Discoverability: One Writer’s Solution

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As “The Local Bookstore” joins the list of endangered species and we enter the age of digital books, one of the biggest problems facing readers and writers is discoverability. How can readers find new books without being able to browse through the shelves of their local bookstores? How can writers showcase their work without reserving a spot on one of those special, front-of-the-store discount tables?

The online retailer’s answer to this question is the search engine. And Amazon has a good one. With Amazon’s categories and tags, an author can make her book discoverable for exactly the right reader. For example, suppose you have a hankering for an urban fantasy featuring hobos and Norse Gods.   Search “urban fantasy hobos Norse gods,” and up pops a single book—Valknut: The Binding. Neat, eh?

Readers need never accidentally step outside their preferred sub-sub-genre, again. How wonderful. Yeah.

This system isn’t perfect, though. The search engine is good, but it can’t read your mind. Suppose you want to read a magic realism book involving Cuban baseball. Enter “baseball magic realism Cuba” into the Amazon search engine and you get either (1) magic realism involving baseball, or (2) magic realism involving Cuba. If you want all three in one book, you’d better write it yourself. If such a book exists, it hasn’t been properly categorized and tagged, so you’ll never find it. Even accidentally.  (But you will find a nifty t-shirt for a Dominican Republic basketball team.)

For a book to be “discovered,” the categories and tags selected by the writer and reader must be in agreement.

Unfortunately, even if an author appropriately categorizes and tags her novel, Amazon limits how many labels the author can use. I had to make some hard decisions in labeling my novel. Someone searching on “mythic fiction Norse gods” will not find Valknut: The Binding.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this dilemma, and I think I can help. Using Fantasy as an example, I’ve drawn up a handy chart for matching up all subgenres,* their overlap, and possible mash-ups.

Using this chart, readers can identify possible search terms for finding the exact flavor of fantasy novel they wish to buy. Writers can use it to identify alternative categories and tags for their novels. It’s even color coded. Just follow the colored lines to find subgenres (and hence categories and tags) that could be assigned to a given book.

I admit, the chart isn’t perfect. It might have been a tad more readable if I had some sort of software to draw it. Also, I might have made a mistake or two, but I was out of whiteout. I’m sure you can work around these small difficulties.

I considered adding Mysteries and Horror to the mix since there’s heavy overlap between the three genres, but I thought the chart might get too complicated.

The chart is free for your use, and you may distribute it freely. No need to thank me. Just trying to do my part to clear the path between authors and their readers.

*This is not actually all of the fantasy subgenres I found listed at various websites. I made some editorial decisions to keep things simple.

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About Marie Loughin

I love reading, writing, and editing speculative fiction of all sorts. My current focus is on writing contemporary fantasy, where I get to play god with characters from myth and legend. My Norse-based urban fantasy, Valknut: The Binding, is available at Kindle Books and other e-book retailers. You can find me at my blog (marieloughin.com) and on Twitter (@mmloughin).
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22 Responses to Discoverability: One Writer’s Solution

  1. Jaye says:

    That is priceless! You made me laugh so hard. And inspired me to make some charts of my own. I have LOTS of colored Sharpies.

  2. Thanks, Marie, for the colorful chart. It really clarifies how tags are used. 🙂

    Actually, I suspect this is what the disturbed mind of an Amazon search engine is really like. I know I, for one, really confuse the poor dears, since I read in diverse genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres. When I get the ads for books selected specifically for me, the offerings are a complete mish-mash, as if the happy electrons have zoomed down virtual shelves and grabbed books at random. I love confounding mechanical things that think they’re smarter than I am. Or perhaps the search engines think this is a diagram of my mind. Gads!

  3. Char says:

    Pure genius, Marie! Love the chart. You should frame that. 🙂

  4. Angela says:

    Yup, the search engine keeps getting better and better. As more people go online to find books, I’m sure it will get even easier to find just what you’re looking for. I especially like the part where they show you what others who bought a particular book also bought (or looked at). In some ways, I’m sorry to see the demise of the small bookstore. But I have to admit, I love shopping online.

  5. Paul D. Dail says:

    Clears it all up…. no, wait, what exactly is “paramormal?” Mormon ghost stories 🙂 ha ha. Just kidding. I know you ran out of white out.

    In a way, I think the search engine system, while somewhat maddening is an improvement on what we used to have. I can’t imagine I could’ve walked into a bookstore and used some of the same tags to find your book. But maybe so. I’m trying to remember if the old card catalogue system cross-referenced like search engines do.

    I just published an extended version of my two-part serial The Golden Parachute, and I came up with a new sub-genre, I think. “Political horror.” Although I’ll be shocked if anyone actually finds it that way.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • Isn’t “political horror” sorta redundant? 😉 Congrats on the new release. I’ll have to check it out.

      Search engines are like any computer program. They’re only as good as the information they’re given. And if a user is too specific, she will find a single tree and miss the entire forest.

  6. Kim McPherson says:

    Haha! That’s a great chart – and in colour too!

  7. RobynC says:

    Did you use GEL pens or Fountain pens for that colorful chart? Inquiring minds want to know. 😉
    But… what if I don’t KNOW what I want to search for? I didn’t even KNOW I liked Nordic God Fiction until Valknut.. If I want to try something new but don’t know what… that’s what browsing a Brck & mortar book stores does best; but even they don’t have ALL the books…
    My BIGGEST problem is that there will NEVER be enough time to read All the books I already know about; let alone all the ones I could find in a search engine.

    • Jaye says:

      Whoever owns the most books when they die, wins.

    • I used Gel pens, fountain pens, AND colored pencils. I’m a mixed media kind of person.

      As for the “what if…”, BINGO! You win the brass donut. The search engine doesn’t allow for completely random discovery. You know, like when you walk into a book store and see that cool cover and discover that the book is a Celtic horror erotic romance and you say, “what the heck,” and throw it in your shopping basket, even though you only ever read Victorian mysteries. It’s really hard to draw a chart that makes those sorts of connections. And the more narrow the author’s (and searcher’s) focus, the harder it is to find the author’s book, if your key words don’t match their tags and categories.

      The only thing I can suggest is to browse best-sellers at Amazon, though that makes my internal indie writer cringe. Or perhaps join Goodreads or LibraryThing, where you can see what your friends are reading and what they say about it.

  8. Silvernfire says:

    For your amusement, I send you this link to a chart that attempts to do the same thing for SF movies/TV shows: http://cache.gawkerassets.com/assets/images/8/2011/05/scifi-movie-flowchart-full.jpg.

    This same dilemma comes up in library cataloging. What subject headings do you assign to a book? If it’s a collection of short stories, all by the same author but from all sorts of genres, what do you say it’s about? And so on.

  9. Nadia says:

    This reminds me of our MSSC colour course chart!

  10. Heilwig says:

    Thank you Marie for that chart. I think that you also inadvertently drew a diagram of my teenage students thinking process, I will study this chart very diligently and look forward to the insights which this will provide.

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