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Is there a digital substitute for bookshop serendipity?

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Just read a very interesting article about the impact digital books might have on non-bestseller authors – those books you pick up by chance, that look intriguing on the shelf, that happen to be next to something else you’re looking at.

I particularly like the parallel between bookshop browsing and supermarket browsing:

Digital books create a retailing bypass that diminishes the exposure of midlist books to potential readers. Supermarkets have long understood the importance of this aspect of sales, arranging their stores so shoppers have to pass through aisles filled with tempting items in order to pick up a quart of milk. So while eBooks will offer publishers an easier and more economic means to sell more works by leading authors it will increase the challenge of marketing books by others.

I wonder, what will the digital equivalent be of picking up a loaf of fancy bread that smells like and some unusual fruit you’ve never heard of, just because they’re on the way to the cheese? Having done some online supermarket shopping, they do suggest other things you might like, but that doesn’t give the same illusion of having just “happened” upon something (NB: I do realise this is an illusion – supermarket layout being a fiendishly machiavellian science by all accounts).

Can anyone think of a good way to introduce some exciting, sensual chance into the process of online bookshopping? Not just that “you may like” nonsense. Something about the interface that they could change to allow you to see more covers/blurbs, perhaps? I’ve yet to find any online shopping experience that truly mirrors browsing, though.



2 responses »

  1. I think in some ways the major problem with online shopping is customer interface. In a bookstore, you have a massive selection of, for example, science fiction books. Lalala-ing along, you happen to see a face-out book and pick it up. Or the book next to your favorite author actually looks quite interesting. Or the one that happens to be on a display table. In a lot of these circumstances, the things that pop out randomly are determined by the odd member of the bookstore’s staff, who have a book face out to make the shelf fit better, or pull a book onto the table because they have the right number of them, or they’ve read and liked the author, or they’ve decided to do a display on zombies. Truth is, most of that is random. So how do you get random online?

    iTunes manages to solve this problem for TV by aggregating with the artificial divides of on-air television channels. But they fail to do so successfully for movies or music imo. For books, in order for me to feel like I was browsing, there would have to be some amount of random titles popping up on every page. And search functions would have to be radically expanded. Instead of just searching for a title or author, I want to search for a sci fi book, that’s funny, that has spaceships, that doesn’t have aliens, and is like one of the authors I’ve already indicated I do like. To get that level of searchability, we’re talking about a massive, extensive database beyond anything that exists right now. Actually, it’s a bit like Pandora, or the Pandora-like function on Spotify. Recommendations that are based on what I’m in the mood for in the moment (my current search criteria) plus my preferences as described by me, not my buying history.

  2. I agree re itunes and music – I find it impossible to browse in a satisfying way, and feel myself bombarded with crap but not offered anything interesting. I wish they’d organise it in departments. Hey, they could get itunes staffers to do picks of the week, too. I’d like that. Little reviews and random little things picked out, including obscure singles from the 1950s, or classical recordings, or the latest stupid pop shite that you love to hate and love again.

    I’m thinking about the random vs database-driven approach… I definitely want somewhere in between. I don’t want people to offer me things based on what I’ve bought in the past necessarily. I want the opportunity to branch out into something utterly new and unfamiliar… though I do also want to get recs that fit into genres/types of author I’ve enjoyed before.

    Perhaps there needs to be a mix? A system that throws up utterly random stuff from time to time, but also allows you to search through “sections” of a virtual bookshop, and catch glimpses of random things in the next “aisle”.

    I’ve not really used Pandora or Spotify. Good?


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