Mike Shatzkin has an interesting essay on his blog about how sales of e-books seem to concentrate amid bestsellers—while the percentage of e-books sold seems to be in the teens generally, some bestselling titles report moving as many as 50% of their units as e-books. Shatzkin places the blame for this on the relatively few choices that can be presented at one time on a screen compared to a bookstore.
Bookstores, Shatzkin explains, know all about the value of facing titles out on a shoulder-level bookshelf to bring them to readers’ attention. It used to be that as part of the inventorying process, sales reps would count books on shelves, taking the opportunity to face them out and move them around while they were at it to attract more sales. But with e-bookstores, there’s not as much you can do.
The standard technique is that there are a set and limited number of titles a customer sees “at a click.” If you want to see more, you have to click again and (depending on connection speed) perhaps wait for more titles to load, which will usually be another 10 or 12 or maybe 25. If you shop the same sections repeatedly (and who doesn’t), most of what you see will be titles you’ve seen before and either bought or rejected. If you shop often, trying to find something new can be exhausting and ridiculously time-consuming.
And being on an e-book bestseller list seems to be a sort of feedback loop: if you’re on the list, you sell more copies, and you consequently stay on the list. This could explain some of the success of Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath at selling their self-published books: let them hit the bestseller list a few times and it’s easier to stay on it than fall off it. Some self-publishing authors ride the 99 cent price point up to the top of the list, then set their prices up to $2.99 and make more money while they slide back down.
(It’s interesting to note that this effect is not strictly limited to e-books—it would also have an impact on online booksellers such as Amazon that sell print books. After all, you can’t browse Amazon’s printed books like you can a bookstore, either. Though since print books are also sold in print bookstores that don’t have this problem, the effect will be much more diluted there.)
The browsing conundrum has long been an oft-heard complaint about e-books (and, for that matter, online bookstores for print books). How do you get people to discover new titles when you can’t present that many on a screen? Even though you can more easily find exactly what you want if you know what you want, what if you just want to browse?
As bookstores are more and more hit by the dual effects of the economy and people migrating toward electronic books, this will become a more pressing question for publishers and self-publishers alike.