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