As e-books continue to take the world of publishing by storm, it’s natural to wonder how any good books are going to be found by readers in the rising river of e-books. Won’t they be lost in the flood?
Heather posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have lately been doing lots of reading on the e-pub buzz and thinking about marketing implications as they relate to fiction. I think to aid the ‘average’ ebook reader in making good fiction selections there will be a rise of some type of ‘recommendation medium’ (like blogs or an offshoot of social networking) that judges/reviews fiction ebooks. Do you see something like this currently developing and if so how as an author do you intend to take advantage of this marketing tool?
Randy sez: Yes, this sort of thing has already developed and will continue to grow. The basic idea is known as “crowdsourcing” and you can Google this word or search for it on Amazon to learn all that you want to know about it.
What is crowdsourcing? For the case of selling e-books, there are three fundamental elements: an open market, word-of-mouth, and a “similarity measure.” Let’s look at each of these in turn:
An open market is necessary for crowdsourcing to work. You make a sea of products available to anyone at reasonable prices, without unnecessary constraints. E-books fit this description exactly. There are hundreds of thousands of e-books available on Amazon now, and many more public domain e-books available at places like Project Gutenberg. This is in sharp contrast to the field of traditionally published books, where publishers and their marketing people make decisions about “what will sell.” The market of paper books is only somewhat open, because the economics of book production require that gatekeepers refuse most books for publication. They have to do this. They couldn’t afford to publish them all.
Word-of-mouth is also important to crowdsourcing. People like to talk about the books they read. They don’t talk about the books they don’t like. What happens is that good books get talked about and they tend to get read by more people who also talk about them. Good books get a chain reaction of word-of-mouth. Bad books don’t get talked about and they tend to get read by only a few people. Reader reviews are essentially word-of-mouth on steroids. This is one thing Amazon does very well — it encourages reader reviews. I read the 5-star reviews and the 1-star reviews of any book before I buy it. I also look at how many reviews there are and what fraction of them are 4 and 5 stars. If a book has many 1-star reviews and many 5-star reviews, it tells me that it’s a controversial book, which may well mean that it’s a very good book. If it has many 1-star reviews and few 5-star reviews, then it’s probably not very good. All those reviewers out there generally do a good job of sifting the good from the bad.
“Similarity measure” is one thing Amazon gets stupendously right. For any book on Amazon, you can see a list of several other books with the caption: “Customers who bought this item also bought:” For example, people who bought my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES also buy Jim Bell’s book PLOT & STRUCTURE. No surprise there. The two books cater to the same reader. Amazon wisely gives readers a choice to buy them both as a bundle. When an online store tells customers what other people are buying, it’s a terrific way to let people know which books the masses of customers believe are similar.
When you create a completely open market with word-of-mouth in the form of reader reviews and then show customers what the market believes are similar products, the cream rises to the top. Quickly. The junk falls to the bottom. Quickly.
How do you take advantage of this? By writing your best possible book and by getting it out there on the open market in the online stores that do reader reviews and show similar products best. In our current world, Amazon mastered those skills sooner and better than anyone else. Barnes & Noble is making strides to catch up. Competition is good, and we should all hope that several excellent online retailers gain market share by putting these key elements together. Right now, Amazon and B&N are the big players because they deserve to be.
Quality matters, now more than ever. Write a good book. Write a great book. Then get it out there to the online retailers that have mastered crowdsourcing.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Martha Miller says
Fabulous post, Randy! This whole issue is one that many of us are still deciphering and trying to understand, so thanks for helping!
ML Eqatin says
Amazon has lost a lot of credibility because of authors who get friends and family to write biased reviews. Non-commercial forums like Goodreads and LibraryThing are more reliable, since there is no financial incentive for interested parties who are not the target readers to ‘stuff the ballot box’. Reviewers like Harriet Klausner, who writes hundreds of reviews a week (most of them five stars and sounding a lot like the blurb on the back cover) are typical of the problem on Amazon.
Ive been burned too many times buying a book that has a gazillion glowing Amazon reviews. Now I look at other sources, and I have a small list of reviewers whose taste agrees with mine. I track what they like.
Randy sez: Yes, it’s possible to stuff the ballot box with a few good reviews, so you always have to exercise discretion in reading the reviews. I always read the positive reviews AND the negative reviews. I try to read as many 5-star and 1-star reviews as seem practical. It’s not hard to read between the lines and spot the family and friends, and it’s not hard to spot the hate reviews that have ulterior motives. But I believe that the situation is far better WITH reader reviews than without them.
J R Lankford says
A good article. M L Eqatin, I’m an author who greatly values Amazon reader reviews. I specifically ask friends and family not to post reviews of my books. I ask other writers I know to post reviews only if they’ve actually read the book. One way to tell if customer reviews are reliable is to check to see if they are supported by professional reviews. Authors have no influence over what Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, The Midwest Book Review and newspapers have to say. As for Harriet, I asked her to review my novel, The Jesus Thief, when it came out and she said it would take a while to get to it on her reading list so I can say fir sure that your criticism of her isn’t correct. She’s just an avid reader. Also, she doesn’t give everyone 5-star reviews. That said, I agree it’s a shame some authors and publishers misuse Amazon’s reviews. Just be aware that not all do.
Geoff Breitling says
Do any of you have a sense of whether Amazon or other review sites will integrate “like” or “share” options with facebook and twitter? These are obviously powerful media to drive traffic, interest, and sales.
Along those lines, do any of you use FB or twitter to promote your novels?
David A. Todd says
“How do you take advantage of this? By writing your best possible book and by getting it out there on the open market in the online stores that do reader reviews and show similar products best.”
Working on it, Randy. Just finished a historical/political non-fiction book, which will go up on Amazon as soon as it’s edited. For practice, I listed my short story on Amazon, “Mom’s Letter”. Here’s a shamelss plug, which you can of course delete:
Randy sez: Thanks for the permission to delete. For various reasons, I’d rather not allow comments to include links to product pages.