Book publishers, marketers, authors and a whole lot of data experts gathered in New York City this week for the inaugural Digital Book World – Discoverability and Marketing conference (#DBWDM).

Digital Book World is an online and in-person community that covers the growing e-book industry, but this was their first event all about how these digital books get found by readers. The two-day, singletrack gathering of bookworms generated a handful of important and surprising lessons.

Books are big

Jon Fine black and white photo

Jon Fine

Don’t listen to anyone who says books are dead. Again and again, #DBWDM speakers assured the audience that more people are searching for, buying and reading books than ever. They’re just using different platforms to do it.

Gavin Bishop, head of publishing at Google, presented lots of Google-coloured graphs that showed how book-related Google search queries have grown significantly across all genres since 2009.

The data, which will eventually be released as part of a white paper, demonstrated a direct correlation between book searches and book sales. For example, searches for “Steve Jobs” after the Apple founder’s death predicted the success of “Steve Jobs,” the bestselling biography by Walter Isaacson.

On the retailer side, Jon Fine, director of Author and Publisher Relationships at Amazon, confirmed that sales of both e-books and print books are on the rise. “It’s not about print vs. digital,” he said. “It’s about books vs. everything else.”

In other words, book publishers and vendors are now competing with other forms of content (blogs, video games, social media) as much as they are with each other.

Data is everything

Dan Lubart and Angela Tribelli

Data, data, data. Data was one of the key words at this month’s Content Marketing World conference – and it was king, queen and jester at #DBWDM. As Angela Tribelli, Chief Marketing Officer at HarperCollins put it, “you can’t grow something you can’t measure. “

To underscore the supreme status of data in today’s book publishing industry, Tribelli co-presented with HarperCollins’ recently hired SVP of Sales Analytics, Dan Lubart. But the duo emphasized that data is only meaningful in publishing when numbers people and words people (read: editors) work together.

For example, at her former job with Conde Nast Traveler, Tribelli worked with a data analyst to determine whether Rio de Janeiro really was the “hot new travel destination” that travel writers were gushing about.

Google Trends didn’t support Rio’s case – until Tribelli suggested the data analyst search for alternate spellings of the Brazilian metropolis. Turns out most web searchers aren’t very good spellers, meaning that editors aren’t going to be made redundant any time soon.

Speaking of Google Trends – use it. I can’t tell you how many presenters brought it up as de rigueur for book marketers and publicists. I haven’t crunched the data. But a lot of them talked about the recently revamped Google Trends.

We’ll get back to the data lesson a bit later, but David Goehring, Director of Digital Book Publishing at Wiley, summed it up quite nicely: “What used to be an art – book publishing – has now become a science.”

The author-publisher dynamic is broken

The #DBWDM audience was full of book publishers and every time an author took the podium, they gave them an earful. Erika Napoletano put it most pointedly: “I saw them [her publisher] as partners, they saw me as a dollar sign.”

In a gutsy talk, Joe Pulizzi (the Content Marketing World guy) suggested that publishers are “working with a flawed model.” Instead of marketing books on an ad hoc basis, he suggested publishers should “break down their audiences” and authors by subject and create a publisher-branded “platform” to serve each niche.

Book publishing doesn’t even need to be about (just) books, he said, “it’s about being the leading information provider for your niche” – a feat Pulizzi’s achieved in the world of content marketing.

The good news is that this is starting to happen. Simon & Schuster is trying to “build a community around the love of reading,” said online marketing manager Jessica Chaput, while Penguin has its Book Country platform. It may be only a matter of time until book publishers become strong content brands in their own right.

From left: Laura Hazard Owen, Brett Sandusky, Fauzia Burke and David Goehring

The author-reader relationship is stronger than ever

Whatever tensions linger between book authors and book publishers may be to the benefit of book readers who have more opportunities to engage with their favourite writers than ever before.

That’s due in part to social reading platforms like Goodreads, which encourages authors to join the conversation (stay tuned for our Q&A with Goodreads’ community manager Patrick Brown) and Togather, which allows authors to “Fansource” their book tours.

Author Elle Lothlorien spoke about responding to negative reader reviews online and winning over her harshest critics through personal and respectful dialogue. Lothlorien said she sees this simply as “good customer service,” emphasizing that “I’m a writer, but I’m a business person too.” If more authors adopted that mentality, publicists might find themselves out of work.

You can (still) judge a book by its cover

Sasha Norkin black and white photo

Sasha Norkin

Yes, book covers are still very important for discoverability, even for e-books. As Sasha Norkin, VP of Digital Marketing at Barnes & Noble explained, great covers get pinned on Pinterest and shared on Facebook. Plus, highly visual e-books like graphic novels and cookbooks are becoming increasingly popular, according to Norkin.

That said, discoverability is about more than pretty pictures. And here’s where we circle back to the other “D” word. For Amazon’s Jon Fine, “metadata is the new book cover.” That is, e-books need to be properly titled, tagged and categorized for search engines – and ultimately, readers – to find them.

What all this means for digital book publishers is that discoverability and marketing are all about understanding and leveraging the tools, standards and social currency of the web. More people are reading books than ever. That’s the most important lesson of #DBWDM. The rest is just data.