Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Shelving books in electronic bookstores

by Rob - May 21st, 2008.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

Interesting discussion going on in the Fictionwise Yahoo! Groups newsgroup; I began it based on having a frustrating shopping experience at yesterday. My posts:

I’ve just gone through 1,100 Secure Mobipocket titles filed under “Science Fiction” on the Fictionwise ebook store — and hundreds of Star Trek titles were scattered in amongst the regular SF. Real bookstores don’t scatter the Star Trek (or other media tie-in) titles in with the original SF. Might Fictionwise consider moving the Star Trek books to their own category? It’s hardly as though anyone looking for a Star Trek novel suddenly says, “Oh, wow, you mean I could be reading Philip K. Dick’s Valis instead?” Nor does anyone looking for some new science fiction to read suddenly say, “Oh, wow, you mean they’ve got Star Trek books, too? Well, to hell with that LeGuin I was thinking of buying!” :) Lumping Star Trek and original science fiction together doesn’t help anyone, and makes searching tedious.

This is NOT a question of elitism, Gary. It’s a question of helping people find what they’re looking for efficiently.

I love Star Trek (and, indeed, edited a book in honor of its 40th anniversary with David Gerrold). But I do look forward to your reasoned argument for why Fictionwise should not do what just about every brick-and-mortar bookstore does — that is, I look forward to your explanation of why lumping them all together with no way to sort one from the other is better and more efficient.

Hell’s bells, to take your approach further, why not do this: I get irritated when science fiction is dissed, so let’s move all the SF into Fictionwise’s “Classic Literature” section. That’ll show the elitists, won’t it? Much, much better to force people to wade through what they categorically (pun intended) aren’t looking for, just to make a political point, no? ;)

You’ve cited two numbers here, Steve: 99% and 100%. I’ll cop to the 100% — yes, Mobipocket does the same customer unfriendly thing you do (and you should be happy that I’m more familiar with your store than theirs, since it means you’re getting more of my money) — but I take exception to the 99%, and so do Barnes and Noble, Borders, and just about every other brick-and-mortar bookstore you can point to: their research tells them that book buyers want to have the Star Trek novels separate from the SF (usually at the end of the SF section, instead of mixed in willy-nilly). My own experience working in an independent science-fiction bookstore was also that our customers wanted them separate.

You didn’t answer my questions, and presumably you have the hard numbers to do so: Do most buyers routinely buy Star Trek from the SF section, or from the separate Star Trek section? Do most shopping baskets contain a mixture of both Trek and original SF?

If most Trek sales come from the SF category, why do you bother to separate out Trek at all? If most Trek sales come from the Trek category, why do you give special privilege to Star Trek (its own section plus listing them all in SF as well), but not give us the converse — the option of an SF listing without Star Trek? Why the asymmetry?

And you also didn’t respond to my point about online searching: you force customers to look at books that you’ve already tagged in your database as belong to a definable category: you, the retailer, can identify Trek books automatically (or else you wouldn’t be able to put them in their own category in addition to SF). In what way is it appropriate to the spirit of customize-for-the-specific-customer online retailing to deny the customer the right to select that same tag in his or her searches, and have it excluded from the results listed? It’s trivial from a programming point of view, no?

If I could do an advanced search that allowed me to do “-bundle,-trek” to exclude short-story bundles and Star Trek while looking at the science-fiction section, I’d be a happy camper.

(By the way, when we’re through with this discussion, I wouldn’t mind bending your ear about the inappropriateness of putting computer/consumer-electronic how-to and “Dummies” books in the same category as “Science.” The person looking for the latest popular physics book by, say, Michio Kaku isn’t at all interested in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management with Microsoft Project 2003, but you’ve got them on the same shelf. Yes, other etailers may do it that way; no, brick-and-mortar stores don’t — and with good reason.)

Dajala wrote, “Easy to find = a better browse to sale conversion ratio.”

Exactly! At the moment, I’m a frustrated customer. I looked at 1,100 secure Mobipocket listings yesterday — one thousand, one hundred — and got so irritated by having to wade through what seemed to be hundreds of Trek novels, that I ended up buying just seven books; if my consumer experience had been less frustrating, I’d have bought more. I was looking to get about 20 books or so (taking advantage of the current 25%-rebate sale to load up my new iRex iLiad for my summer travels), but got tired of wading through stuff I didn’t want that Fictionwise would not let me exclude from my searches, and gave up.

And, realistically, how many customers are going to look at 1,100 listings in a single day? I’m more patient than most people shopping online are …

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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