Dear Amazon

This is an open letter to Amazon, with regard to their UK Kindle Store.

Dear Amazon:

I love the Kindle. I love the convenience of being able to buy books and have them delivered immediately. I love being able to read three-volume Victorian novels without also getting an arm and shoulder workout. But the experience of browsing books in the Kindle Store from my Kindle itself needs some serious work.

If I know what I’m looking for, fine, I can search and I generally find that author’s work. Admittedly I often also find other stuff I don’t want – I was particularly bemused that you recommended me an e-pamphlet called something not a million miles from ‘INTROVERTS DIE ALONE: LEARN TO BE A GODDAM SALESMAN ALREADY’ by the author of ‘BUSINESS SECRETS OF THE CELEBRITY DEAD’ when I was searching for Susan Cain’s The Quiet. But in general, the search facility works fine.

It’s the ‘Browse: Books’ that’s totally b0rked.

Amazon, I do not always know exactly what I want. Sometimes I am in the mood for a historical biography. Sometimes I want a contemporary romance. Sometimes I want to flick through a particular category and see what’s available. And you are making it pointlessly hard for me to do so, because your curating skills suck.

If I go and look in ‘Science Fiction’, I want to find science fiction, and yet two of the first five books you offer me are fantasy instead. And I don’t mean the ‘Hmmmm…. well, I don’t actually know what’s going on with this society and whether it’s meant to be futuristic or parallel-world or a secondary creation’ kind of fantasy that could perfectly reasonably reside within SF, I mean the ‘warring royal house, assassins and swords, and if this had been written ten years ago it’d probably have an elf in’ kind. I look in ‘Fantasy’ and find paranormal romance.

And the thing is, I can quite see why a writer of paranormal romance would list her stuff in ‘Fantasy’ instead, because the ‘Romance’ section is quite seriously broken. There are 65,616 books listed in Romance today. If I hit ‘view subcategory’ I see that there are 15,705 contemporary romances available, 9483 historicals, and 52,182 ‘Fantasy, Futuristic and Ghost’.

Is this because four fantasy, futuristic or ghost romances sell for every contemporary? No, it’s not. It’s because that section contains a vast number of romances that don’t belong there. Of the first five romances listed in that section, none of them are fantasy or futuristic, though I wouldn’t swear to the absence of ghosts.

For someone who’s thinking about publishing a steampunk romance some time soon and would like fans of steampunk romance to be able to find it, this is, as you might imagine, frustrating.

Hard to navigate as the fiction shelves are, they’re at least better than the nonfiction. I’ve given up trying to find anything in nonfiction. If I’m near my computer, I’ll go and browse the Amazon site on there instead: if I’m not, I’ll read one of the many classics I’ve got loaded up from Project Gutenberg. Amazon, this is not a win for you. Your profit margins rely on my impulse purchases, and I’m not making impulse purchases because I can’t find what I want.

The problem with nonfiction is twofold. Firstly, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just pointlessly misplaced: historical-set mysteries in ‘Historical’, for example.

Secondly, the books I want to find are crowded out – in every category – by books that I am never going to buy and that you’re wasting my time by constantly shoving under my nose. If I’m in Waterstones and happen to want a misery memoir, I can go to wherever they’re keeping the misery memoirs these days. I don’t find them piled in huge stacks underfoot throughout the shop. But that’s what it’s like trying to shop on Amazon. Historical? Biography? Self Help and How To? Everywhere you look, there are the dreaded titles and subtitles, spilling off the title line like the shape of a frowning mouth. Tales of hardship. True life stories. Shocking stories. White covers with scribbly fonts and bruised childish faces. Are there little models out there whose whole careers are based on ‘Now look at the camera and pretend Mummy’s been in a car accident?’

Obviously a lot of people like these books, Amazon. If they’re giving people who have been through wrenching life experiences the strength to carry on, then they’re doing some good in the world. But could you please make it possible for those of us who don’t want to buy them to find something we do want?

To do you justice, ‘Business and Finance’ and ‘Politics and Current Affairs’ seem to mostly contain business and finance, and politics and current affairs respectively. Nice going, Amazon. Care to roll that out to the rest of the site?

Yours hopefully

Ankaret Wells

P.S: A lot of people are going to say that this problem is down to there being too many self-published books on Amazon, and that if Amazon acted as a gatekeeper, it’d all be a lot better. I do think that Amazon could do better at stopping the stolen works and the content-free, cribbed-straight-from-the-Web ‘factual’ ebooks, and that the Kindle Store would be a better place if it did. But I want to be able to read self-published books by Melanie Clegg and other authors who are selling a product just as good as anything from the big publishers, and I’m pretty grateful to the Kindle Store for giving me the chance to do that. Shutting the door on self-publishers isn’t the answer. Making it possible for your readers to find what they’re looking for is.

2 thoughts on “Dear Amazon

    1. Oh, interesting! I particularly like your idea about linking to outside reviews, and your suggestions about ‘like’ and ‘not like’ tags. I’ve been having constant trouble lately with my TiVo, which has a rudimentary ‘thumbs up / thumbs down’ rating system, but stupidly thinks that if you click on anything you must like it and want to see more like it. Which is a problem if you only clicked on it in order to give it three thumbs down and make it go away.

      I do buy from non-Amazon sellers quite often – generally AllRomanceEbooks, though that’s of limited use if you’re not interested in buying romances, and occasionally Smashwords, but neither of them are particularly strong on suggestions. I know people who swear by GoodReads for crowdsourcing things they might like, but it seems to be a TV Tropes-level timesink so I’ve resisted getting involved myself.

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