New Year -- New Resources

Thursday, February 9, 2012

When ebooks make discoverability harder

One of the current buzz words in the book business these days is “discoverability.”  The key to such, we are told, is better “meta-data.”  The age of the Dewy decimal system as sufficiently “granular” is long past.  Shouldn't ebooks -- with their wealth of "searchable" text -- be easier to discover, even without cataloging tags or high name recognition? Or marketing? 

Isn't that why authors may think they don't need publishers any more to be discovered?  Nevertheless, to self-publish is not only to forgo an “advance against royalties” and to pay out-of-pocket for editing and design, but to have to do your own marketing.   That may seem easy if you are an investment advisor with a book on finance that grew out of your blog and CNN spots.  It’s a lot of work if you are an independent historian (i.e. not an academic) or a newly minted Iowa Writers Workshop novelist.

Imagine how much harder that can be if you’re dead. Or if your books were published 30 years ago and still sell but only to graduate students? Or the first novel you wrote has gone out-of-print? 

The joy of re-discovery is one of the great pleasures of browsing – whether in bookstores, in libraries, or leafing through the footnotes and bibliography of a really good history book.  Ebooks – being cheaper than paperback reprinting – should be easier to “re-discover.”  They shouldn't be costly to "re-stock" when print books are lost, stolen, or simply squeezed off a shelf by newer books. That is, if the titles exist in ebook versions and if the publishers allow libraries to lend their ebook editions to patrons (which, as you may know, several large ones, like Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Little Brown, do not.

That ebooks are not easier to discover, especially a reprint of a backlist book, is due in part to the explosion of digital information makes it harder to distinguish one book from another.   An old book is indeed a needle in a haystack, and author, title, genre and even keywords do not make the stack much smaller.

Furthermore, DRM software doesn’t just “lock out pirates (and only un-tech savy ones at that), it makes it hard to browse and discover ebooks, because each ebook must be read on the particular e-reader  attached to the store you buy from, and each reader and publisher has different rules for “sampling.”

If ebooks are not easier to find than print, and if bookstores and libraries where you can browse physical books become fewer and fewer, how will our backlist staples of history, science, and independent fiction survive during the next 70-120 years that they will remain in copyright?