Separating the Wheat From the Barley

March 12th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Back when I lived in San Francisco, so more than five years ago, I realized something: marketing for fiction is terrible. Here’s the chain of relationships between an author and a reader, as far as I can tell (and this is for novels, other formats are much worse): Writer writes a book. Writer markets book to agent. Agent markets book to publisher. Publisher markets book to bookstore. Book store markets bookstore brand to potential reader. Reader hears about book from a friend or notices a catchy cover and buys book. Most of the books that get any marketing support are books that are already pretty much guaranteed to be popular (think Evanovich, Patterson, or Rowling; they could have announced the Deathly Hallows by way of a Post-it note on a random desk in Tunisia and it would have been around the world in three hours).

Granted, this is not necessarily a problem with a good solution. Books are personal things, and marketing to the wrong demographic is a waste of money. The traditional solution to this is the bookstore/library model of browsing. By arranging books by genre, a reader has the opportunity to discover something new. Of course this model falls apart when bookstores start to act like theaters, focusing almost exclusively on the first week of sales, which can easily prevent a new book from finding an audience (just ask the unfortunate authors who had books released on 9/11/2001 what happened to their books/careers). Unfortunately, this browsing model doesn’t seem to translate to digital bookstores, which means that finding new books can be very frustrating if you don’t already know what you are looking for (which, to me, is kind of the point of finding new books to read)

On to my point. Last week I realized that I read books in three different formats: paper books, audiobooks, and ebooks. Each format fills a different need. I read paper books on lunch breaks and in the bath (as I really don’t want to break my shiny new smartphone) and the books I read this way are mostly the ones that I can’t find in one of the other formats. Audiobooks I listen to while at work or doing household chores. Ebooks I read before I go to bed (a backlit screen is much more convenient for me than a book light) or when my son falls asleep in my arms (turning pages on a hardcover with only one hand free is a pain). In addition, I decided that I wanted to read more indie fiction, stuff that was good but didn’t fit into the publishing industry’s current fad. I read enough paper books and audiobooks that reading indie fiction on my phone wouldn’t really keep me from reading anything that I read now.

Somehow I had assumed that things would be better, 5+ years down the road. So that evening, instead of reading, I went on to Smashwords to look for something to read. Forty minutes later and I still hadn’t found anything. I tried again the next night, and the next. Still no luck.

I chose Smashwords for three reasons: 1) everything on there is indie, meaning that I wouldn’t have to filter out traditionally published works; 2) they are device neutral, when you buy a book from them you can download it in any format you want from plain text to kindle; 3) they have the best filtering tools. I’m going to focus on point #3.

On Smashwords, I can filter my browsing by genre and subgenre, as well as by various types of popularity and release date, and by length (which is my favorite feature, as I like short fiction). The subgenres are nice but don’t offer enough specificity. For example, lets say I want to read a short piece of fantasy set in a secondary world (meaning not Earth). The subgenres listed for fantasy are: General, Paranormal, Epic, Contemporary, Short Stories, Urban, and Historical. Out of these, I can write off Short Stories (which, on Smashwords, usually indicates anthologies), Paranormal, and Urban, and Contemporary (which implies contemporary Earth), and Historical (which implies historical Earth). Granted, there may be a few stories in those categories that fit what I’m looking for, but the vast majority won’t.  That leaves General and Epic, neither of which are exactly what I’m looking for but are better than the alternatives. Filtering down to just short fiction, those categories have 136 and 49 pages of results, respectively. At ten results per page, that is a total of nearly 1900 results to sort through, a large number of which will not fit my criteria at all.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. With ebooks, we don’t have to shelve things in just one place, we can have a near infinite number of categories, and each book can fit into more than one. In fact, there is already a system in place that could handle this. Each book is tagged. When you look at the detail page for any particular book, it lists the tags that the author has assigned to it. Click on the tag, and it brings up a list of every other book that has that same tag. For example, lets say that I clicked on the tag for space station, it brings up 94 results. Cool, right? Well, no. I can’t filter that list at all, and as far as I can tell, the only way to get to the tag list is to find a book with that tag and click or to know the format that the site uses and type it in manually. If I, say, search for space station, it brings up a page with “title search” results and “full search” results (whatever that means). Of course, I can’t further filter this list in any way, but the weird thing is that between the two types of searches that are performed, there are only 70 results, which would indicate that the full search does not include tags.

Which is why, after a week of looking for something to buy (or just download, if its free), I have nothing.

And to be clear, Amazon is no better. In fact, it is worse, as I have yet to find a way to filter by length and the recommendations are almost all books by authors I have bought books from in the past.

Furthermore, notice that I have said nothing here about quality. If I can find something that fits what I’m looking for, I will happily try a sample and decide for myself, especially since I have been burnt by high ratings too many times. What I want, to use the metaphor from this posts’s title, is not to separate the wheat from the chaff, but to separate the wheat from the barley from the oats. I want to be able to filter by genre, length, popularity, intended audience, and tags. If the system is built on one big database (which it would almost have to be), then this shouldn’t be hard to do. Maybe someone can even be convinced to give it a shot. Of course, if not, we will have to do it ourselves, but that’s another post.

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