In this episode of the Digital Publishing Podcast (which you can find a full transcript of below), I talk about a few ways in which the ebook world lag behinds the printed book world.

You can also listen to the episode online by clicking the play button on the player below this. (If you don’t see the player, click here.) It’s about 20 minutes long.

  • 3:37 – Problem #1: Browsing and discovery
  • 8:36 – Problem #2: Knowing what’s in your library
  • 12:16 – Problem #3: Showing What You’ve Read
  • 14:45 – Pick(s) of the week

3 Big Problems in the eBook World (and How to Fix Them) [DPP045]

Hi everyone, I’m Tristan Higbee, and this podcast is all about the things I see and would like to see in the world of digital publishing, including blogging, ebook and video creation, podcasting, and other things relating to internet business and online marketing. You can find a full transcript of each episode of this show at DigitalPublishingPodcast.com. I’d really appreciate it if you rated this show in iTunes. Just go to itunes.digitalpublishingpodcast.com and then click the blue “View in iTunes” button in the sidebar to rate and review the podcast in iTunes.

I’m recording today in Bangkok, Thailand. There are some loud birds and sometimes cats outside of my apartment here, and I apologize in advance if you can hear them. Hopefully it’s not too annoying. My trek in Nepal was amazing, but blogging about it was a massive pain in the butt. I think I’ll talk about that more in next week’s episode. But I was trekking for two weeks in the Everest region and had a fantastic time. The weather was perfect and everything went really well. I’m now working on an ebook account of my trek, and I’ll probably have that out sometime in the next couple months.

Instead of having a handful of unrelated topics to talk about today, I’ve got a theme of things that are less than ideal in the ebook world when compared to the print book world. I’ve bought and read four paper books over the past month, which is more than all the ones I’ve bought and read over the past couple years combined. I bought the first two when I was trekking in the mountains in Nepal, and I got them so that I wouldn’t waste battery life on my phone, since charging it up there was expensive and time-consuming. The third book I bought in Kathmandu so that I could read something while in the airport and on the plane without draining the battery in my phone or Kindle, though the main reason I bought the book was that it was $4, while the Kindle version was $8, and I have a hard time paying more than $5 for an ebook. I bought the fourth book on a whim when I was browsing through a used English-language bookstore here in Bangkok. The book is Michael Crichton’s Congo, which is a book I’ve wanted to read for a while. It was $2 at the bookstore and $8 on the Kindle, so I bought it.

All of that is to say that while I prefer ebooks and read far more ebooks than print books, I have been dabbling in the print world again recently, and I realized a few things that are just done better in the print book world and that can and should be done better in the ebook world. Those things are browsing and discovery, knowing what’s in your library, and showing what you’ve read, and I’ll talk about each one in turn.

Problem #1: Browsing and discovery

Amazon bestsellersThe first problem with the ebook world is the browsing and discovery experience. I like reading mountaineering books and outdoor adventure books in general, and Kathmandu’s bookstores had the best selection of climbing and adventure books that I’ve ever seen. Multiple entire bookcases were dedicated to these books, and I realized that going into a bookstore and glancing at the spines of all the books is such a good way to find a new book. It’s incredibly effective. You can take in so many titles at once, and you can just pull one off the shelf and take a look at it if it catches your eye. And the great thing about finding books this way is that there’s usually no rhyme or reason to the books that are on the shelf. An obscure book will be right next to a bestseller. It leads to a more varied and eclectic mix.

There is no digital equivalent to this. Whenever we browse books online, the books are nearly always sorted by popularity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a lot of people, but it is for people who might be interested in more obscure or more narrowly focused books. I think it’s a lot easier to come across an obscure book in a bookstore than it is online, and for ebook readers who are heavily into a genre or subject, it’s harder to come across those obscure books.

In general, I don’t think that ebook discovery is much of a problem. I read a great article this last week that talked about how authors and publishers complain about there being an ebook discovery problem, or that it’s hard to find readers for their books. But then the article made a great point: readers themselves rarely complain about not having enough to read. The average avid reader, and this goes for those who like print books as well as those who like ebooks, has way more to read than he or she has time for. In that sense, book discovery is not a problem for them.

But what it comes down to is that readers still want to find and read books that are of the most interest to them. Even if I already have a stack of 20 books to read, if the 21st one that I come across looks absolutely incredible, that one will jump to the front of the line and I’ll read it first.

So how can we solve this problem (the problem being that there’s no real ebook equivalent of browsing the shelves in a bookstore)? There is no used ebook marketplace, and even if there were, the books would still probably be arranged by how popular the book is. Honestly, I wish that Amazon had an option to sort results randomly. I would love that, and I think it would be a great way to discover lesser-known titles.

But I think the future of this kind of book discovery lies in the niches. Amazon doesn’t care about obscure mountaineering ebooks, but there are plenty of climbers and mountaineers that do. So what if I created a site that just listed out on a single page the titles of as many climbing and mountaineering ebooks as I could come up with. The books could be sorted alphabetically, which would result in an organized but still otherwise arbitrary list of books that could easily and quickly be scanned and read by people. Or I could sort the books topically. On one page would be a big list of all the books about Mt. Everest, and on another would be all the books about rock climbing in Yosemite. Or what if I just made a website that had nothing but a big button on it that said, “Click here to go to a random climbing or mountaineering book”? Would that be a good way to find new stuff to read? I don’t know, because I’ve never seen anything like this, much less found or bought an ebook this way.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are definitely ways out there to be more creative when it comes to ebook discovery. We are still in the relatively early days of ebooks. They’re mainstream but still not widely adopted. As more and more people adopt e-reading in the upcoming years, the need for ebook discovery, especially in focused niches, will just keep growing, and I think that there is a big opportunity there for people who can help broker the deal between willing and eager readers and anxious authors or publishers.

Problem #2: Knowing what’s in your library

The second problem with the ebook world is remembering what ebooks you have. Like I said earlier, most of us who read ebooks have a lot of them that we want to read. I currently have 684 books in my Kindle library, most of which I haven’t read, and that doesn’t include the many PDF and EPUB books that I have.

With paper books, you have a stack of them in a pile or a row of them on a shelf. You can see at a glance what your options are for your next book. That isn’t the case, though, with ebooks. I don’t remember that I have the vast majority of the ebooks that I have. There needs to be a way to be reminded—or to easily remind myself—of the ebooks I have. I think that this is a great idea for a web service or mobile app. I input the names of, say, 100 of my unread ebooks, and then I get a daily or weekly or whatever reminder of a book that I have. It wouldn’t be a reminder to read the book—just a reminder that the ebook exists and that it’s in your possession. Or maybe it wouldn’t give you reminders at all. Maybe you input all of your books and then press a Give Me a Book to Read button when you’ve finished a book and want to move on to the next one.

One simple way to do something like this for yourself (though it would be without the reminders) would be to create an Unread Books or Books to Read board on Pinterest and then just pin the covers of the ebooks that you have and want to read. If you have a ton of books, you could make a different board for each genre. For example, I might make an Outdoor Adventure board, a Business board, and a Travel board. You can make the board or boards private if you want to. I have a Pinterest account and I never really use it for anything, but I think I actually might start using it for this, because I really like the idea.

If Pinterest doesn’t do it for you, you could make a spreadsheet that lists out all of your books. Or you could create a tag or folder in your email that’s called Purchased eBooks, and then just file away all of the Amazon or Barnes and Noble or iBookstore receipts into that folder. That doesn’t quite solve the problem of wanting to actively remember or be aware of what ebooks you’ve got, though. Having a list of all of your ebooks is one thing; it’s another thing to remember to look at that list. If you do want to be actively reminded about the books you have, you could just set a weekly reminder on your phone that tells you to go take a look at your ebook library every Sunday so that you know what you have.

If you’re feeling ruthless, you could go through your ebook library (whatever form it might be in) and delete the books you don’t want to read or that you’ve already read and don’t want to re-read. This would leave you with just the books you want to read. You can delete Kindle books from your Amazon account, but if you decide later on that you want that book again, you’ll have to buy it again.

Problem #3: Showing what you’ve read 

The third problem with the ebook world that I wanted to talk about today is kind of related to the last one, and that’s showing or reminding you what you’ve read. Again, this is much more satisfying with physical books. A read book on a bookshelf is like a trophy. It brings back memories and reminds or shows that something was accomplished.

Short of printing out a picture of an ebook’s cover and taping it to your refrigerator, anything you do to record the ebooks you’ve read will be significantly less satisfying than seeing those read books on a shelf. But there are still some things you could do to show and record what you’ve read.

I just have an Evernote document called Books Read. In it I keep a list of months, with the current month at the top. Whenever I finish reading a book, I add it to the list of books I read that month. I also keep a running total of the number of books I’ve read so far for the year and the number of pages that is. I’m recording this on November 27, and so far I’ve read 63 books and 18,862 pages this year.

Another way to record the books you’ve read is to make a Books I’ve Read board on Pinterest. Or you could make a Books I’ve Read Word document, Facebook photo album, or Excel spreadsheet. Another option is to review on Amazon or Goodreads each book you read, which hopefully you’re doing anyway. There are services that will make a poster collage from your Facebook or Instagram photos. It would be neat if there existed something like that for the books you’ve reviewed on Goodreads.

Pick(s) of the week 

Content Idea Generator

Content Idea Generator

And that now brings us to my pick of the week. This is where I pick one useful thing to share, and it can be an app, a website, a podcast, or anything else I find valuable. I have two picks this week, and they’re both websites. The first is a site called the Content Idea Generator. It’s at portent.com/tools/title-maker. It’s a tool that gives you ideas for blog posts. You go there and enter in your niche or topic and are then given an article title with some annotations commenting on why the article title works (or why it would make for a good article). I’ll go through some examples so that that makes sense. I just went there and entered in mountaineering as my topic and the first article idea I was shown was 6 Ways Mountaineering Can Find You the Love of Your Life. There’s an annotation for the words “6 Ways” that says, “Numbers will get you more clicks.” There’s one for the words “Can Find You” that says, “Readers like to feel helped by the content they read.” And there’s one for “the Love of Your Life” that says, “Oh hey. Ted Mosby.” That didn’t make any sense to me so I looked it up, and apparently Ted Mosby is the protagonist of and a hopeless romantic in the TV show How I Met Your Mother, which I have never seen. Whatever. So I clicked the button again and got a new content idea, this one being What the Beatles Could Learn from Mountaineering. I clicked it a few more times and got the following ideas: How Mountaineering Made Me a Better Person, Why Mountaineering Should Be 1 of the 7 Deadly Sins, 17 Insane (But True) Things About Mountaineering, The 10 Best Mountaineering YouTube Videos, and Here Come New Ideas for Mountaineering. And for each one of those, there are annotations saying why it’s a good idea to write that kind of article. I’ve seen several of these content generation idea tools before, but this one is actually halfway decent. Again, you can find it at portent.com/tools/title-maker.

The Sweet Home

The Sweet Home

The second pick of the week is a website for Mac and iOS device owners, so those of you who own an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Mac computer of some kind. (By the way, I bought a new phone last week, and it’s an Android phone. That’s another thing I’ll talk about in a future episode.) The website is called The Sweet Setup [link]. It’s a site that recommends the single best apps for certain purposes, like the single best recipe manager app, the best Twitter app for iOS, the best Twitter client for the Mac, the best podcast client for iOS, and stuff like that. Way back in episode 7 of the podcast, I mentioned a site called The Wirecutter, which lists the single best product in various electronics categories, things like the best GPS for your car, the best TV, the best small TV, the best cheap in-ear headphones. The great thing about this model is that you don’t waste people’s time by having them read a bunch of different reviews. It’s just one review of what you’ve determined is the best product. And in that episode, I talked about how awesome of an idea for a site this was, and how it could definitely be done in other niches. The Wirecutter has since branched out and launched a sister site called The Sweethome, which does the same thing for home wares and house supplies. And then, getting back to my pick, there’s this related but unaffiliated site The Sweet Setup which does the same thing for Mac and iOS apps, and you can find it at thesweetsetup.com. And I still think that there’s room for this kind of thing for other niches.

Final words

And that’s all for episode 45 of the Digital Publishing Podcast. Be sure to check out digitalpublishingpodcast.com for complete transcriptions and other blog posts there at the blog.

Please don’t hesitate to email me any questions you might have regarding digital publishing. I love talking about this stuff, and I’d love to help you out. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.digitalpublishingpodcast.com. That will redirect you to my Twitter account, since my name is a bit tricky to spell. If you do follow me there, be sure to say hi. And again and as always, I’d really appreciate it if you went into iTunes and rated and reviewed this podcast, and thanks for listening.