Daring Fireball linked this morning to an Amazon report stating that their Kindle eBook sales are now eclipsing their paperback sales.
I find this to be disturbing for one simple reason: none of the eBook retailers deserve this sort of sales. In fact, rewarded with it, they’ll probably make minimal efforts to improve their browsing experiences, and leave us all worse off as a result of it.
Or to be more blunt: the experience of browsing an eBook store, be that Kobo, Kindle, iBook or any of the others, sucks – for large values of “suck”.
This can be best represented visually. Let’s picture a bookstore; the items in green are the ones eBook stores are good at; the items in orange are the areas eBook stores suck at:
Now, I don’t mean those individual orange sections to be literally interpreted; more – the green bits are the what they get right, and comparatively, in size, to a regular book store, the orange bits are what they get wrong.
Let’s see what they’re all good at, first:
- They’re very good at telling you the best sellers, or the most popular (depending on the mix of paid vs free titles);
- They’re great at delivery; you buy, you get. Same as a retail store, but it’s available to you 24×7.
That’s it. So what do they suck at?
- They’re poor at letting you search by author, or title. I’d be reluctant to say they’re even OK at this. It’s poor. In a world where we can conduct rich searches in almost any electronic form, they offer the poorest search interfaces you can find. Limited combination of terms, poor use of quotes to keep words together, etc.
- There is no casual browsing experience.
I’d suggest that eBook stores primarily work at the moment due to one of the following factors:
- People who will read any shit they find just looking at the best selling list and buying.
- People who want to read the latest releases looking at the latest release list and buying.
- People who come looking for a specific title or author.
But if you step back and think about how bricks and mortar book stores have worked, more than 50% of the store occupants are not people who fall into that category. The people who fall into the above three categories are the “in and out in under 10 minutes” variety. They have a purpose, they’re going in, and they’re going to leave again. They’re like the grocery shoppers who need to go and buy one or two things in order to cook a specific meal.
Where’s the allowance though for the casual browser? The person who say, wants to walk along the entire computer section, or the entire Sci-Fi/Fantasy section, and casually look at all the spines, or all the little notes underneath that staff have placed saying “great read!”, and other such visual cues. There are no visual cues to the eBook experience if you’re not going to a green section. It’s all spartan, and antiseptic. Where are the kids sitting in an aisle staring up at the spines looking for the reddest one they can find and then peeking at it? Where are the thinkers who want to go to the history section and learn about something entirely new? Where are the bibliophiles who have a spare hour and want to grab an armful of new books to take home and devour, but have no idea before they walk into the store, what they’ll walk out with?
Look for instance at iBook, which has, from an aesthetic perspective untied to required function, a really pleasant interface. Here’s how you browse the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section:
And here’s browsing a specific author:
It’s like walking into a store with an eyepatch on one eye, and a loupe on the other. You only get to see the smallest, magnified window, at any point in your experience. It’s not just blinkering, it’s nigh on a form of bondage. When compared to a standard book store, you’re going from the most extreme levels of freedom you can get in browsing to some of the most restricted forms I can imagine while still claiming to be “usable”.
This was covered, referring to social media, Google, etc., only a couple of months ago, in the TED Talk, “Beware online ‘filter bubbles’“.
eBook stores are perfect examples of filter bubbles.
They do not deserve our respect, yet – and they certainly do not deserve the level of sales that Amazon are claiming. Aside from any argument about level of content (which, for anyone with a serious back collection of books, is laughably poor), they wrap us up and blinker us and just let us see the most popular things, while the true book browsing experience withers on the vine.
If this is what “book buying” will be about in 10 years time, it will be a sad and clinical sort of experience.