Merchandising ebooks is a problem not really solved yet
I have always been in the process of reading at least one book since I was about 8 years old. When I was a little kid, I’d find them in the house (Dad was in publishing) or at the library in my home village of Croton-on-Hudson or in the school library. Sometimes extraordinary measures delivered a lot of reading material. On the fourth to the last day of second grade, I got the chicken pox and was in bed for a couple of weeks. I had already developed an affinity for a Random House series of children’s books on American history called Landmark Books, which are still available. Dad knew the person at the printer responsible for the Random House account and a box of 40 of them arrived the day after I was diagnosed and was completely read through by the time I was back on my feet.
When I was in junior high school, I found that a big drug store in the retail space at 42nd and Vanderbilt in Grand Central Station had a massive selection of mass-market paperbacks and that became a shopping destination for me for a while.
As an adult, the shopping and discovery moved to bookstores. And although I did occasionally get my ideas of what to read next from book reviews or friends’ recommendations, usually I just shopped. I would go browse American history or biography or sports (baseball always had its own shelves within sports).
It never took me much time to find what I wanted to read next until I started reading ebooks.
In the pre-Kindle ebook era, I was a captive of the Palm Digital store, because I read on a Palm and their commercial approach was to not allow other retailers to sell their format. The choices were limited because the publishers before the arrival of Kindle were reluctant to make the investments required to deliver ebooks to me and the four other people who read them at the time. That changed immediately when Kindle arrived and, because of Kindle and the other major formats that have hit the marketplace since then, the choices are robust. Just about every new book I’d want to read is available for my device of choice (the iPhone) and the digitization of the backlist just carries on going deeper and deeper into publishers’ repositories.
But the merchandising, at least for somebody who shops on the iPhone (it’s a bit better through the ereading devices or PCs), leaves a lot to be desired. My shopping experiences are actually a bit of a random walk. I ask my ebook retailer to show me books by category and, since my categories don’t change much (and haven’t since I was a kid) I tend to see the same books over and over again, far too many of which I have already read (perhaps in somebody else’s format.)
A short time ago I was shopping for my next read on the iPhone. I started out shopping with Kindle and then Nook and a few minutes on each of their mobile sites didn’t turn up anything that moved me. Then at Google Ebooks I found “Making of the President 1968” by Theodore White. That was definitely one I wanted to read. I bought it and I’m in the middle of it.
There is no particular guarantee that I’ll find my next book on Google. I haven’t found any clear pattern yet among the four stores I shop regularly (Kobo being the fourth). Obviously, if I know I want to read another James Patterson or John Locke thriller, any of them would deliver it to me quickly and painlessly in response to a search. It is when I am hunting by subject that the search returns seem to be pot luck. I’m probably not making it any easier on the retailers by spreading my shopping around; if any of them actually did have a good engine to take my purchasing and reading profile and make the next great recommendation, I’d be screwing it up by spreading around my data.
All of this underscores how difficult is the challenge being faced by Bookish in the US and aNobii in the UK, two “find what to read next” sites financed by major publishers. And they join a long line of sites that have tried to build recommendations and community conversation around what people are reading: Goodreads, Shelfari, Library Thing, and the new ebook platform, Copia.
It happens that our office is now going through the exercise of placing the book of “The Shatzkin Files” on platforms other than its originator, Kobo. (Kobo’s 60-day exclusive is about up.) When we encountered a limit of seven keywords in loading process for Kindle, I inquired about it. Why limit this, I wondered?
I got a good answer when I asked. It turns out that any author or publisher’s inclination would be to put in lots and lots of keywords. That was my intention. I was going to take every keyword from every post and put it in for the book. But, on reflection, as my friend at Amazon pointed out, that really wouldn’t be helpful to the reader who was searching. The fact that one blog post is about a holocaust survivor doesn’t mean that somebody searching under that topic would want my book, of which more than 99% is about things totally unrelated.
It turns out that Amazon uses algorithms created by full text searching to enhance what they can deliver in response to searches in ways that the publisher and author would not necessarily think about when creating metadata. As an example, he pointed to a book that you’ll discover on Amazon if you search for “erasure coding”, a term of art that might very well not have been included by any author or publisher inserting keywords but which their more sophisticated methods enable you to use for discovery.
My friend at Amazon didn’t say this, and maybe I’m reading too much into what they do, but it almost seems like the keywords we put in could be superfluous and the capabilities they have through full-text analysis and algorithms actually govern what is discovered. Of course, if the solicitation of keywords from authors and publishers is a placebo, that’s not something I’d expect them to reveal.
I was just looking for “American history” when I found “Making of the President 1968” on Google (and didn’t find it anyplace else in the time I allotted to look.) So Amazon’s sophisticated capabilities didn’t deliver it to me and now their engine doesn’t know that this was a book I wanted because I bought it someplace else.
But I’m really glad I found this book, which was probably pretty recently made available in ebook form. I was active in that campaign and at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where I was Pierre Salinger’s assistant on the first McGovern campaign. (George McGovern declared late to give the Bobby Kennedy supporters who couldn’t abide Gene McCarthy a place to go. I had been one of those; I left the Ambassador Hotel an hour before Kennedy was shot on June 4, 1968 because the security was tight and I couldn’t get into the party. Ironic.) The author of the Making of the President books, Theodore White, was a friend of Salinger’s and I met him at the convention. But I’m saving the stories of that campaign for another post on another day.