This week I’d like to talk about one of the most misguided objections to the ebook revolution- the idea that the decline of bookstores means desperate readers treading water in a vast ocean of e-ink, at a complete loss as to how to discover new authors. No more browsing the shelves to find those little-known treasures. No more hand-selling. I call bull, and here’s why:
1- Browsing the shelves of the modern bookstore is not conducive to discovering new authors.
I visited my local large chain bookstore last night and attempted to do some browsing. You know what I saw? Spines. Lots and lots of spines facing out, giving me no hint of what the book was about. That’s particularly a problem when multiple genres are lumped into one section and packed into too small a place. The only hope I have of discovering a new action-adventure author is to go along and pull out every book until I find what I’m looking for. It’s like that carnival game with the floating ducks, where you don’t know what you’ve won until you flip it over and check the number on the bottom.
“Congratulations! You’ve chosen a lovely, literary memoir about a middle-aged woman’s love for her pink sweater.” Retch.
2- Bookstores seldom have a good selection of new authors.
I suppose it’s good business to stock what sells, especially with limited shelf space, but that means you’ll find an overabundance of big names and a shortage of authors who have not yet proven themselves. I saw more copies of Clive Cussler’s most recent book than I saw of the entire catalogs of newer action-adventure authors like Andy McDermott and Jeremy Robinson combined. That’s not an issue online, whether you’re shopping for print or e-books.
3- Hand-selling is only possible if the salesperson has in-depth knowledge of your favorite genre.
In the last three years I’ve only had two salespeople try to hand-sell me a book. One person tried to foist Sarah Palin’s book on me. Yeah, that’s going to happen. The other person at least tried to base his recommendation on what I was actually buying. I came to the counter with The Wise Man’s Fear and he tried to sell me on Terry Goodkind. I politely replied that I enjoyed Goodkind’s first few books, but there was only so many times you could recycle the same plot before it grew stale. He was so offended that he not only never tried to hand-sell me a book again, but was cold to me on future visits. Oh darn.
4- Amazon in particular provides a superior browsing experience and and better ways to find authors in your preferred genre.
Confession- I’ve been using Amazon to discover new authors for more than a decade. (I think that’s accurate. I know it’s been a long, long time.) I’ve been late to the party on every technological advance, so I wish I could remember how I even discovered Amazon, but many years ago I started using Listmanias to scout out new authors before ever making a trip to the bookstore or library. To have lists of recommendations from people who liked the books I liked was a thousand times better than wandering the aisles of my local bookstore or library, trying to sift a shiny new action-adventure author or two out of the general fiction dross. Once Amazon added the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought,” its victory was complete.
Nowadays, if I want to find an author like James Rollins, for example, I have two choices:
Go to my local bookstore, wait impatiently while the clerk scratches his chin and screws up his face in concentration before leading me to the Dan Brown section, then wander through the fiction section pulling out book after book and hope I find something good.
Go to the Amazon page for Rollins’ latest and scroll through the “Also Bought” section, knowing that these books were purchased by people who like Rollins’ work, and therefore probably have reading tastes similar to mine. There’s the added bonus of knowing every book I see there will be in stock, which is not the case in the bookstore or library.
5- Shopping online provides you with superior feedback on a book’s content and quality.
Even if I do manage to discover a new author in the bookstore, what information do I have to inform my buying decision? The book flap or back cover synopsis, the cover blurbs, and skimming the early chapters. In an online store, I have all of that, plus customer feedback.
I love bookstores and believe they will survive the ebook revolution. Should they go under, however, we’re not losing the ability to discover new authors. If anything, we’re better off having online stores like Amazon to guide us to new (or new to us) authors than we are in a bookstore. Bemoan the struggles of bookstores if you wish, but find a different reason for your sadness.