Discoverability: Key to the e-Bookstore

by | Dec 8, 2011

You walk into a bookstore. You don’t know which book you want, you need to look and see what’s available.

Bookstores, obviously, know how book buyers use the store. They arrange the books by categories. Novels here, cookbooks in the back, reference works along one side, biography on its own shelf. That’s how people look at books. You want a book, but since you don’t own it, you have to see what’s available.

Maybe today you want a want a book on medieval European history. You head for the history section and there are two 5-tier bookshelves with history books. This is your searchable universe, so you start looking.

It’s the job of the store buyer to put books on the history shelf that will sell the best for that store’s particular customers, and this varies from store to store. But for the book buyer, it’s pretty cut and dried. Maybe you’ll find a book on medeival European history and maybe you won’t.

The Virtual Bookshelf

Now you’re sitting at your computer. You head over to Amazon or your favorite e-retailer and type in “medieval European history.”

In a moment Amazon returns 9,971 books and you are looking at the first 12. Virtually every book on the first three pages has at least two of the words “medieval,” “Europe” and “history” in the titles.

You are looking at the digital version of the bookstore’s History section. This virtual bookself looks almost infinite, but it really isn’t. Who is going to look through 831 pages of books?

No, the effective size of this bookshelf is about 3 pages, I would guess. That’s about 36 books, and every one is about your subject.

But suppose there was a book that talked about exactly what you were interested in. But that book didn’t have “medieval,” “European” or “history” in its title. And suppose that the publisher had been lazy or ignorant about metadata.

So the publisher never bothered to put these three words in the book description, never posted any reviews. The book’s detail page was mostly blank—you’ve seen them.

What happens? You’ve constructed an e-bookshelf with your search, but a book that should have been on the shelf never made it there, because it wasn’t discoverable.

And that’s why discoverability is key to the e-bookstore. Buyers are constructing bookshelves to browse in constantly, looking to buy books. If you want your book on the shelf, make it discoverable.

Photo by Ed Yourdon

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Maggie


    Once your book is ‘live’ on Amazon, you get to choose 15 words or phrases they call ‘tags’. Others can also add tags, or they can agree with some (or all) of yours. Tags appear beneath the reviews section. Before creating your own, check out a few books of the same genre to yours and see what tags have been added to them.

    • adan lerma

      maggie, ah, i know where you mean now, thanks so much ;-)

  2. Kristen Eckstein

    Joel – great post! Discoverability is key, and part of that is a decent book cover (which as you know is just as important in a thumbnail on a search as the physical bookstore shelf) and good formatting of the interior. Unfortunately I’ve seen many Kindle books get poor reviews due to crappy formatting of the interior and coding issues. The content might be great, but if it’s not readable it’s not worth discovering. Keep up the great posts!

  3. adan lerma

    hi joel, did want to say i saw your email alert for this article yesterday, but couldn’t get to my mail then, but i saved it, cause it definitely caught my interest ;-)

    i’ve spent the past week taking a break from digitizing and ebooking a ton of content (from the past 30+ years) and been concentrating on just these things, updating keywords, cleaning up press releases (some allow you to tweak them) etc

    it’s fun, but it does make me more “ready” to get back to my content work ;-)

    anyway, thanks so much, your articles are great!

    • Joel Friedlander

      adan, it’s a tremendous advantage to be able to go into e-publishing with a big backlist, and well worth your time to get it right. Good luck with the project.

  4. adan lerma

    maggie, i’m familiar with the 7 uploading keywords, but not sure about the 15 allowed tags? on the product page?

    can you tell me a bit more about that, i’m checking my listings out meanwhile of course, thanks for the heads up ;-)

  5. maggie Dana

    One more thing … remind me to tell you about the hilarious back and forth I had with Amazon about a book’s categories. Would you believe they don’t even offer YA or even age-groups for childrens’ books when filling out their forms?

    • Joel Friedlander

      I have a lot of problems with their categories also, and I’m trying to get an idea of what’s behind some of their decisions regarding categories, given how strongly they emphasize discoverability themselves. Mysteries, mysteries. . .

  6. Maggie Dana

    I’ve read, in many places, that Amazon’s algorithms for searchability are opaque and constantly moving.

    The best thing authors can do is to think long and hard about the 7 keywords they choose when filling out their book’s uploading form; then to choose, with equal care, the 15 allowed tags on their book’s product page.

  7. Roh Morgon

    Very timely post, and extremely helpful.

    I checked my Amazon listing for my latest book, and lo and behold – no tags.

    Fixed that in a hurry, and am now off to see what else I need to do to bump it a little more into spotlight.


  8. Roger C. Parker

    Dear Joel:
    I don’t understand–is it me, but it often seems like the best blog posts receive the fewest comments.

    Your one-word concept of “discoverable” is great, but I am puzzled by the lack of reader rapture.

    btw, I thought Andy’s comment and question were great. The plot of his book sounds like something that would happen to me–if I had a job, of course.

    Great posts, lately, Joel!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Roger, I had exactly the same thought today. I posted this while in Seattle last night, and I was very excited about the concepts in this short article. To be honest, I thought it was one of the most important posts I’ve done recently. Just the unending mysteries of blogging. Thanks for your pertinent feedback.

  9. Andy

    More info! How do we ensure that a book getts bumped to the top of the results list. Fiction is even more of conundrum. I have written a lightly humorous book called “Oh What a Lucky Man” about a man who loses his job, wins a $216 millinon lottery jackpot, but misplaces the ticket—all in the same day. What kind of Meta data would you include to zip my book to the top of the heap?

    • Roger C. Parker

      Dear Andy and Joel:
      I wonder if it would help to draw parallels between your book and other “Oh what a day” books, i.e., “similar to Thurber,” or Jean Shepherd, Seinfeld, or etc.?

      Sort of like the Dortmunder series by Donald Westlake. Perhaps add a comment to the Wikipedia page on the Dortmunder character?

      Best wishes…Roger

      • Joel Friedlander

        That’s a great strategy, Roger, to point to similar books in your product description or reviews or elsewhere, and it can be used by any fiction author.

      • Andy


        Brilliant idea. I’ll give that a try. Thanks for the suggestion.



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