An American Editor

June 17, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers

I have “bought” more than 400 ebooks since I received my Sony Reader as a gift 2.5 years ago. I put “bought” in quotes because about half of the ebooks I “bought” were free ebooks; the other half I paid for. But I’ve noticed a significant downward trend in my buying of ebooks in the past few months, and I have finally realized why that is occurring: frustration with the ebookseller experience.

Before someone jumps up and says how wonderful and easy the buying is at Amazon with the wireless downloading to the Kindle and the 1-click payment system, let me be clear: having to download to my computer and transfer to my Sony and having to go through a couple of steps to complete the buying transaction are not the source of my frustration. I don’t find either troublesome or taxing.

The source of my frustration is finding the good book to read and buy at these ebooksellers — the finding of the needle in the haystack of needles.

Let me illustrate the problem. Fictionwise lists 2751 titles in the Fantasy/Dark Fantasy category; Smashwords lists 1223 titles in SciFi/Fantasy; and Sony Reader Store lists 6810 titles in SciFi/Fantasy. How much time would it take to go through 1223 titles looking for a few books? Even at 30 seconds a title, it would take more than 10 hours to go through the Smashwords list, which is by far the shortest list. Perhaps you are willing to sit at your computer for 10 hours and do nothing else, but I’m not.

Granted each of the ebookstores has some filters in place, but those filters don’t really address the problem. The reason why is that none of the stores offer you the option to filter out books you have already “reviewed” the last time you went looking for an ebook to read.

Buying at a brick-and-mortar bookstore reduces the problem significantly because of the store’s limited inventory. But online ebooksellers have virtually unlimited inventory that grows weekly. Consequently, the very first improvement I think ebooksellers need to institute is the ability to create a custom inventory for each buyer. Just as one can choose, for example, to filter out ebooks already purchased at Fictionwise (a filter that all the other ebooksellers should offer), there should also be a filter for books that I have already reviewed and am not interested in.

It should be relatively easy to implement, although I admit I am not a programmer. Next to each title should be 3 checkboxes: Add to Cart, Add to Wishlist, and Remove from Personal Inventory. If I check Remove from Personal Inventory, the next time I search for something to read, the ebook would not be included in the choices. However, there should be a list kept that I have access to so that I can reverse my decision 3 months from now by unchecking the title.

Another problem with all of these ebooksellers is that when I look for an ebook and spend an hour going through the first 10 “pages” or so of inventory and then leave the site, on my return, I need to start over, as if I had never looked at any of the ebooks previously. Admittedly, this is a tougher problem to solve because new titles are constantly being added and ratings change. I’d like to see two separate lists: a list of new titles since my last visit (new titles list) and the list that I had been perusing on my last visit (the last visit list).

The last visit list should let me pick up from where I left off; if I was on “page” 9, I should be able to go to page 9 and continue reviewing ebooks, knowing that all of the ebooks I reviewed on my prior visit are found in “pages” 1 to 8.

I also would like to see more filters. Smashwords’ filtering is so limited, it almost might as well not exist. Fictionwise’s and Sony’s are not any better, although Fictionwise at least lets me filter out books I have already purchased (but not the titles if they are in a different format; e.g., if I purchased the ebook but not the audio version, the audio version still shows up in the list).

I don’t read, for example, vampire books. Why can’t I filter out vampires? Or fantasy that doesn’t include dragons and elves? With the descriptions and the metadata available, shopping can be made a lot easier, and the easier it is, the more likely books will sell.

It is not enough that an ebookstore has hundreds of thousands of titles; the titles must be accessible and to make them accessible, better methods of finding that needle in the haystack of needles is needed. The ebookseller who conquers this problem will be the ebookseller who leads the burgeoning ebook market.

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