Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For self-publishing authors, book marketing often comes down to discoverability – how do you make potential readers aware of your work when you’re on a budget? One answer is book discovery sites, but like any service, not all discovery sites are created equal.
That’s why, in today’s article, we’ll be talking about the things to look for when listing your book on a discovery site. First, though, in case you’re not familiar with this type of service, let’s answer a pretty simple question.
What is a book discovery site?
For readers, book discovery sites are catalogs of books that are all recommended by whatever organization or individual runs the site. In a world where you could never read anything, book discovery sites do the helpful work of recommending your next read.
Also known as ‘catalog sites’, most book discovery sites have some kind of unique selling point: maybe they’re compiled by someone with proven taste, maybe they focus on a given genre, or maybe they offer unique discounts for their customers.
For authors, book discovery sites are potential marketing opportunities that promise to introduce their work to a wide base of ardent readers. Most reputable sites either charge a direct fee for inclusion, demand discounts on the works they feature, or both, and when a site isn’t reputable, authors get almost nothing for their money.
We’ve talked about the higher-end marketing services available before (compared in BookBub vs BookGorilla vs The Fussy Librarian – Which Is The Best eBook Marketing Service?), but today we’re going to offer some general rules for assessing different sites. Since the market is always changing and everyone’s on a different budget, the following advice should help you assess whether or not you should invest in a given book discovery site, even if it’s one that doesn’t exist at time of writing.
Most discovery sites charge for their services. There’s nothing wrong with that – they are providing a service – but it means their profits don’t necessarily correlate with how many people buy your book.
Some sites have a different way of doing things. NoiseTrade offers free content to its users, who then ‘tip’ authors whatever they think is appropriate, with NoiseTrade taking a percentage of those tips. Some aspects of Goodreads – the worlds biggest book recommendation site – are free, though active advertising costs extra.
In most cases, you’re looking at a charge anywhere from $10 to $200, though likely somewhere in the low tens for a basic monthly service.
Book discovery sites tend to offer a slow drip of reader attention. They’re good for getting your name out there and netting those vital reviews, but they’re unlikely to take your sales to the next level on their own. Because of this, it really isn’t worth paying for the services of a poor book discovery site, no matter how cheap they are. The worst book discovery sites only offer as much value as a list you write yourself and post on social media. If the choice is between a sensibly priced book discovery site, a rock-bottom discovery site, and using the money for something else, it’s usually the case that only the first and third options are really worth considering.
Believe it or not, a book discovery site that places harsh conditions on its featured authors is usually a better bet than a site that will accept anything. It’s free to just publish a list of books online, so low-effort lists are common. Because of this, readers need a reason to trust a given list is worth their time.
What does attract readers is the knowledge that they’re getting something unique. This might mean price (BookBub asks that your book is free or discounted by 50%, while BookLemur recommends you remain within a set price range), it might mean quality assurance (BookRaid stipulates the need for high quality covers and descriptions, and Riffle Select makes it clear that only ‘well-edited and professional looking’ books will be accepted), or it might mean editorial focus (Free Kindle Books & Tips is looking for a 4 or 5 star rating on Amazon, and HotZippy has genre-specific promotion sites for horror and romance).
If a site has no conditions, you have to ask yourself why any readers would bother consulting it. There may be a reason, but you need to know what it is before you part with your cash.
When you visit a book discovery site to check it out, pay attention to how professional the site design appears. While some book discovery sites are connected to larger businesses, their presentation is most of what they’re offering. If things look unprofessional, that’s how your work will be presented, and since book discovery sites thrive on reader trust, a ramshackle homepage is more than enough reason to disregard a given service.
It’s a good idea to look at the types of books a book discovery site is already advertising. A book catalog is defined by what it shows its readers, so if the books it advertises are of poor quality, then it is, by definition, a service that advertises poor quality books. You do not want your book listed on a service that advertises poor quality books.
While some authors might be charmed by the idea of being a service’s diamond in the rough, John Doppler is right when he describes book discovery sites as akin to buffets:
…if the tables are lined with dishes of cold Spaghetti-O’s, overcooked spinach, strangely grey bologna, and what appears to be a dirty diaper, their reaction will not be, “Hmm, what’s the least disgusting thing here?” Their reaction will probably be to race for the door.– John Doppler, ‘Online Catalogs: Are They Worth the Money?’
Where will your book be recommended? On a well-trafficked site, in an email, on social media? How often will it be recommended? Once a month, once a week, or just once? How many other books will it be featured alongside? What will recommendations look like?
These are the questions to ask of a book discovery site before you pay for their services. You need to know exactly what you’ll get for your money and you need to be satisfied that it’ll be as effective as possible and that you won’t be wasting your time. Any reputable service should have this information available on their site, though it’s likely they’ll offer different packages for different costs. Be sure to compare what different sites are offering, both in terms of their own services and in the wider marketplace.
Reach and engagement
Finally, we come to easily the most important facet of a book discovery site: the numbers. There are two vital numbers that you need to know – reach and engagement.
‘Reach’ is how many people a book discovery site has access to. This means how many people are on their email list, how many people follow them on social media, and how many people visit their site on a monthly basis. How many people are seeing their recommendations?
‘Engagement’ is how many people who see their recommendations are taking further action, such as adding comments or buying the books they feature. In this way, reach is who you’re talking to, engagement is who’s listening.
Engagement is more important than reach for obvious reasons – if a service reaches 1,000,000 people but has 1% engagement, it’s nowhere near as valuable to authors as a service that reaches 100,000 people but has 70% engagement. The latter might have fewer social media followers, but it can offer you seven times the attention.
Online catalogs should be able to give you compelling, comprehensive numbers for both reach and engagement. If they don’t have those numbers, don’t hire them: that means that even they don’t know if anyone is actually reading their lists or buying their recommendations. Likewise, if a site won’t share its numbers or is cagey about the details, don’t hire them. This is what they’re selling, and you should be as suspicious about their product as you would be about a greengrocer who won’t let you see the fruit.
The truth is that it’s incredibly easy to buy reach. People aren’t stingy with their social media, so it’s easy to accrue ‘followers’ who never actually check your content (and, if you’re unscrupulous, you can just buy fake fans). You can’t really trust high ‘reach’ numbers, but you can take their absence as a huge red flag; if a marketing service isn’t crowing about its reach, it isn’t even putting in the effort to fool you.
Decent book discovery sites won’t make you search out their numbers – they’ll put them front and center, and they’ll even offer some context. Free Kindle Books & Tips are a good model for what to expect from a serious service:
If you choose to advertise, your book’s particulars will be sent out to just over 675,000 enthusiastic Kindle readers, including:
600,000+ people accessing the blog via the free reader app for their Kindle Fire or Android devices (e.g., phones, other tablets).
150,000+ people via an e-Ink Kindle subscription, email or social media subscription, or directly on the blog’s website, or via an RSS reader.
Let’s be honest about web marketing… although each day’s posts go out to over 750,000 people, approximately 100,000 people take action…– Free Kindle Books & Tips
Obviously, any marketing service is going to have a lot of sales speak to cut through, but they should also offer details. Sharing both numbers and methods of outreach is expected of any reputable service.
Be an investigator
Book promotion isn’t a shadowy or complicated business: a site recommends its books to its readers and a certain number of them buy a certain number of those books. That’s the service book discovery sites offer authors, and they either do a good enough job to justify the amount they charge, or they don’t.
The numbers involved are their bread and butter – any site that doesn’t know its reach and engagement is just hoping it might help you – and they’re easy to communicate clearly and directly. If a service doesn’t pass this test with flying colors, move on.
Of course, that still leaves those services that talk a good game but may not be good for you. Here, the answer is investigation. Book discovery sites tend to be very upfront about what they offer, but true understanding may necessitate direct experience. Once you have a shortlist of services, sign up for a few. See whose methods and style impress you most – if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get pretty specific about the ideal way you want your book to be presented.
Book discovery sites aren’t magic, but they can be an effective first rung on the marketing ladder. A run of the mill online catalog will give you a run of the mill boost, but most of the big services will happily tell you exactly what you need to do to up your game (generally, it’s ‘discount your book’).
If a book discovery site communicates clearly, provides promising numbers and offers a sensible price, it’s probably a good bet. That doesn’t guarantee sales – and it’ll be at its most effective when married to other marketing efforts – but especially for authors who are just starting out, it’s a valuable tool to feel comfortable using.
Do you use book discovery sites as either a reader or an author? Share you experiences below, and check out How To Get Reviews When You’re Just Staring Out and BookBub vs BookGorilla vs The Fussy Librarian – Which Is The Best eBook Marketing Service? for more advice on marketing your work.