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.



  1. More awesome ideas! It’s really too bad you’re not a programmer. What comes to mind, is an ebook concierge service Web application – a “middle man” between the consumer and the ebookstores, to help consumers find books. It’s easy enough to implement a ebookstore crawler to scrape all the information from all the existing ebookstores and create a Website to do exactly what you are talking about. I’m thinking about running with this concept, because I have the exact same problem finding my own book! It may even be possible to work something out directly with the ebookstores, so it’s not necessary to scrape the information with crawlers. Like I said, AWESOME idea. Thanks!


    Comment by Mister Reiner — June 17, 2010 @ 11:00 am | Reply

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sell ebooks, William Clark. William Clark said: An American Editor » Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers: eBooksellers […]


    Pingback by Tweets that mention Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers « An American Editor -- — June 17, 2010 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  3. Or indeed filtering by Geographic Availability. Extremely frustrating to get to the checkout and get bounced because you didnt check if the ebook was being sold in your country.


    Comment by Iain — June 18, 2010 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  4. […] see is poorly designed cover art; at least in the physical bookstore browsing is much easier. (See Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers for an earlier discussion of my ebookseller […]


    Pingback by Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting? « An American Editor — June 23, 2010 @ 8:09 am | Reply

  5. Hmmm. This one stumped me simply because I do not shop for books (either e-books or printed) this way. I very rarely find myself scrolling through lists under a topic or genre. I like dark fantasy and urban fantasy as well. When I want books in this genre, I go to the pages for books I have read and enjoyed in it to looks for: more by that author, other authors this author has recommended, recommendation from the seller (usually Amazon) of what other people who bought this book ALSO bought and recommendations from readers. I also spend time in forums looking for reader recommendations.

    This post has me wondering, before you got your e-reader, did you ever shop online for printed books? I assume you would encounter the same issue. It is interesting how people find books. Though, I agree your suggestions would help others who search as you do. I imagine these improvements will come as more people shop for e-books. Amazon didn’t allow kindle books to be placed on wishlists when they first came out, they do now.


    Comment by J'aime Maynard — June 24, 2010 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

  6. […] haunt me as I try to find an ebook to buy and read. I broached this topic in an earlier article, Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers, but didn’t really delve into the problem of reading on my […]


    Pingback by Finding an eBook to Buy « An American Editor — July 5, 2010 @ 8:43 am | Reply

  7. […] haunt me as I try to find an ebook to buy and read. I broached this topic in an earlier article, Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers, but didn’t really delve into the problem of reading on my […]


    Pingback by Finding an eBook to Buy | The Digital Reader — July 5, 2010 @ 9:13 am | Reply

  8. I have found Booksonboard to be the easiest web site for buying eBooks. Most of the books are available in several different eBook formats.


    Comment by Alan J Zell — July 5, 2010 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

  9. I am the founder of Neotake ( At Neotake we have developed a new ebook search engine.

    I have just read this post and I think that maybe you would like to take a look over Neotake and try our relevance order and reader reviews to find interesting ebooks.


    Comment by Jose Gómez — July 6, 2010 @ 4:06 am | Reply

  10. I think you are going about it backwards! As you pointed out, the inventories that the online stores have are almost limitless. So why not do your searching for the next book to buy somewhere else? Try a book review community website like They’ve got themed lists of books, and you can surf through other users’ reviews until you find someone like-minded and then pick books they like.

    Then, once you’ve found the book you want, go look for it in an online bookstore.

    On the other side of the equation, the online bookstores need to become more like the community websites. Not to do the things you suggested, like remember the pages you’ve already flipped through, but to be more valuable in finding a good book to read by supplying better ways to group books and find reviews and recommendations. The advantage to them being that you’re more likely to buy from them if you did your research on their site.


    Comment by Dave — July 19, 2010 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  11. […] is too limited (see, e.g., Smashwords: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, Finding an eBook to Buy, and Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers), which means it is losing a lot of sales to me. I keep hoping Smashwords will devote a few hours […]


    Pingback by Smashwords: Will It Ever Get Better Filtering? « An American Editor — May 23, 2011 @ 5:02 am | Reply

  12. […] is too limited (see, e.g., Smashwords: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, Finding an eBook to Buy, and Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers), which means it is losing a lot of sales to me. I keep hoping Smashwords will devote a few hours […]


    Pingback by Smashwords: will it ever get better filtering? | Ebooks on Crack — May 24, 2011 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

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