Perfection—As I See It
If you could design it, Nicki, what would be the perfect online bookstore?
When I was asked this question during a discussion at Book Balloon, I was ready to respond immediately. I clicked in the little “post” box and started typing. And typed. And typed. And realized that I wasn’t typing a response, but more of a manifesto. So I got a grip on myself, took a deep breath, and copied everything into the file I reserve for working out thoughts about this column.
We all have answered variations on the question “if you could be anything you wanted, what would you be?” It is a question for dreamers. I dream about bookstores and libraries. So the idea of the perfect bookstore—even the perfect online bookstore—is something that has occupied my thoughts often. Of course, I have no perfect answers. But I can tell you what the perfect online bookstore is not. It is not Amazon. I want my perfect bookstore to treat books like books first, and product second.
I should say here that I buy almost all my books online through my neighborhood bookstore website. I rarely set foot in the shop itself. And I am a 21st century shopper—comfortable with a wide variety of online stores and shopping carts, both local and national. I’m flexible and forgiving and tolerant of things like “server not found” notices and mysql errors and login time outs and whatnot. In fact, I’m much more tolerant of this sort of thing than I am of, say, people cutting me off in traffic or taking up two parking spaces, which explains why I do most of my book buying online. That, and I love instantaneous gratification, and there is nothing more instantaneously gratifying than going “click” on a book I suddenly decided I have to have.
Because I work in the book industry, I’m naturally curious about the evolution of the online bookstore. I visit new bookstore websites all the time. I’m nosey and like to see not only what books they are recommending, but how they are recommending them.
So what does my idea of the perfect online bookstore look like?
You might be surprised to hear that I don’t like graphics. Or at least, in-your-face graphics. I’m thinking here of the much-vaunted Borders’ “magic shelf,” or those little animated gimmicks where you drag a corner of a page to “turn” it, or flash-rendered rooms and hallways you click through like you are playing some kind of video game, but always leave me feeling a little seasick. I think these “solutions” —virtual shelves in virtual stores for virtual books—are absolutely the wrong direction to take. All the Borders “magic shelf” (an idea I think they stole from Shelfari) does is emphasize how unlike a real bookshelf it is. And the page-turning thing? That just makes me extremely conscious that I’m not looking at a book at all. After all, who among us really notices when we turn the physical pages of a book? Barring a few pages sticking together, we don’t. The great thing about the form of an old fashioned fiber-based book is that the physical object does a good job of becoming invisible once we start reading the story. The last thing you want an Internet or electronic book to do is push its “non-bookness” in your face and make you constantly aware of all the ways it is different from a “real” one.
I think the problem with many bookstore sites—even high-end ones with money to burn for site development—is that they waste enormous amounts of effort attempting to duplicate the physical appearance of a real store, when they should be concentrating on recreating the browsing experience of the buyer in that real store. Take Amazon, which I’m fairly expert in using. Amazon has its sections and departments, its categories and lists, and yet it is inimical to browsing. Finding a copy of, say, the new John Banville book (written as Benjamin Black) is almost impossible to do by browsing. In a store, I’d go to the mystery section and look at the Bs, and follow the shelf until I found Benjamin Black. If I failed there, I’d try fiction.
The only way I can find something on Amazon is to do a search. But “searching” in an online environment is completely different from “browsing.” Searching is self-determined—you will only ever go in the direction you specify. Browsing is directed by the books; you wander based on where the arrangement of books decides to take you. The excitement you feel (or at least that I feel) walking along the shelves, looking at title after title and potentially finding something you didn't even know you were looking for can only come when you give yourself over to the experience and let the books lead you. Online bookstores fail utterly at creating that sense of adventure and discovery.
The closest thing I've seen on the Internet that mimics the kind of aimless joy I get wandering in a bookstore is actually Wikipedia, where I can sink deeper and deeper into a subject just by indulging in my impulse to click on the internal links. I think an online bookstore should be a little more like that, where internal content leads you on to more content and you end up wandering through the site not by going from page to page (“staff recommends,” “events” or “new releases”) but allowing each topic to lead you gently to the next.
And the books themselves?
Publishers spend an immense amount of money on the physical design of their books, in the hopes that the cover will entice a shopper to give in to their impulse to pick up the pretty object. But why, if a reader's first experience of a book is going to be online, do they leave their product in the uncertain hands of the various database displays? Why not spend as much attention on the Internet browser’s first experience of a book? Why not, for example, take all those haphazard websites they create for their novels and package them to be delivered directly within the online bookstore website?
Here’s what happens when most people pick up a book in a bookstore: They look at the cover first. Book jackets can be little miracles of design and artistic expression—teasing hints to what can be found inside the covers presented in a way to evoke a certain kind of mood in the browser—a mood of interest and curiosity that will hold long enough for the person to actually open the book and start reading.
Then they turn the book over, and look at the blurbs. If they are experienced readers, the odds are they look at the names of the authors blurbing the book, rather than the blurbs themselves, but they definitely look. If they like what they see, they open the book, read the flap copy, look at the author’s picture and bio, check out the first paragraph or perhaps a random selection. If there are pictures, they look at the pictures. They may check to see what else the author has written, if the publisher has provided that information on the book.
The whole process takes anywhere from two to ten minutes, which in real world terms is a nice way to while away a bit of time, but in online terms is an eternity. The important thing is that one thing leads to the next, that we wander through books the way we wander through bookstores—step by step, allowing each new piece of information to build on our decision to buy or not to buy.
Now think about your average product page on an online bookstore website. It is flat, all the information laid out in predetermined patterns, each book essentially the same as another in terms of how it is presented to the viewer. The subtle hints that we look for in a real-world bookstore to tell us if a book is popular, is worth picking up, or has the support of the store staff are entirely absent. “Face outs,” tall stacks of titles in highly visible locations or within easy reach, carefully arranged displays that catch our attention—all these are effective ways of capturing the attention of a browsing customer. And each one is completely lost in an online environment, where every book is “faced out” (making the term basically meaningless), where every book is front and center because websites, by and large, only ever display one thing after another, in endless repeating fashion. They say at night all cats are gray. In an online environment, all books are the same. The heavy coffee table books make no more of an impact than the computer language reference books. The oversized cookbooks are the same as the petit and exquisitely designed volumes in the Penguin Great Ideas series. (And too bad, too, because if you have ever seen those books in person, you will not be able to resist them.)
Imagine if, when you looked at a book in an online bookstore, you didn’t get a single page with the jacket image on the left, bibliographic information underneath, and the description (“marketing copy”) in the center. What if, instead, you got actual presentation of the material designed to draw you in, the way that picking up a book and looking at it draws you in. What if you could “visit” each book online in a way that was analogous to visiting it in person? What if, instead of getting this or this you got something more like this?
Of course, no bookstore has the time, inclination or technical know-how to create mini-virtual tours, video trailers or wiki-like maps for of all the books on their shelves—especially when books are published in this country at the rate of 500 a day. That is why I lay this particular task in the hands of the publishers. They are the ones with the marketing departments, for God’s sake.
What about the people?
I get most of my information about books from other people: from websites and discussion forums, reviewer blogs and recommendations from friends (and even these are usually via email). It’s significant to me that the entire period between when I first hear about a book, and when I decide to buy it, takes place outside of the bookstore, online or otherwise, and without any contact or influence from a bookseller. By the time I visit my neighborhood bookstore website, I’m just there to place an order and move on. Bookstore websites, by and large, aren’t about selling the books. They are just about taking orders.
This seems to me to be a place where the real-world bookstore, the one with doors and windows and rent to pay, has a chance to show up the big guys online. They have actual people. People who answer the phones and write the newsletters and give talks to area book clubs and shop in the same grocery stores that you do. The trick is to make sure the staff is as “real” on the store’s website as they are on the sales floor. What if, just to throw out an example, someone on staff had the job of monitoring the store site’s “chat.” Wouldn’t it be something if you, the browser, could ping a real person and say “Hey, is that copy of the new Salman Rushdie a first edition and the cover isn’t torn, is it?” and have someone real ping you right back: ”Let me check . . .Why yes, it is a first edition, and the jacket is fine—no tears or creases. Shall I put it aside for you?” What if you, stymied by lack of results on your search, could ping the store staff and say “Does anyone there have any suggestions for my ten-year-old nephew who still hasn’t outgrown dinosaurs, even though we wish he would?” And what if you could get an instant response “Oh I know the feeling! My little brother will not outgrow his monster truck obsessions. Let me check with our children’s buyer, just a moment . . .”
Providing a variety of different ways for the browser to get to know and interact with the store staff is something that has been neglected on most bookstore websites—consigned to a simple “staff picks” list with a few reviews that the browser may or may not ever see. But think of all the ways the staff is a visible resource in a physical store—they are seen on the sales floor shelving, dusting, writing little recommendations. They are talking to customers, unpacking boxes, putting purchases into bags. They talk among themselves about what they are reading, and why such and such a book was just so much better than the movie. Online bookstores should give the staff as many avenues to talk about books as the sales floor does. They should, in a word, market their staff—give them their blogs and reading journals, encourage them to review, run their MySpace and Twitter APIs (little plugins that put the content from one site onto yours), add comments and blurbs to the content wherever it appears.
Every bookstore stocks basically the same books—and they all get them from basically the same place. What distinguishes one shop from another isn’t the books: it’s the location, the selection, the staff, the people. Location is a moot point online where no piece of cyberspace is more valuable than another (although small stores can use their physical location as a strong draw for Internet shoppers) Selection, when every book in print can be obtained within a few days, is endless. But the people? Those are the most valuable resource any bookstore has. And no bookstore, online or otherwise, can be perfect without the people.
I am well aware that in this column I’ve described a “perfect bookstore” that is the online equivalent of a chimera—a mismatched collection of different applications and platforms that don’t really exist. Blogs tacked onto wiki pages and php applications, flash delivery systems littered with “fuzzy” data. I’m not a programmer, I’m not a technical innovator. But I don’t need to be an architect to know how to set up shelves in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, nor do I need to be a programmer to know what doesn’t work online. I buy a lot of books, and I’ve done enough online shopping to know what I miss in an online environment. And I know that this chimera could be built, if someone really wanted to.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She earned her B.A. in Russian and Middle Eastern History from Boston College, supporting her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore. Since then, she has been in and out of academic institutions, but has always managed to work with books no matter what. She began working for Bristol Books, an independent bookstore in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1993, and three years later became its manager, which is where she stayed for the next fifteen years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki is a book reviewer for several magazines, an occasional on-air book reviewer and commentator for the Wilmington public radio station WHQR, and a co-host on the television program “Let's Read” on UNCW. She is one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, an annual book festival for mystery readers and writers, and currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network. She manages all this by the grace of a very patient partner and the loving support of two dogs and one-and-a-half cats. Contact Nicki.