the paper or on blogs. Even if they never talk about books with their friends, they see the book on the friend's coffee table. They read articles about authors, or interviews. They meet authors online in forums. They read articles written by authors about the future of publishing. They see a book mentioned in someone's sig. They see an ad. They see it in the "also bought" list on other books on Amazon.

None of those things have ever convinced this reader to buy a book. But all of them together make a book feel like a known quantity. And once it's a known quantity, then the reader is open to checking it out.


I once wrote a post on this blog about Inspector Slack, the policeman in some Miss Marple stories. Once a month or so, someone hits my blog from a Google search on Inspector Slack. Now, remember that Slack is not a major character, so odds are these people are not looking for a book to read. Furthermore, Slack is pretty boring in the books, and so odds are that people searching on that name are more likely to share a certain taste with me: that is, they really like the way David Horovitch portrayed the character in the earlier BBC series.

So Google brings people to my blog who share my tastes. These people are not looking for my books, and are not likely to just buy my books. But they will have seen my covers, and maybe my name. Some will stick around and become fans of my blog, and eventually I will be a "familiar" name which they may buy my books.

But most will just read that one post, and maybe vaguely remember my book covers and maybe a title or name. If they see it again, it will look a little familiar.

The fact that Google brought a potential fan to my site is not where the real juice (power) is. The real juice is in those connections I told you about last week. Because those same people will come across my name or my cover or something I wrote, or a comment I made on some other blog -- so they will hear of me again, due to other searches that have nothing to do with me or my books.

And more importantly, this interconnectedness applies to people who are fans of that early BBC version of Miss Marple, who never ever searched for anything on my blog. But they searched on something else which brought them to a blog which is connected to mine because of a common interest.

In the real world, such connections fade. Newspapers get thrown away and recycled and line bird cages. Signs get replaced and repainted. You have to keep marketing and marketing to build up that kind of awareness

Here's the thing that's different about the world of Search Engines: Google saves everything. It's all there forever. Even if it's deleted, it's in an archive somewhere. And once the data is in, and Google has identified a customer as someone who is interested in old fashioned mystery, and Google has identified me as being legitimately associated with old fashioned mystery, Google will start putting me into that person's line of sight more often.

Remember, nobody is unknown to Google.

The problem with this process (if you could call it a problem) is that it's very slow. Google is looking for legitimacy.

For instance, when a site first appears on the internet, that page may be available for a day or two, and then disappear from search for three to six months. Why? Because Google puts new sites into the "sandbox" to play with the other babies until a site is mature. It's checking you out, seeing if you play well with others, if you will continue to create consistent content. Bad behavior can put you in the sandbox for good, but usually it's just a matter of time before Google lets you out into the real world.

Google sees time as a legitimizing factor. The longer you're around, the more Google likes you.

The other factor Google and other search engines look for is quality "content" -- in a relatively high volume. These two factors kind of fight each other, because you can spread a lot of low quality content quickly. That's one way to get high volume. Run around to every blog in the universe an comment with a little "Nice post, visit my website."

If you do that, I can guarantee that Google will dock points not only from your site, but also from the site you posted on. A few comments like that will be ignored, but generally, forcing the quantity like that will get you back in the sandbox. It's worse than a waste of time.

However, quality content (which Google seeks partly as natural content -- real conversation, useful postings) takes time. And so just doing it slow and steady over a very long period of time gets you all kinds of leverage from Google and other search engines.

So, you're just better off getting on with your life. Sure comment on blogs, but do it naturally. Write your own blog, naturally. Take the time to build your body of work, and your online presence. Yes, you need to create opportunities for people to find you, but it will happen if you just keep living.

That's what Google, and Amazon, both measure and like... and reward.

Phew! That's enough about search engine and such. I'm ready for adventure.

Tomorrow, we have an interview with mystery writer Elizabeth Spann Craig, who will tell us about a character she wrote under the pen name Riley Adams. Then on to the last update before the Clarion Write-A-Thon begins!

See you in the funny papers.


Unknown said...

Some really good points there about how readers find books. Personally, I don't tend to go out of my way to look for books by new authors. I can be a terrible stickler for those I already know - especially where a series is concerned. It's thoroughly interesting, though, to hear about the psychology of how readers actually find books.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Yes! What's familiar is what we reach for. This is something I've noticed as a shopper and what I've aimed for as a promoting writer.

The only problem is the timing of the sales. When we're looking at getting more books published, there's usually a date range (first week after release/first month after release) that the publisher looks at for sales when they're deciding whether to extend a series.

The Daring Novelist said...

Rebecca -- exactly. Most people stick to what they know. So the strategy for writers is to become something the readers know. (Which isn't done by tagging and spamming.)

Elizabeth -- Yes, traditional print publishing is a different ballgame. And that's what has been so hard on the midlist, and genres like cozy mystery. But there are two reasons why this is still going to, eventually, help the old fashioned paperback writer:

1.) As ebooks become more and more the norm, Publishers will keep books in print longer in order to keep the rights. In some ways this is a down side, because it's harder to get your rights back so you can negotiate a new deal, or self publish or find a new publisher.

2.) Even if you do go out of print, Amazon doesn't care -- Amazon still wants to sell your books to your readers. There are a number of writers who have been able to recover a dead career because while Google kept matching them up with readers, Amazon kept the used books conveniently available.

And in the end, if a publisher kills your series, even if you can't get the rights back to the early books, you can self-publish new books at will.

So this brave new world may be tough on traditional paperback writers (and frankly, so was the old one), a writer has options. In some cases, options which are more lucrative than the old.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Options are always a good thing! Good points. :)

Lee McAulay said...

Camille, thank you for these posts on search engines. Makes sense to me!
Keep up the good work, please.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Lee!