Chip MacGregor

August 20, 2014

If you were building an e-bookstore…


Recently some people in publishing got together for a weekend to discuss this question: “If you were going to create an online bookstore to compete with Amazon, what would it look like?” 

I think that’s a great topic to explore, since I love Amazon, love my Kindle, and regularly purchase books there. But even more than that, I love going into a great bookstore and wandering around. My office is over the Cloud & Leaf Bookstore — a small independent bookshop where Jodi features great reads, helps customers find exactly what they need, and regularly steers them toward interesting little finds. I love wandering around a Barnes & Noble, where I can get lost in the history section, finding fascinating titles the explore small pockets of time that only those of us with a nose for the past can appreciate. I love going into Powell’s City of Books, and wandering for hours through the stacks, looking at titles and covers. I’ll pull out one book, read the jacket copy, peruse the table of contents, then maybe set it down and move to another interesting title that catches my eye. That’s the joy of being in a bookstore, and like you I can sometimes be convinced that I’ve entered a time-warp, since three hours will have gone by, and I’m sure I was really only wandering the stacks for twenty minutes.

That experience — wandering the aisles and looking for great titles, hoping to find the next book for your nighttime reading stack? It’s what Amazon can’t replicate. We call it “discoverability” in publishing, and it’s the process of getting readers to know your book exists, get them interested, and encourage them to buy and read it. There was a workshop on discoverability lately hosted by Digital Book World, and they revealed a study that showed five years ago, 31% of all books purchased by regular readers were discovered by wandering around a bookstore, while only 11% were discovered by wandering around Amazon. Now we live in a world where more than half of all serious readers own a Kindle or Nook, and readers discovering titles in bookstores is down to 20%. BUT the discoverability on Amazon has actually declined. Think about that for a moment… more people than ever own an e-reader, but a smaller percentage are actually discovering their titles on the e-tail site. The vast majority of book buyers online (67%, according to the study cited) knew what they wanted before they went to Amazon or B&

So Amazon and B& offer something great — ebooks that are easily accessible, at cheap prices. But they have the limitation of being just an okay shopping experience. With that in mind, a bunch of folks got together to try and replicate the joy of discoverability. There were writers, agents, editors, librarians, and booksellers, all pulled together to talk about how they would create a new site. According the Chris Kubica, who pulled everyone together, they spent their first day identifying what’s wrong with the current online shopping experience, then they were supposed to spend the second day creating solutions. They doubtless understood that this wouldn’t necessarily be something that competed with Amazon — they’re massive, well-funded, have great customer service. In other words, this wasn’t intended to be a time to bash the company that has reinvigorated the world of publishing.

Instead the goal was to create something different. Whether big or small, they intended to brainstorm something that would appeal to readers, share the joy of books and reading, but somehow replicate the notion of a bookstore. But the group faltered. The experiment didn’t come to any conclusions, though they did have a healthy dialogue and got people thinking about what the perfect online shopping experience could be. And that led me to ask you…

If you could design the perfect online shopping experience, what would it be like? How would it be different from Amazon? How could publishers and authors and booksellers do something to better reflect the experience of walking through a great bookstore and finding the joy that comes with discovering great books? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. If you were building an e-bookstore, what would you do to create a better experience? What would you do to foster discoverability?

Share :


  • I really loved blogger/author Connie Almony’s take on this subject–esp. as related to Christian bookstores. Her take involved looking at what Amazon does RIGHT and emulating the technique to a certain extent, while adding to it.

  • Gary Neal Hansen says:

    I think I’d have a user interface that looks like a bookstore shelf. Instead of Amazon’s selection by popularity, it would be by subject area — enter the search term “History” and you cruise through a vast swath; click for alphabetical by author, or by title. Enter a topic within history you see it as if the store had a devoted shelf. Spines, not covers.

    For the other side, a vision of a bookstore created with the author in mind, see Shawn Coyne’s response to my comment to his recent post on Steven Pressfield’s blog:

  • Stacy Chambers says:

    I like what publishers are doing with some of their imprints. I’ve signed up for email blasts for some in the genres I read. If it were up to me, I would form a website where the customer can customize the experience a little–pick genres, writers, etc. and ask to be pinged when something new by a certain writer is coming out. Based on the genres and writers chosen, I would have a section titled “You may be interested in…” based on my tastes. I’d also do as sarahbates suggested and list books by prize (and the runner-ups), and have another list for banned books. Additionally, I’d have an app and/or email blast that features one or two books/books on sale per day but is somehow geared toward that particular reader’s tastes based on genre interests and possibly past sales. You know those little placards salespeople write on to recommend books in bookstores? I’d have an electronic version of that. I might also create a forum or some type of social section where people can recommend books and writers to each other.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — staff picks (and not just “here’s a book we want to sell”). And like the idea of highlighting prize-winners and others. Appreciate your thoughts.

  • Nick Kording says:

    I’m also late to this discussion but I wanted to jump in because while I purchase books from Amazon and ibooks on my mini to save trees (and it’s lighter than carrying multiple books around), I don’t think the online shopping experience for books works at all. Browsing online is nothing like browsing at B&N or the Theatre Circle in the City. I also don’t like it when Amazon recommends books for me because it is usually wrong. Maybe the best selling book cover with genres they represent that you click on to see other books in that category, and, instead of a description under each one, it opens to a book shelf and I’d personally like the covers rather than the bindings facing me (there’s a reason authors go to book stores and move their books to better viewing positions) and I could browse. Then if I want to change genres, I just click on that book at the top. It still wouldn’t be the same as the Theatre Circle or even a nice sized B&N, but it would be fun.

  • Leigh says:

    I like the idea of having digital shelves–books listed by genre, etc. One thing I like about Netflix is that it stores my ratings and viewing preferences, then makes recommendations about things I might like. If there was a way to build something like that into an online bookstore it would be helpful. Being able to quickly see what’s new or coming soon on a particular shelf would be nice too.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Leigh. I’ve been waiting for someone to bring up Netflix. Do you like the experience better than that at Amazon? What lessons could they learn from Netflix?

    • Leigh says:

      For one thing I like the horizontal sliders at Netflix. I can quickly see the cover of the movie and make a quick judgement if I’m interested or not. I think it’s a better browsing experience.

      I also find that I discover titles based on how they classify things. Right now on my Netflix page I’ve selections of titles like “Race Against Time Action and Adventure Based on Books,” “Feel Good Girl Power Children’s Movies” and “Critically Acclaimed Independent Dramas.” Those categories are all based on movies that we’ve rated, watched, or put in our queue. It’s also easy to improve our recommendations with a couple clicks by rating additional movies or clicking “not interested.” They also make it easy to browse their new title.

      Amazon works well for me when I’m looking for something specific. But if I go in thinking something like “Hmm, I’ve read everything by Dee Henderson–is there something else similar out there?” I find it difficult to use their system. I wold love to see more personal recommendations. Since they acquired GoodReads, they ought to be able to merge that data. I’d also like to see easier ways to browse within genres and see what’s new. And the vertical listing of titles isn’t visually appealing to me. For browsing, I like quickly flipping through the horizontal sliders or scanning a grid of covers and titles (like Netflix’s Top 100 page). Netflix helps me browse and find new movies I may not have heard of. Amazon helps me quickly order a specific book I learned about somewhere else.

  • sarahbates says:

    I live far from a bookstore; a 45-minute drive one-way to Barnes & Noble. I bought a Kindle so I could buy books whenever I wanted one. A digital bookstore with shelves by genre and prize would interest me. I read to become a better writer so I download every Pulitzer regardless of the genre or theme. I also read historical fiction because that is what I write (for now). Learning how others “do it” adds insight which I soak up. A competitor for Amazon and B&N designed by authors and publishers would be refreshing because whether digital or paper, readers want to buy books not towels, cell phones or lamps.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Sarahbates. And yes, it’s the convenience of Amazon that makes it so nice. The shopping itself leaves much to be desired.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I’m a little late to the conversation, but I think a great online bookstore would look like the marriage of Amazon and Goodreads. In fact, I keep expecting Amazon to utilize Goodreads better to create a bookstore where readers could browse through books that interest them more easily. A bookstore that could track what I like, what I gave 5 stars to vs. what I hated, could then somehow (magically through those little Internet fairies) make better recommendations. And like Saloma suggested, perhaps more than the handful that Amazon suggests now in their “customers who liked this also liked…” section. There’s no way to have the ambiance of a great bookstore in cyberspace, though.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Robin. I’ve heard this a couple times — a merging of the Goodreads experience with the convenience of Amazon. Could that happen with what we already have?

  • Lelia Rose Foreman says:

    There were some good suggestions here. I would like to see an alternative to Amazon because I figure once they rule the world, they’ll jack up prices. In the meantime, Amazon is just too convenient for me to leave. I also don’t know they don’t have discoverability, ie. they show a row of covers for “If you liked this you might like this” and “customers who bought this also bought that” However, they only show x number of books (I’ve never counted how many, but I seem to blow through them quickly) and I wouldn’t mind if those features were expanded to pages and pages.
    Every time I pick up my kindle, there is an ad for a book on the screen I did not need to turn the kindle on for. So, quiet ads for top and bottom of search pages might be helpful. Blinky lights: NO pop-ups: NO
    About once a week Amazon sends me a letter with info about books in Science Fiction I might like. And sometimes I buy what they tell me about. I don’t think I would like daily letters, though, so amping up that particular Amazon service might not be the way to go.
    There may be rights issues, but I would love to see a “Look inside” feature for ALL books.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes, the fear of monopolization is real with readers. Jeff Bezos, the president of Amazon, has said he expects someone to come along with a new idea that will make his company obsolete. Not sure what that idea is yet, of course…

  • Janet Ferguson says:

    Follett’s Destiny library software has an option that allows students to create a profile. They can choose from four backgrounds. Once they search a subject or title, they can shelf-browse titles housed nearby. This is a small scale version of what I envisioned. I’m enjoying the other comments and ideas offered, as well.

  • Suzy Parish says:

    1. Great visuals. Set the books on display as they are on the Kindle, on a virtual shelf, but up that so It looks more inviting. Categorize books as they would be in a real-life store. It feels like Amazon puts the books up first that they’d like me to buy. Let me choose where I start browsing.
    2.Allow me to thumb through the books virtually, with limits of course. One of the things I do in a hands-on book store is look at the jackets and thumb through a few random pages. I know Amazon already offers a “Look inside” feature but it is not on all the books and I find it to be random and confusing. I’d like a little more control over what parts of the book I get to look at.
    3.More information. I like to read background information about the author, how many pages are in a book and what year it was created. Give me more information.
    4.A button to send e-mail and chat questions to have them answered immediately.
    5.Ask the Author. Feature a different author each week or month for a live audio or video chat and live reading of their work.
    6.Events that pertain to my community. Local authors spotlighted and live chats with those. Community charity events using books to promote them.
    7. Author’s roundtable. Instead of a single author chat, once a month have three to five authors tell stories about the inception of their books and take audience questions.
    8.Audio versions available.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent ideas, Suzy. I love the concept of asking an author questions, and having it tied into the shopping experience.

  • This is one great question.

    What would draw me to a new e-bookstore are these elements:

    visually pleasing and “feel-good” site (which Amazon is not), with
    nothing blinking at me. Blinking lights intrude on the psyche. And no
    pop-ups, please.

    A site organized intuitively that allows browsing by categories. In our minds we group things together. And I think that’s what a
    physical bookstore does for us… we don’t have to look through the
    whole store to find a history book or a book on spirituality. The only way I know to
    use Amazon is to type in the title or the author of a book. Well besides
    that section on the page saying “Customers who bought this book also
    bought…” with a whole line of books under it. I do not find that
    helpful. When I go look at one of my own titles, for instance, I get a
    slew of other Amish books, but most of them are fiction. In bookstores,
    the fiction books are in a whole different section from biographies.

    customer service. Someone at the other end who I can interact with,
    similar to sellers in a bookstore, to help find books, make
    recommendations, etc. There could be a button called “Ask Amanda” or
    whatever name, so you know you’re chatting with a live person.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’ve hit on the weakness of Amazon, Saloma. I like your “ask” function — that would prove helpful, but it would need to feel as though the person isn’t trying to hard to sell me books.

    • Agreed. The person would be functioning like a seller at a bookstore. A good salesperson always provides information rather than pressuring, in my opinion.

  • This isn’t feasible today due to cost, but I think inventions like Oculus Rift, once it becomes cheaper, will eventually give online shoppers a truly immersive experience. You’ll be able to sit at your computer, put on your HUD, and enter a store to browse. Of course, someone has to build the store and stock the shelves, but I think it’s doable. Oculus Rift is being used in 3D platforms like Second Life and Open Sims.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes, and people have talked about this idea for a while now, Carole. I’m not sure… Do I want to put on glasses and headphone to shop for books? That’s always struck me as an artificial means, for some reason. But maybe I’ve just not tried it. Have you?

    • Short answer here; longer answer follows. I’ve not tried Oculus Rift due to cost; but yes, I’ve worn the headphones for use in virtual worlds. Artificial? Maybe in the beginning, but now it’s second nature. To me, anything else (for now) is just another webpage, no matter how pretty you package it. End of short answer 🙂

      I run two avatars in Second Life (SL), One of my avatars lives in a Victorian-era steampunk world, and owned/ran a virtual book store where you could browse around. You could click on any book I had on the shelf and a pop-up would ask if you wanted your browser to take you to the Project Gutenberg page for the book to read online. It’s a simple script that can be modified to take you to any link: Amazon, the author’s website, another online store, etc.There are other applications that allow your avatar to sit in a comfy chair and read a book, while you’re sitting at your computer desk in real life (or a tablet with the SL app), reading the same book/magazine on the SL screen, flipping pages like you would if you were reading something on I don’t see why, when you buy this virtual book in SL, one that you can only read while you’re in SL, an author couldn’t also include (for a bit more money) the e-book for you to read on your e-reader. It’s probably not been thought of.

      My other avatar is a modern-day freelance proofreader and copy editor (gee, just like her human). For quite a while, she/I ran a flash-fiction writing and critique event on Saturday mornings in Second Life. We would have between 10-20 authors show up for this, a few were traditionally published, many were self-published or still writing their book, but all were serious in taking their writing ability to the next level. The participants wrote for about 20 minutes, then would take turns reading their bit (yes, using voice so we could hear), and then they had the option to have us critique it to help tighten their writing. I’ve also attended virtual book launch parties and open mics for authors (short stories and poetry) in SL. SL has quite a few events for authors and readers on weekends. Having the voice element makes it seem more real. And yes, when Oculus Rift is more affordable, I’ll buy it.

      Would it require extra effort on the part of a user/reader to use a virtual client to shop rather than just open a browser to a website? Yes. Is it worth it? For me, yes, but I see other benefits than just “shopping” for the book. I see the ability to replicate other bookstore experiences: using voice to chat with another customer about books, using a corner as a meeting space for your book club, critique group (although there’s already many places in SL for writers to congregate, hence my editor avatar using SL to find editing clients *laughs*), or use a room for a virtual writers conference. There are browser-base virtual worlds that don’t require you to download a platform for use, but I’ve not used any. I have no idea how well they would be able to handle the scripts necessary for large-scale operation like this.

      I’d like to meet more people who are exploring this concept.

  • Janet Ferguson says:

    You can’t recreate the smell or feel of the air in a room
    full of books. For book-lovers the thrill of the mere nearness of all those
    words and stories would be hard to replicate. But with newer technologies,
    perhaps visually, a web bookstore would do well to set up like a book “story.” Chip’s history corner would contain shelves that you could click on, allowing you to pull out a book. Set up the shelves by time period and author like in a brick and mortar. You could click through a few pages, slide the book back with your mouse and “pull” off another one. Perhaps the site would let you choose your own bookstore preferences of lighting and background music. Even the style. I may like quiet 80’s rock playing in a funky-style book store. Someone else may prefer a more classical look and Mozart. Once the initial graphic and sound setup was completed, the customer has their store. Just remember, bring your own coffee.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.