Like Mr Hellman on Go to Hellman I don’t find discovering books a problem, but it is an issue which gets a lot of attention from the commentariat. Ensuring that your book can be discovered has always been difficult. Before on-line retailing came along there were three ways publishers could do this. 1) get reviews, 2) make sure copies were on display in every bookshop, and 3) advertisements (though nobody really thought this had much effect. It was often done mainly to placate the author.) Of course the ultimate aim was to get the book talked about. Just going out in the street and button-holing passersby might have been an option, though in so far as this was ever done, it was usually accompanied by a give-away.

Getting your book talked about among the cognoscenti may actually be achievable via reviews, but the group is not a large one. Having your book prominently displayed in bookshops used to be a little easier in that there were fewer books and more bookstores, but it has always been a wasting asset. Prominent display of the next big book will be urgently required, shunting most of your previous titles to the spine-out display of morbidity. The window of opportunity when buzz can be created was always short, and unsurprisingly most books missed out. Occasionally one would hear of publishers announcing that they were going to publish fewer books, but publish them better. While in theory this is a perfectly decent global idea, it is unfortunately subject to the tragedy of the commons, in that no one publisher can put it into operation. If publisher A does fewer books they will not get more attention: they’ll just be drowned out by the ever-larger lists of all the other publishers.

That’s the first part of discoverability. When we discuss it though, I think we all have in our minds that delightful serendipity which brings you unexpectedly up against an older book which you’ve never heard of, but absolutely need to read. This happens, but I think it happens a little less often than the critics of Amazon imply. Obviously the more bookstores there are the more likely this sort of unexpected discovery is possible. Now with so many of our bookshops shut, we Mahattanites must wander Broadway on the upper Westside checking out the informal street-vendor book selections. Serendipity, at least for me, rarely strikes there.

On-line discoverability is a more difficult problem, one which starts with that brain-numbing word “metadata”. Clearly if you don’t describe your book correctly so that a computer can understand you, you have little chance of bringing it under the eye of someone conducting a computer search. And there’s just so much stuff available that one’s natural reaction is to throw one’s hands up in despair. Are we witnessing the death of the book market by over feeding? That I doubt. Just because you don’t end up finding everything you might like, doesn’t mean that what you did find is not satisfactory. We have after all never been able to find everything, and now that it at least seems theoretically possible to do so, this should not be allowed to lead us into despair.

Amazon tries at serendipity-creation though, primarily through the “People who bought this also bought this” and “New for you” listings. But of course that’s not really the same thing: what we want is the utterly unexpected, totally unrelated, but nevertheless perfect book. Mr Hellman’s post suggests interestingly that serendipitous discovery is not something Amazon would like to encourage. Keeping attention focused on the bestseller generates more business for them.  In any case their major efforts in discovery now seem to be more focused on Goodreads. Maybe in the end we will all be members of one or more little special-interest group will serve a book locating function, trading among themselves book recommendations.