An American Editor

May 23, 2011

Smashwords: Will It Ever Get Better Filtering?

Smashwords has been one of my favorite places to shop for ebooks, but its filtering system 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 to improving the consumer’s experience, but it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.

The consequence is that I have been spending decreasing amounts of time searching for new reads at Smashwords. I used to check Smashwords every day; now I check once every week or two for a few minutes. Usually I wait for someone else to mention a specific book and provide a link; my days of simply going to Smashwords, applying the few filters it allows, and checking out the books are passé. But they shouldn’t be! Smashwords should be devoting some time and effort to improving the interface between it and the consumer. Doing so would be good for readers and authors alike. Right now Smashwords treats the consumer-reader as if he or she is the enemy rather than a friend!

I don’t think my requests are all that outrageous. How about a filter that filters out foreign language books? I don’t read Russian or any other non-English language — never have, never will — so why can’t I eliminate from search results books that are written in Russian or Croatian or any other language but English? And for those who do read in those languages, why not a filter that includes their language of choice and excludes languages that they do not read in, including English?

Smashwords also needs a third length filter. The choices should be less than 25,000, less than 50,000, less than 75,000. And why not series filters. Those would be particularly helpful to readers who want more than a singleton experience. The filters could be singletons only, multibook series only, first book in a series, any. Granted it might mean that Smashwords would have to come up with some dedicated tags and require authors to use them, but in today’s coding world, that shouldn’t be difficult.

I used to think that genre filters would be a good way to filter books, but my experience is to the contrary. First, authors too often do not tag their books correctly; they either mistag the genre, undertag the genre, or overtag the genre in hopes of snaring a broader audience. I wouldn’t eliminate the genre tags, but I would suggest better educating authors on how to choose a genre tag.

I would also like to be able to choose maybe a half-dozen key words/tags to exclude from the results. For example, I will never knowingly buy a zombie story or a horror story. I also do not purchase vampire books. I would love to eliminate them from the search results as well, along with erotica.

How about a filter based on intended audience. I appreciate quality writing for children younger than 12 years, but unless I’m looking for something to read to a grandchild or a neighbor’s child, I am not interested in having to wade through a sea of children’s books. On the other hand, when I am looking for such a book, I would like to eliminate books intended for teenagers and adults.

Another filtering system I would like to see is price. Now I can filter by free or all books, but I really need to be able to filter by price ranges, such as free only, 99 cents or less (including free in the less notion), $1.99 or less, $2.99 or less, and so forth. I already know that I am not going to spend more than $3.99 on an ebook unless I know the author and the quality of the work beforehand. If I know the author and like author’s writing, I will search by author name and buy the author’s books; I won’t be going through pages of available books. Consequently, being able to filter by price is important.

I would also like to be able to filter by star rating. Now I can filter by highest rated, which simply means that the list begins with 5-star-rated ebooks and works it way down to 1-star rated ebooks. But why not let me filter for only 5-star-rated ebooks or ebooks rated 4 stars or higher?

With proper filtering, I should be able to filter for ebooks that cost less than $2.99, are the first books of a series, are intended for adults, have no zombies or vampires as characters, are not erotica, are longer than 75,000 words, are rated 4 stars or higher, and are written in English.

If Smashwords only had 500 ebooks to choose among, filtering would be significantly less important. But Smashwords is a rapidly growing ebook seller with many thousands fo ebooks. I suspect that Smashwords’ sales are being hampered because of filtering frustrations — no one I know has either the time or the patience to sift through the many thousands of ebooks that remain even after applying the minimal filtering currently available.

I know that I start with good intentions and end up perhaps adding a couple of ebooks to my wishlist, and then quitting Smashwords after 10 minutes of searching without buying any ebook. I quit my searching because I am tired of trying to wade through all the ebooks listed when I am currently in the mood for particular types of books.

Smashwords is doing a lot of things right and for which it deserves mountains of credit. But the failure to address the inadequacies of the filtering system is a massive black mark against Smashwords and is, in my view, significantly hampering sales. Helping the customer find what the customer wants can only be beneficial to both Smashwords and the authors who use the Smashwords platform. It is time for Smashwords to seriously address filtering, its Achilles heel.

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