Not everyone will fly halfway around the world to go book shopping. My sister, Carolyn Uber, and I are about to embark on a long postponed trip to England, the land of our heritage. I’ve never been before and I am very excited to see the places where my ancestors lived. Besides the genealogy tour, we’ll be sampling the sites and one of the places we can’t wait to go is to the bookshops and stalls in Portabello Road, London. I hope they are still there! Sis has been there before, some years back, and I’ll be very interested to hear from her whether many of the shops she remembers are still plying their trade and hand selling books to readers—as only a local bookseller can.
Things are changing fast in the book world, and though we like to think that they may change slower in places that in outward appearance honor tradition more than we Americans do, I’m not so sure. Russ Grandinetti from Amazon gave a talk recently saying that the US and the UK are selling up to 50% of all books online. You can see his slideshow from that talk here. Mike Shatzkin reported that one of the biggest UK publishers admitted that it makes 60% of sales (all formats) through Amazon. (Still believe they aren’t on the verge of a monopoly? And that doesn’t scare you even a little?) Read his blog post—link below.
You know you’re getting old when you find yourself yearning for the “good old days” and more and more, I do. I can recall times, pre-Amazon, spending entire afternoons at the Tattered Cover in Denver, browsing the shelves, and then finding a soft, worn chair and reading a bit before making a purchase. In fact we used to drive 40 miles one way to do just that. We still could, the TC is still there, but most often, to my shame, Amazon is handier, and with e-books, I can be reading in my own worn chair in seconds, no driving required. So I too am doing my part in ensuring the demise of local bookstores. I should know better.
I hate myself for it.
But I realize I am missing something, as a reading consumer, the sights, the smell (of all those books!) and being in the presence of other booklovers on both sides of the counter. I am missing that serendipitous find, that surprise and delight of a something new and different that I’d never have thought to look for on Amazon.
The problem with Amazon is that it will suggest things to you based on what you’ve already bought. As if that’s all you read. Goodreads (now owned by Amazon, not coincidentally) does largely the same thing. For readers of genre fiction, particularly those who primarily read one kind of books that may work for them. It came too late for my mom who would have loved it. She devoured romances like candy, one a day at least, and pretty much that’s all she read.
But what if you read a little of everything? Will Amazon show you something you might never have read if you hadn’t just walked by that cover that stopped you in your tracks? Will you overhear a conversation between other readers gushing over this or that book by an author you never heard of in a genre you’ve never read? Will the friendly clerk at checkout tell you about a book she read and can’t stop recommending because it affected her so? Nope, probably not.
Amazon will show you stuff like you’ve read before. It will show you the best sellers, it will show you genre fiction if you know what genre to search for, and authors if you know their name, and subjects if you know what you want and if the author/publisher put in the same keywords you’re using. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve just bought on Amazon a specific widget I needed, I get rather annoyed when Amazon keeps trying to sell me the same or similar widget for the next six months. I already bought it! That’s what’s wrong with the recommendation engine. If I don’t know what I want, or the words to describe it, they can’t help me. Though, they’re getting scarily close. Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse, them knowing or not knowing.
As always Mike Shatzkin (publishing’s guru) has something to say on this issue. This is another of those really good posts of interest to writers and readers alike. I strongly urge you to read if you’re one of those.
Wish me luck in Portabello Road! Maybe I’ll find lot’s of great books I’d never have found on Amazon. Think that’s possible? Well, I aim to find out.