Mike Shatzkin has an interesting essay on his blog about how sales of e-books seem to concentrate amid bestsellers—while the percentage of e-books sold seems to be in the teens generally, some bestselling titles report moving as many as 50% of their units as e-books. Shatzkin places the blame for this on the relatively few choices that can be presented at one time on a screen compared to a bookstore.

Bookstores, Shatzkin explains, know all about the value of facing titles out on a shoulder-level bookshelf to bring them to readers’ attention. It used to be that as part of the inventorying process, sales reps would count books on shelves, taking the opportunity to face them out and move them around while they were at it to attract more sales. But with e-bookstores, there’s not as much you can do.

The standard technique is that there are a set and limited number of titles a customer sees “at a click.” If you want to see more, you have to click again and (depending on connection speed) perhaps wait for more titles to load, which will usually be another 10 or 12 or maybe 25. If you shop the same sections repeatedly (and who doesn’t), most of what you see will be titles you’ve seen before and either bought or rejected. If you shop often, trying to find something new can be exhausting and ridiculously time-consuming.

And being on an e-book bestseller list seems to be a sort of feedback loop: if you’re on the list, you sell more copies, and you consequently stay on the list. This could explain some of the success of Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath at selling their self-published books: let them hit the bestseller list a few times and it’s easier to stay on it than fall off it. Some self-publishing authors ride the 99 cent price point up to the top of the list, then set their prices up to $2.99 and make more money while they slide back down.

(It’s interesting to note that this effect is not strictly limited to e-books—it would also have an impact on online booksellers such as Amazon that sell print books. After all, you can’t browse Amazon’s printed books like you can a bookstore, either. Though since print books are also sold in print bookstores that don’t have this problem, the effect will be much more diluted there.)

The browsing conundrum has long been an oft-heard complaint about e-books (and, for that matter, online bookstores for print books). How do you get people to discover new titles when you can’t present that many on a screen? Even though you can more easily find exactly what you want if you know what you want, what if you just want to browse?

As bookstores are more and more hit by the dual effects of the economy and people migrating toward electronic books, this will become a more pressing question for publishers and self-publishers alike.


  1. And don’t discount the prompts of latent books suggested by multi-title display. A best seller can prompt an interest in previous and prospective titles from that author, but the simultaneous display of a genre, or book store shelf, can actually play-out in a secondary browse and that can lead somewhere too.

    I notice that when I go to a physical book store I plan to spend an hour. When I go to an on-line book store I plan to spend minutes. This is not an efficiency measure…it is a measure of engagement and fulfillment.

  2. I dunno. Maybe the insistence on huge bright pretty shiny intrusive chrome-y presentations of cover art in resource-hogging Javascript slide-bar apps eats up real estate that would be better used for lists of titles.

  3. One of the things I miss about fictionwide (now that they rarely carry books I want) is that they have a weekly list of new releases sorted by genre with NO pictures. I just really care about the author name, the title and the genre. I would love a browsing option that justed displayed this information.

  4. I think one of the things that could help this is better search capabilities. That way people who are interested in genre specific titles can easily find what they are looking for.

    I think websites will improve their user interfaces over time, but it will take a while. Think about how much money has been put into the store design of regular bricks and mortar stores. They have spent millions of dollars figuring out how to keep you in the store the longest. Websites do not yet have this level of sophistication as of yet.

    • But as the article notes, search capabilities aren’t the problem. The site needs better browsing capabilities, and there’s just no way to top being in a 360-degree real-world space where you can be surrounded by thousands of square feet of shelf space, all of which can have books on it. You just can’t fit that many different books on one dinky little screen. Even with VR.

  5. I have never shopped books by cover, but rather 99% from reviews or recommendations (and I read reviews for the recommendations). I subscribe to Publishers Weekly and that helps tremendously but I also read reviews elsewhere. Of course, I also have collected favorite authors over the years so it kind of feeds on itself. The ability to get e-book samples is also a factor in deciding.

  6. I wish shopping sites showed more search results per page. I’m fed up of sites that say ‘151 matches. Showing 8 per page. Page 1 of 19’ and expect me to click through all 19 pages to see whether I like any of the items it’s found for me, when a single page with 151 product images wouldn’t take very long to load. It’s like they think we’re all still on dialup! If I’m lucky, I can tell it to show 20 products per page, instead of 8. This isn’t limited to booksellers, but it’s as germane here as elsewhere.

  7. When ebook distributors spend one tenth of the time and effort on cataloguing their books that librarians do, then life will become much easier. It’s an established science, there’s lots of documentation — READ IT, folks, and direct some of that cash flow towards hiring people who categorise books for a living, rather than letting the stock-room attendant decide on the basis of the colour of the cover and the size of the font.

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