In which we look at how the Brave New Publishing World makes it really hard to find something good to read.

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In a recent links dump, I included a link to this post about the current state of publishing, which is a follow-up to an earlier post about the current state of publishing. Elsewhere in my social media universe, this has come in for a lot of derision from anti-publishing friends, particularly the bit where the author complains that there are too many books published. “How can there be such a thing?” is the basic thrust of the thing. “The more books, the better!”

Coincidentally, before my trip last week, I decided to load up my e-reader with new books to read on the plane and in the hotel, but gave up after a single purchase. The reason I gave up was pretty similar to the “Too many books” complaint, so I thought it would be worth going through the problem in a little bit of detail.

So, here’s the scenario: my e-reader is a Nook, and if I buy books for it from Barnes and Noble directly, I can read them on the Nook, on the iPad, or on my phone, and it’s good to have that choice. So, I went to Barnes and Noble’s web store, and looked at the SF and Fantasy page, because that’s the genre of most of my airplane reading. On that page, they have a handful of featured boxes, but the books in those featured blocks tend to stay there for weeks, so they’re not a terribly good guide to what’s new. Even the “New Releases” block includes a lot of stuff that isn’t particularly new.

They do, however, include a “View All” link, which takes you to this list of recent releases in the genre. It defaults to “Best Matches” under the search, which promotes exactly the same set of not-that-new best-seller type things as their front page boxes– Dean Koontz, Laurel Hamilton, Harry Potter, etc. That’s not what I’m looking for, though– I’d like to know what new stuff has been published this week (new releases from major publishers drop on Tuesday, after all, so there should be a crop of new releases from just yesterday). So I change to the Newest to Oldest sort. And that’s where I crashed to a halt.

At the time when I’m writing this, there are a handful of re-releases of old books by known authors– James Blaylock seems to be digitizing his back catalogue, somebody’s doing ebook versions of a lot of public domain stuff (Dickens, Grimm’s fairy tales), etc. There are also a handful of books that I recognize as new releases from known authors– Terry Pratchett, David Brin, etc.

And then there’s the self-published junk, most of which is obviously porn. Probably 70 of the 90 books displayed on that page are self-published works, most of them of vanity-press quality judging by the plot descriptions. The second page of results is even worse– probably 80 of the 90 are just garbage.

This is the problem. There might be a few hidden gems in there, but there’s no way I have time to read enough of it to judge, let alone money to pay for it. If I want to find new stuff that’s worth reading, I have to sift through a huge mass of crap to try to find the few things I want to read. And, really, life is just too short.

So, the situation we have is that there are more books published than ever before, but it’s harder to find anything worth reading than ever before. The filtering provided by traditional publishers is a huge time-saver, and faced with having to essentially sort somebody else’s slushpile, I’m most likely going to just give up. There’s no useful way to browse new releases, as it currently stands, which means if a new book doesn’t rise to one of their promoted categories (either through merit, or the ever-so-slightly-sleazy system of kickbacks that determines book placement online or off), I’m most likely not going to see it to buy it.

Now, there are ways to cut through this. I can read Locus, say, and then search specifically for books that they recommend. The “people who bought this also bought” feature can then kick in, maybe. But again, there’s a problem of filtering, here– what gets reviewed in Locus is subject to just as much bias, albeit in from a different source, as the promoted categories on the web stores. Locus reviews lots of stuff I don’t want to read, and doesn’t review plenty of things that I do. I can get around that by reading multiple review sites, or scouring lists of forthcoming books, but then we run up against the finite time problem– when I’m trying to pick up a few things to read on the plane an hour before I go to the airport, I don’t have time to do huge amounts of consumer research. I want to see a selection of new stuff passing some minimal quality threshold, and choose from that. I have a day job and a time-consuming secondary job blogging– I can’t put this kind of time into selecting my fiction reading.

Now, it may be that this is a deliberate and canny move on Barnes and Noble’s part, making their web store unusable so I have to come into the physical store to look at the new-release shelves (which are subject to the usual graft, of course, but do present a much wider selection than they promote on their web site). But the Sony ebook store, that I used previously, was subject to a similar problem, and Amazon’s Kindle store isn’t any better, from what I can see.

It may be that with more purchases, B&N will be able to accurately recommend stuff that I’ll like– at present, neither B&N nor Amazon are very good on this count. It may also be that I’m missing some clever combination of search functions that will get me something closer to what I actually want– if so, please tell me, because I haven’t run across anything that will knock the self-published-porn fraction down enough to make browsing new releases possible. But for the moment, at least, there are so many ebooks out there that I end up not buying any ebooks, and that’s bad. (Well, for the economy, anyway– I’ve got a big backlog of stuff bought a while ago that I haven’t read yet, so I was fine on the plane.)

This is the fundamental problem for the “More books good!” argument: Books aren’t fungible. One book is not necessarily as good as another, and, in fact, the vast majority of books out there aren’t good replacements for what I want to read. Increasing the total number of books available may seem like a good thing, but if it makes it harder to find the stuff I do want to read, that’s a bad thing, both for me as a reader looking for new stuff, and for authors trying to get noticed.

Comments

  1. #1 Uberjam
    San Antonio Texas
    June 20, 2012

    Chad, This seems like a very managable first world problem. Allowing people to self-publish their porn or whatever is just a step toward improving publishing. It will likely put some pressure on publishers to not only provide a better product but also improve the filtering services you described.

    I have a Kindle and so buy my ebooks through Amazon. I normally read the top rated reviews before buying anything and I find the “readers who bought this also bought” feature very helpful for browsing a subject. I haven’t run into your problem yet and I think the main reason is that I very rarely read fiction. Fewer people are self-publishing non-fiction, or so I will assume.

    I would suggest not seeing the recent changes in publishing as a bad thing but rather a necessary step in the growth and evolution of an industry. The ever globalizing world is slowly adapting to the speed of information and there will be some growing pains.

  2. #2 Markk
    USA
    June 20, 2012

    Yes! The Categorization of eBooks, both for buying and for use on your eReader is bad. I have a Nook also and I have several hundred ebooks, bought online or downloaded for free. The Nook was not built to handle these, nor the Kindle which I looked at. You can build shelves, which quickly become useless as the number of books grow, or use the filesystem, but then, if you want to do something like move a book from an unread to a read folder there is no easy way to do it without connecting to PC.

    This is slightly different to your point but on a digitial reader where I can keep many thousands of books and papers I want powerful, quick filesystem or other organization tools that: segregate books in multiple different ways at once – work from home, technical from fiction. I want to hide things. I don’t necessaryly at work want the fact that I read Vampire Hunter D or something to show up on my main screen, which can happen now, when I use the reader to access some technical paper.

    I want lists that I can scroll around and not accidently open something till I want to.

    Ok end of rant. I am finding the reader super useful, so I think the frustration is that it is close to something really good, and it isn’t really the hardware that is the issue.

    These guys are definitely immature at this point, but I think they will evolve.

    I do think Publishers ought to talk about paying Amazon or B&N money for their own section of the bookstore, that way you could use that to segment off and it would be a real value add for publishers vs independent publishing – you can count on editorial choice for a given publisher, etc.

  3. #3 Kate Nepveu
    http://www.steelypips.org/weblog/
    June 20, 2012

    It’s too bad that Sony has done such an awful job with its bookstore, and has such bad will from many people from past practices, because the Sony Reader’s organizational abilities are so much what I want that I’m baffled that other readers don’t bother. I’m afraid that they’re going to stop making them and then I’ll have to hope eBay can provide when the current one breaks . . .

  4. #4 Ash
    June 20, 2012

    I’ve had the same problem. In the past I used to be able to go to the bookstore or library, browse the shelves, and discover something that piqued my interest.

    I love reading on my ereader (I use a Sony) and have no problem sorting the books I have, but that ability to browse (with a reasonable expectation of finding something decent) is disappearing.

    Right now my best way for identifying new authors is to find a few blogs and review sites where the reviewers seem to have similar taste to me and see what they recommend. It’s still far from a great system though, since any individual reviewer is limited in how many books he/she can read.

  5. #5 Richard Campbell
    June 20, 2012

    I use Tor.com’s new releases tag, since I agree that Amazon is useless for recommendations (for starters, all my recommendations turn out to be pre-releases):

    http://www.tor.com/tags/new%20releases

  6. #6 Aaron Wemple
    IL
    June 21, 2012

    Let me know what you think about this new theoretical physics book ‘I R Physics’ for a wonderful change to classical physics with the most comprehensive study of clean free energy systems (even for catalyst free & polution free power), dark matter solved, and many other wonderful scientific quagmires better explained. http://uprightusa.org/Neweststudies.html

  7. #7 LC
    June 22, 2012

    Bookstore browsing has always been the only kind of shopping I enjoy so I miss all the haunts that no longer exist. But I rarely left a store storing thousands of books (and, at least, hundreds of new ones) with more than a handful. So the situation hasn’t changed all that much – except, of course, for all the vanity pubs which are pretty easy to create and spot as e-books.

    I’m actually having the opposite problem since getting a Kindle Fire in December. I’d never read an e-book, never wanted to. Then I discovered all the public domain books, took a look at the holes in my sizable library of real books, and started loading up the Fire.

    Amazon has a Kindle Daily Deal, and other sales which drop prices to used-book level. Most are crap, yes, but I’ve filled more than a few of my “buy when it turns up in the used book store” entries.

    Also, Amazon lets me download a sample chapter (so far, that means the first chapter or two) for free. This has turned out to be much more useful than bookstore browsing. More often than I would have expected, I have not liked the “highly praised” book I sampled. Occasionally, the chapter so impresses me, I buy the “real” book because I want to hold it in my hands, see it on my bookshelf. And, sometimes, I actually buy the e-book.

    As a fan of mysteries, fantasy & sci-fi, I don’t think much of the pre-ebook publishing industry during the past 10-20 years. Books that used to be around 200 pages have morphed into War-and-Peace-size tomes in series that go on forever. Most of the monsters I’ve read would have benefitted from a good editor with a huge red pen.

    And, oh, did I mention Amazon’s lending library?. I just borrowed the 3rd book in the Harry Potter series. (I had bought and read the first two books years ago but didn’t like the series enough to buy the rest. As a loaner, OTOH, it was a good deal.)

    Only one book a month – and my local library’s e-book list is pitiful – but it is still an option that is far more convenient than borrowing a dead-tree book.

    IOW, I now have so many books on my Fire, I often can’t decide which book to read next.

  8. #8 Sheri Gormley, Barking Rain Press
    Vancouver, WA
    July 1, 2012

    The answer is simple — take a look at some of the high-quality, independent fiction being published by small press organizations throughout the US. Have you ever visited The Midwest Book Review? http://www.midwestbookreview.com/ They review a few dozen books each month in their Small Press Watch column, all neatly sorted by genres. If you made a point to just take a peek over there when you are ready to “reload,” you would get quite a few solid recommendations for SciFi and Fantasy. Unlike the mainstream reviewers (which, as you noted, are paid to hawk some pretty mediocre stuff), these folks don’t receive any compensation for their reviews, and are fairly selective about what they’ll review (i.e., no vanity-published porn). For example, Barking Rain Press is a non-profit indie publisher that is less than one year old, but we have already had two titles reviewed by Midwest — including our excellent Steampunk novel, OF MACHINES & MAGICS by Adele Abbot. Her first novel, POSTPONING ARMEGEDDON, was a finalist in Terry Prachett’s “Anywhere but Here, Anywhen but Now” contest and will published by us later this year. I agree that it’s hard to wade through all the slush on your own, but with just a little digging through an indie press review site, you are sure to find some good airplane reading.