Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Agent’s Corner: Ebook shopping is ebook searching. Why is it so hard to browse in online book shops?

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By Samantha Haywood

Have you tried “browsing” for ebooks lately? My own experience has left me worried that unless you are specifically searching for the title you already know you want, you aren’t going to actually find anything new or undiscovered online via the Sony, Kindle or Kobo sites.* Which, I think, was the hope, that somehow ease of search would result in a democratization of how books are displayed and sold. Instead, it seems that only the blockbuster bestsellers are selling as ebooks because readers have already heard about them and are perhaps seeking places to buy them cheaper. All of which may lead to the end of the paperback, I’m told by New York publishing friends, but let’s leave that for a future column.

The problem, as I see it, is the ebook retailers' suggested reading lists and categorization, or lack thereof. In order for ebook publishing to live up to its potential of bringing new readers to new books, we need to replicate (simulate?) the physical act of book-store browsing in these online spaces. Browsing for new reads is what feeds publishing. Why else would publishers pay through the nose for prime table-top co-op? So your book is the first thing the consumer sees upon entering the store. Impulse can sell books, so why aren't online retailers taking every advantage they can to appeal to readers beyond prizes and bestseller lists? And as our physical (read: independent) bookstores disappear at an ever alarming rate, more than ever we're craving human interaction at the online check-out. Are we burying our treasures too deep where no one can find them?

To my mind, Kobo gets better marks than Kindle in its attempts to organize the myriad of themes and genres of books it sells. Under the main sections of "Discover" and "Browse" are tons of nonfiction categories: "Business & Finance," "Home & Garden," "Travel," etc. And while Discover also includes subcategories, most of them are bestseller lists. That said, Kobo does attempt to create some taste-making categories such as "What’s New" and "Featured," along with the less intriguing "Staff Picks" and, of course, "Heather’s Picks" and "Oprah’s Picks." But more is needed.

Kindle on the other hand" has a main “Browse books by category” section, which, like Kobo, has some variation on nonfiction genres. But "Fiction" rings in at 150,923 titles. To think of all the potential fiction readers that will go to the Kindle store in search of a new book only to find the teeming masses of novels all listed in one category and sorted by bestseller status as a default. And while you can't blame a retailer for recognizing a good thing when its got it, that's no excuse for not making it just as easy to promote and display lesser-known titles. To be clear, I'm not bitter against bestsellers; I enjoy reading some myself. But in mere terms of searchability, who is going to keep browsing a list after 30 or 40 known or bestselling titles? In my own recent experience, I bought The Imperfectionists and called it a day. That's what we do when time is at a premium; we stop searching, having no clue that the very next book on the list may have been our “next great read.” Online retailers need to cater to the wandering reader, the person who walks into a physical bookstore with money in his or her pocket and no idea where to spend it. There’s a chance here to do something truly inspired.

And I'll point to Kobo, in particular, as a Canadian-owned company. The focus of my career happens to be Canadian literature. It's pretty darn hard for a Canadian writer to get on bestseller lists, as they tend to be dominated by the big commercial US and UK authors. So the critical question becomes this: How do fantastic new and unknown Canadian novelists and nonfiction writers get their upcoming ebooks displayed prominently? I want to know because that is where and how my authors are going to make it or break it in the future.

Because it’s in my best interest as a reader and an agent, I thought I'd offer my own suggestions for how we can promote authors and “discover” not the same books, but more books:

  • Tastemakers! Invite people we trust to suggest books that we don’t know about yet but which we will probably like. The more participants, the more lists. What about featuring ebook reading lists by our favourite authors? Andre Alexis’ reading list and Zsuzsi Gartner’s reading list and Louise Penny’s reading list and Zoe Whittall’s reading list. The logic being that I’m more likely to trust Zoe Whittall’s opinion on what books I will like if I’m a fan of her writing (which I am as she’s a client). But get innovative and choose some Canadian authors that have been repeatedly shortlisted for awards (but didn’t win), or write popular blogs, or are frequent book reviewers, or have recognized cult hits, etc. Rotate the lists every few months to give new authors their chance. To that end, why don’t more publishers have suggested reading lists? I find it shocking that Harlequin Publishers have their own category on Kobo but no other publishers are featured. At the very least, begin with lists for successful, existing marketing programs such as the "New Face of Fiction" or the "Penguin Extraordinary Canadians" list.
  • A sidebar that randomly rotates through newly released ebooks would make sense as well. My Twitter program Tweetdeck has a column that randomly suggests people I might like to follow. Could this translate to ebook recommendations? And ask popular publishing bloggers to supply "Featured Reading" lists. Candidates could include Bookninja, Joyland, Book Madam & Associates, Pickle Me This and so many more.
  • Just go crazy with the categories! "Urban & Edgy," "Can Lit Classics," "Canadian Mystery Writers," "Poets Turned Novelists," "Book to Film." There are plenty of options to inspire us and help give us new reading ideas.
  • Of course, I wouldn’t be an agent if I didn’t recommend that literary agencies should also have their own list of suggested titles. I’m ready and willing! However, ensuring that my book choices already exist as ebooks is another thing all together and perhaps the topic of a future column....

The terrific fear of everyone in publishing is that there is no middle ground, no mid-list left. It's feast or famine. Bestseller or obscurity. My own attempts at “browsing” for new ebooks have only reinforced this future. But luckily we are just at the beginning of this revolution.

And because I live in Amsterdam most of the year and can’t walk to Book City on Bloor, I’m the ideal ebook shopper. Please just help me FIND the books I don't yet know I want.

* Gadget footnote: I have a Sony eReader and an iPhone 3GS. Most of the research I’m talking about has been done via the Kindle and Kobo apps on my iPhone, because I found the Sony Reader Store pretty depressing. (I only use my Sony eReader for manuscripts sent to me on submission.) And because I don’t have an iPad or new iPhone I haven’t checked out the iBooks app yet. For now, anyhow, I think this puts me in a pretty general category of consumer.

Samantha Haywood is a literary agent who has been combining her love of Canadian literature with an eye to international publishing for over`a decade. She launched her client list with the Transatlantic Literary Agency in 2004, and represents adult trade authors of literary fiction and upmarket fiction, narrative nonfiction and graphic novels. Clients include: Martha Baillie, Dave Bidini, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, Michael Cho, Jane Christmas, Kristen den Hartog, Marni Jackson, Steve Murray, Ray Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Claire Holden Rothman, Ian Weir and Zoe Whittall, among others. She splits her working year between Toronto and Amsterdam where she lives with her daughter and husband, Pieter Swinkels, Publisher of Cargo and Associate Publisher of De Bezige Bij. Find Samantha at and @s_haywood on Twitter.

For those who "love browsing in second-hand bookshops" my posting on a catalog of over 500 different sources of free e-books:


One approach to the browsing problem is using a recommendation engine: based on books that you've read and liked, and the books that your close friends have read and liked, what other kinds of books would you be interested in? Amazon and Netflix has made great strides in movie and product recommendations. If we can apply the published results from the Netflix movie recommendation prize to a book rating and social relational dataset such as the dataset, we are on our way to a programmatic approach to browsing.

On the other hand, browsing in the real world is a visceral experience where in a few seconds you can get a feel of the book through the cover and jacket design, book thickness, paper-stock chosen, and you can flip and skim through it to get a glimpse of whether the writing style is appealing.

We will need to breakthrough beyond the mini cover image + small teaser text combo used in ebooks and ereaders. Are there any ways to introduce different aspects of the reading experience to browsing books online? If we can provide a different, yet appealing browsing experience, then we can tackle the problem of discovery.

There are many interesting experiment in music discovery and browsing, and we would be wise to look at what that industry has done in terms of musical promotion such as and one of my favourites, thesixtyone

This is not a surprise.The search is great when you know what you are looking for. The browse has been an issue whether it is print or e. Is the answer really going to be in the metadata? Or is it going to be in boutique bookstores? I lean towards the boutique store. It doesn't mean Kobo and Amazon disappear but it means the curious shopper has somewhere else to go. This Ain't the Rosedale Library's real home is as a boutique estore. Double Hook can come back as a Can Lit estore anytime.
And imagine Books for Cooks as your first stop for cook books? Again, go to Amazon when you know what you want. When you want to browse? Go to your favourite store with genuine buyer recommendations , not contrived meta data junk.

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