Books and e-books

Two interesting, possibly not entirely unrelated news stories in the past week.

First is the really sad news that Waterstones is closing its two Dublin stores. I’m genuinely quite upset about this. Not only because I know a few fantastic people who work there, but also (and slightly selfishly) because I loved going into these shops. The Dawson Street branch is like a Georgian oasis of peace and quiet. I’m less excited about returning home to Dublin now that Waterstones is gone.

Then there’s the news that for the first time, Amazon sold more kindle e-books than paperbacks. Amazon claim that for every 100 paperbacks sold in the last quarter of 2010, it sold 115 kindle e-books. I’d love to see the actual figures here. It could be, as Steve Jobs suggests, that people just don’t read anymore, in which case the entire story is a statistical blip and not worth getting too excited about. I’m guessing it’s not, and we’re seeing a genuine shift in the way people read.

When I was back home in Dublin, I took a stroll around Waterstones in the Jervis Centre. I spent almost an hour browsing because, like I said, it’s a nice place to take your time in. Although I had three books in my hands (Bad Science, Operation Mincemeat and The Good Fairies of New York, if you’re interested), I put them back. I realised buying them would take up precious space in my suitcase for the trip back – space that could be used for Tayto and Ballymaloe relish – and then I’d have to find space for them on already-overflowing shelves. While I was sitting down for coffee later, I bought the Kindle versions of the three three books I had been looking at.

Now I feel pretty bad.

But at the same time, I think now is a good time for publishers and booksellers (the bricks-and-mortar kind) to tackle this problem. Because they have something powerful that Amazon, as much as it tries, can’t compete with.

I love my Kindle. I love the convenience of it. I love the fact that I’ve got my library with me wherever I go. I love that every book I buy for it means one less book taking up space on my bookshelves, one less thing for my wife to yell at me about. I love the experience of reading on it.

But I don’t like the experience of shopping on it. Or rather, I don’t like the experience of window-shopping on it. It might give me the choice of hundreds of thousands of books right at my fingertips, but unless I know exactly the book I’m looking for, I’m screwed. There’s no serendipity.

Retail stores, like Waterstones, have the opposite problem. They’re all serendipity. Conversely, because they have limited physical space, chances are they might not have that one particular book you’re looking for, especially if it’s in any way off the beaten path. But that doesn’t matter because while you’re looking for that one book, your eye might be drawn to something else. An author you haven’t heard of, writing in a genre you don’t usually like. You decide to check it out and – boom – you have a new favourite book.

Amazon doesn’t have that.

Another thing Waterstones has that I’m really going to miss are the ‘Our favourites’. A curated section with books chosen by the people who work there, with a little note underneath, written by the member of staff who chose it explaining why they like that particular book. These were always great places to discover something new because their choices were always wonderfully idiosyncratic and always interesting.

Amazon doesn’t have that either.

What Amazon does have are recommendations based on what I’ve already bought. In other words “If you liked this, here’s more of the same”. I’m sure it’s a very sophisticated algorithm and took hundreds of man-hours to perfect, but that’s not what I want. It sounds stupid, but I don’t want you to recommend stuff I like, I want you to recommend stuff you like.

That’s the role retail book shops play. That’s the itch they scratch that online shops just can’t reach. And I think it’s time for them to start playing that up. It wouldn’t take much for retailers to offer the option of selling digital copies of books on small, cheap USB keys, but I doubt Amazon will get the ‘window-shopping’ experience right anytime soon.