I have spent an enormous amount of time on this blog giving advice to authors on how they can get their books discovered by readers. But the other day, as I read a post by Mike Shatzkin entitled Finding your next book, or the discovery problem and fumed over his statement that looking for books online is more difficult than it is in a bookstore, I had an epiphany. If this man, who spends his life giving publishers advice on how to sell their books, doesn’t know some of the fundamentals of how readers can find books in an online bookstore, why am I assuming that the average reader has any better understanding of how to discover books in the Amazon Kindle Store? Maybe I have been preaching to the wrong group. Maybe, I should be directing my advice to readers, not just writers.
Even though research suggests that nearly half of all books (print, ebook, audiobooks) are bought online, the process of browsing in an online store is still new for most of us and it can be confusing. Except for the very young, most people who buy books are familiar with how to find them in physical bookstores. So I will begin by describing the experience of browsing in a brick and mortar bookstore—say my local Barnes and Noble––and then I will compare that to the experience of shopping online in the Kindle store.
In the process I will demonstrate that all the methods of finding books to read in a physical bookstore (staff recommendations, display tables, and shelves of books organized by broad categories) exist in the online Kindle store. However, in the Kindle store there are a variety of additional methods of finding a new book to read that don’t exist in physical stores, providing the potential for a shopping experience that can be much faster and more productive.
Not surprisingly, for the authors of books, understanding the different methods of discovering books in the Kindle store is the first step to figuring out how best to make sure their books will be discovered by these methods––which is what I will address in Readers to Books/Books to Readers––Part Two.
I will be focusing on browsing (rather than on looking for a specific title or author in either kind of store since this is an entirely different matter and much easier to do.)
Finding books in a physical bookstore:
As I come up to my local bookstore, I see books placed cover-side-out in the window––ready to catch my eye. These books tend to be newly released bestsellers or seasonal holiday books. When I get into the store (and ignore all the non-book items now for sale––items which are taking up an increasing amount of floor space), I immediately see display tables with labels like New Releases, Best Sellers, Discounted, Best Young Adult, Holiday Picks, etc.
What most customers don’t realize is that publishers pay for the right to get their books in the front window and on these front tables. So, by and large, these are the books publishers and bookstores think will most attract readers. They have literally invested a lot (of money or floor space) in making these books easy for everyone to find.
The next place where books are very visible is on the shelves around the walls of the store. These books are typically popular non-fiction and Literature and Fiction—the largest single category of books in the store. The back of the store is devoted to a children’s section with a mix of fiction and non-fiction books along with games, stuffed animals, and other merchandise for kids. I have noticed that my local bookstore has been devoting more space to this section over the past couple of years. Perhaps this is because children’s literature has proven more resistant to the move to ebooks than other literature.
The rest of the store (again not counting the Nook center and the expanding shelves of other non-book items) consists of standing shelves with numerous non-fiction headings (Travel, Humor, Self-Help, History, etc) and a few fiction headings (Teen and Young Adult, Mystery, Romance, and Science Fiction/Fantasy). Within these different categories, most of the books are shelved with their spine out (with just the title and author’s name visible) and are arranged alphabetically by author––although sometimes the new releases in a category are shelved together at the start of their category.
Unless I am on a mission to find a specific book, I will first browse the books on the front tables, which have books displayed so I can see the full cover. Although many people may find plenty of books to interest them on these tables and not venture into the rows of shelves, I generally move on past the tables fairly quickly since I am usually looking for paperbacks and trying to discover new authors; (the tables tend to be hardbacks and well-known, bestselling authors).
The first shelves I visit are the mystery shelves (my major form of light reading). I look at the new releases (which are hardbacks—so I don’t usually buy anything) and begin to browse these shelves. The only problem is I only like certain kinds of mysteries, for example, historical mysteries, British police procedurals, and mysteries with women sleuths. And if I want to find a new author, I have to guess by the title on the spine which books to pull out and see if the book might be in one of my preferred sub-genres.
When I find a book whose cover suggests it might be to my taste, I still need to read the blurb or the first few pages to be sure. This is time consuming and, as I try to go methodically through the shelves from A to Z, I seldom get through all the books in this section before I get frustrated because most of the books I have pulled out appear to be of sub-genres that I am less interested in: the talking cat, the serial killer, the hard-drinking private detective. I also notice that, as I age, bending over to check out the books on the bottom shelves gets harder and I am less inclined to do so. On a good day, I might find at least one book before I give up. As a result, the books on the bottom shelves and at the end of the alphabet never get a decent chance of being discovered by me.
The problem of finding a new author I like in a physical bookstore is even more frustrating with historical fiction––one of my other preferred genres. I can hope that I run across an historical mystery when I was making my way through the mystery shelves. Or I can go to the romance section—and try to figure out by the titles which of the books are historical romances. To make matters more difficult, most of the historical romances shelved in this section are strong on sex and weak on history, which means they aren’t what I am looking for. Covers or titles alone won’t tell you which is which because the cover of a sedate Georgette Heyer (my favorite) looks identical to a racy romance.
As a result, I am forced to go to where most straight historical fiction is shelved––in the large Fiction and Literature section. In this very large section there are no sub-genres identified and books are just shelved alphabetically by author’s last name. Gad Zooks! The work it would take to find a previously undiscovered work of historical fiction here is mind-boggling, and I simply don’t try very often.
I could ask a clerk for a recommendation, but in my experiences in large chain stores, the staff is most likely to know only the more popular bestselling authors in any genre––the ones I already know about. The clerks in small independent stores may be more able to make useful recommendations—beyond the bestsellers––which might be one of the reasons that in the past several years independent books stores are holding their own and even expanding compared to the chain stores.
In short, there are limited and often inefficient methods of finding new books to read in a physical bookstore––in stark contrast to the multiple ways of discovering books in the online Kindle store that I will expand upon below.
My description of how to find a book in the Kindle ebook store is based on the experience of shopping online on a computer using a web browser (in my opinion the best way to find books.) If you are using a Kindle device, the experience is slightly different but it is similar enough so that once you have the process down using the computer/web-browser approach it is pretty easy to figure out.
Finding books in the Kindle book store:
When I first approach the Kindle Book store, the center and the right of the screen are filled with book covers under different headings, like New and Noteworthy, Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi, and Recommended for You. This is very similar to the front window and the display tables in a physical store and the specific categories change from time to time the same way a brick and mortar store window changes.
But, when I am logged in to Amazon, many of the groups of books displayed online have been selected by the fabled Amazon algorithms to catch my particular eye. Amazon uses my past visits to the Kindle store and my past purchases to determine what kinds of books I might want. This is different from a physical store’s window and better, in my opinion. Today the first books I saw were a book by one of my favorite science fiction authors, a book on self-publishing, and a work of historical fiction.
New displays of books will also appear magically if I move away from this screen and come back to it. For example a group of books entitled A Salute the Classics just appeared, and when I came back after lunch, there was a group labeled Popular Romance for under $2.99 and the Post-Apocalyptic display had turned into Dystopian Sci-Fi. It is as if a bunch of clerks, worried they hadn’t been able to find any books to tempt me, scurried around pulling new books off the shelves onto the display tables, hoping that when I came back to the store that I would find something this time I wanted.
These algorithm-inspired listings aren’t perfect––I share an account with my husband—so the recommended list also included a hard-boiled detective novel and a travel book. But I do find that they are more likely to strike my fancy than what I find on the tables of a physical bookstore.
If I am looking specifically for discounts, bestselling books, or experimental forms of fiction (short stories, fan fiction, etc), I have another list across the top of this first screen to choose from labeled “Big Deal,” “Daily Deal,” “Bestsellers,” “Editors’ Picks,” “Kindle Singles,” “Kindle Worlds,” “Kindle Serials.” Click on each of these and you get a whole new display of books to browse. As with the “front of the store” displays in physical bookstores, some of these books are on these lists because the publishers paid to have them featured, others are there because the Amazon editors have chosen to feature them.
For each of these books I can also see the price of the book, the number of reviews and average number of stars rated for each. Each of these bits of information can help me determine whether or not to click on the book to find the product description, reviews, or read the first pages of the book (the next step in deciding whether to buy.) This information, plus the sheer variety of books displayed at the “front of the store,” means that there are actually more chances that I will find a book to buy at this stage than when I browse in a physical book store display tables.
But what if I am looking for a particular kind of book—like a mystery or a work of historical fiction––and I don’t want to be limited to what the Amazon editors, publishing houses, or algorithms have picked out for me in the front of the Kindle store?
Well, as in the physical bookstore, there are shelves and shelves of books under different subject headings or categories. And these shelves can be found to the left of the first screen in the Kindle Store under the heading “Categories.” The headings are familiar to anyone who is used to looking in a physical store. There are broad non-fiction categories like Business and Technology, Religion and Spirituality, Travel, as well as the familiar fiction categories of Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, Romance, Teen and Young Adult, and Science Fiction/Fantasy, and that broad category, Literature and Fiction. However, when you click on any of those category links, the experience changes dramatically from browsing in a physical bookstore.
Let’s take mysteries. Remember how in the physical bookstore I only had the choice of a section of newly released mysteries and then everything else was shelved alphabetically by author’s name? Online in the Kindle store, when I click on Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, I get all kinds of new ways to find books.
1) I can look at the center screen that has changed to offer up different displays of books—all within the broad Mystery/Thriller/Suspense category of books––all chosen by the algorithms, Amazon editors, and publishing houses to tempt me.
2) I can go to the listing on the left of this screen and click on browse all, and I will get a list of all 124,218 books in the general Mystery/Thriller/Suspense category. (How do I know how many books are in this category? It says right at the top, just above the first book—but the number keeps just getting larger every day I check!) The books are initially ranked by a formula that determines those that are “new and popular.” In a drop down menu on the upper right I can also change the sorting of the books to order by price, average customer review, or publication date.
3) I can go back to the first screen and again look on the left, but instead of clicking Browse All I have a number of sub-genres to choose from, including: British Detectives, Collections and Anthologies, Cozy, Crime Fiction, Espionage, Hard-boiled, Historical, International mystery and crime, James Bond series, Mystery, Paranormal, Police procedurals, Private Investigators, Series, Suspense, Thrillers, Technothrillers, and Women Sleuths.
When I click on any of those sub-genres I get a list of books in that sub-genre. For example, since one of my favorite sub-genres is historical mysteries, if I click on Historical I will get a list of just under 4000 historical mysteries (again sorted by the “new and popular” listing). Today, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life is listed first. Or I could sort by price (choosing low to high––with the books that are free in this group coming first.) Or I could sort by customer review, where a self-published book, To the Grave, with 412 reviews and a 4.7 out of 5 stars, is listed first.
Some of those sub-genres even offer you additional categories to choose from. For example, clicking on the category Cozy, you get a list of cozy books, but the category list on the left side of the screen now also shows cozy sub-genres: animals, crafts and hobbies, and culinary. Some of these sub-sub genres repeat categories. For example, if I click on the Mystery sub-genre link on the main Mystery, Thriller & Suspense page, I get some categories I have already seen––like Cozy or Historical––but I also see a couple of new ones like African American, Gay and Lesbian.
With each list of books, you again have the option of also sorting the list by price, average customer review, and date of publication. But that isn’t all. You can also “filter” books by moods and themes, characters, and settings. This filtering functionality is available on the left side of the screen below the categories; you will see various filters with check boxes beside each one. For example, looking at the list of historical mysteries—I can use the “filter” function to narrow the nearly 4000 books down to 500 that have “female protagonists” (listed under “Characters”). And I can filter using more than one filter at the same time. For example, I can check both “female protagonists” and “British Detectives” and get a list of 64 books with female protagonists and British Detectives. Needless to say this list is filled with books I have read and new authors I plan to check out!
4) At any point, with any list of books, I can also refine my browsing further by putting keywords in the search box at the top of the page. For example, if I enter “Ancient Rome” in the search box when I am looking at the main Mystery/Thriller/Suspense page, I will get a new list of 43 books; but if I enter that same search term when I am looking at the historical mystery list I will get 27 books. If I enter it for cozy mysteries I discover that there are no books categorized as Ancient Roman cozies (surprise, surprise). But if I enter the search term “quilts” while browsing the cozy mystery page, I get a list of 34 books that are cozy mysteries that feature quilts.
5) Finally, you can use most of these same browsing features to browse just Bestsellers (those books that have sold best in the Kindle estore in the past hour). To do that, you start back at the beginning in the Kindle Store at http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks/ and click the “Kindle Bestsellers” link on the left side under Popular Features. You can then go through the same process described above to narrow your browsing to Bestsellers in a category such as historical mysteries. Here you only see the top 100 books in any chosen category. You cannot narrow your browsing within Bestsellers by using filters and searches, but you probably won’t need to since you are only seeing lists of 100 or fewer books. I have also just discovered that you can do a similar search if you click on the new Kindle Countdown Deals or Kindle Monthly Deals features. (Will Amazon never stop giving us more ways to find books?)
This may seem overwhelming at first. But the bottom line is that if readers take the time to explore the browsing options available in the Kindle eBook store, they can learn how best to find the kinds of books they like to read, at the price they can afford. In the process they can discover books they would never have found in a physical bookstore.
I tend to start at method #5 above, searching Bestsellers (and there the list is divided between paid and free lists). I then click on Mystery/Thriller/Suspense then Mystery, then Historical. Then I look first at the free books to see if there are any to tempt me. (I recently discovered Donis Casey’s Alafair Tucker series and Priscilla Royal’s Medieval Mystery series this way and they have become two of my favorite series.) Then I go to the paid list. It seldom takes me more than a minute to find several books I want to download or buy, and I am done.
And here is something else: the books in these two series, although published by the reputable Poisoned Pen Press, are not found on the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble store. Even if the latest book in each series showed up on one their shelves (for the usual six weeks a mid-list book gets before being returned), and even I had found them (browsing alphabetically by author), it is unlikely that the first book in the series would have been available. Since I like to start reading a series at the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to try them. I didn’t have this problem when shopping online in the Kindle store. In the Kindle store, when you find a book that is part of a series, you can just click on the author’s name to see all their other books listed—and buy the book you want instantly. In a physical bookstore I would have had to go to the cashier and order the first book in the series—something I wouldn’t usually do for an unknown author.
In summary: All the methods of finding books to read in a physical bookstore (staff recommendations, display tables filled with NY Times bestsellers and books paid to be promoted by publishers, and shelves of books by broad categories) exist in the online Kindle ebook store. But in the Kindle store there are a variety of other methods of finding a new book to read that don’t exist in those physical stores, and you can design a strategy that works best for your own tastes.
In Readers to Book/Books to Readers-Part Two: Selling Books in the Kindle Store, I will discuss how writers, if they understand Part One, can do a better job of getting their books discovered. Meanwhile—go sign onto the Kindle store, try out your new tools for browsing, and buy a few books!
So, was all of this information new to you? If not, what strategy do you use to find the books you want in the Kindle store? Do you find shopping online less rewarding, as rewarding, or more rewarding than shopping in a physical bookstore?
I really want to know!
M. Louisa Locke, November 5, 2013