Last week I was talking about genre, and commenter Wendy said something that really made me think:
I often hear writers say that genre isn't so important in these days of e-books and self-publishing -- selling novels in the 21st century is supposedly all about author platform now, not bookshop shelves. Just wondering...
It's a great observation, because more and more people are buying books online and not going into the stores (sad as that in). Shelf space isn't what it used to be.
But will it affect genre and how readers buy books?
I don't read e-books, so my views here are a little one sided. So I did an experiment to get a feel for the e-book buying experience. I went to the three major online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's) and clicked on their e-book links. I was curious how the booksellers would lead you through buying an e-book.
Amazon takes you right to a fiction page and the top-selling e-books (and interestingly enough, the top three books were all YA - The Hunger Games trilogy). On the left, there's a link menu to further select your category. It has a very "look, here are the best-selling e-books. Want one?" feel. The thing that struck me the most here, is that everything was grouped together and if you weren't after a best-seller, it would take you forever to find what you were looking for unless you did click on a genre link. It also seemed to ensure the best sellers kept selling. A mid-list book won't show up on that huge list for a long time. Customers can sort this list by popularity, price, publication date, or customer review. I did notice that the "popularity" sort also had the free e-books at the top, since folks with brand new e-readers tend to grab a lot of free books to try it out. So customers have to wade through the free stuff that may or may not be any good.
Barnes & Noble does something similar, but their genre breakdowns are more obvious and on the main page instead of just on a side menu (though they also offer that). Below that they have the deals, then the best sellers. It's set up more like a bookstore feel, with "shelves" for what the reader is looking for. Click on a "shelf" and you get another page of menus with breakdowns and whatnot. What struck me here is that you get about fifteen books highlighted in each of the sections, so again, only the top sellers are going to stand out. But at least here you can separate them by what you like to read. They do have links to "see all," but nowhere did I find a link to see all the books in one genre (or any way to organize them). They had bestsellers, hot picks, cool picks, new releases, upcoming release, books under $5, but no "all" link. Again, if it's not a best seller or being talked about in the news or picked by the staff, I'm not sure you'd see it unless you typed in the title.
Powell's had a different approach by not throwing a ton of covers at you on the main e-book page. The first thing you see upon landing on the page is a text link to learn more about their e-books. Below that are the cheap e-books. Then the new releases with covers and blurbs, then a list of categories to look for more (the also had a side menu, though it was lower on the site). When you clicked on a category, you got a side menu with even more breakdowns. The individual categories had the same basic format as the other stores, focusing on the new releases and best sellers. What struck me here was that it felt harder to find e-books unless I knew what I was after. (Though in all honesty, I'm not sure how much Powell's is pushing their e-books since they don't have e-readers like the other two. That makes a big difference in how they'd sell them)
The most telling thing I discovered overall, was that these e-book breakdowns are identical to how these retailers sell print books, so the model is the same either way. I don't think it's a matter of genre between e-books vs. print books, but how folks buy books online. And to me, the more items you have available for purchase, the more you'll need a way to categorize those items. Any online site follows this model, so why not books?
So, after this experiment, I do think that genre will still play a role in online books sales, and likely grow stronger, not weaker, as more and more books are purchased online. The place where I think things will change the most are in word counts, because a shorter or longer book won't matter so much in electronic format. (but that's probably another post)
What do you think? Will genre become more or less important as e-book and online book sales grow?