Many discussions surrounding the evolution the book revolve around the impending doom of the bricks-and-mortar store as it loses out to the online experience — where our measure of “online bookstore” is unmistakably Amazon, followed by mega-bookstores like Barnes and Noble. A new brood of e-readers recently released at CES heats up the conversation that began with Stanza, the Sony e-Reader, and of course, the Kindle. Then, there is a whole lot more talk around the changing role of the publisher.
However, in this post, I just want to discuss what kind of world around books we can design for ourselves so we don’t lose the romance of serendipitious moments (whether with other books or readers), or the delight of the chance encounter, as books — and our experience of buying, reading them — evolve towards being primarily digital.
When we discuss the online/offline store experience, we often talk about convenience vs. instant gratification, or factors of searchability, choice and cost. When we talk about devices, the discussions tend to circumnavigate what’s the acceptable cost of an e-book, whether it’s a good reading experience, and now, whether it should be a device for reading only, or a do-it-all platform.
It strikes me that we’ve forgotten a very simple thing about the book that lends itself to be such an irreplaceable object: how the design of the book lends itself to serendipity.
The case for serendipity
From Bob Stein’s article: “A clean well-lighted place for books“:
“Brick and mortar bookstores are much better for (un-directed) browsing than online stores. This is probably mostly a function of bandwidth, i.e. I can see so much more in a bookstore than I can on my 2D screen. This will change as the web and its attendant hardware/software develops over time, but my guess is that a satisfying browsing experience of the order i can get in a great bookstore is many, many years away from practical. On the other hand if you know what you’re looking for, online shopping excels at simplifying the process of making the transaction. In fact, in every sense except immediate transfer to the buyer of the object they’ve purchased, online buying is vastly more efficient. When the bulk of our book purchases are in electronic form, and therefore delivered instantly, the significant advantages left to the bookstore will be the superior browsing experience, the help desk and the cafe.”
There is value in that browsing experience that is liberating: the ability to walk through a bookstore until something catches your eye and calls out to you out of the blue. It’s about the delight of finding something that you weren’t intentionally looking for. What about chance situations where you may meet someone walking along in the street with a book that you’ve read before tucked under their arm? Or someone reading a favourite book of yours on a bus? Do you get a flutter of excitement, despair, a wander down literary memory lane? Random situtations like these provide the opportunity of a human connection that wasn’t sought, hence provide a level of delight or emotion that digital guess work will not easily replace. Not only does it connect us to other people, but it also allows us to reconnect with our past selves.
While we have begun to emulate these kinds of connections in the social network space with projects like Shelfari, Library Thing or BookGlutton — it’s not yet something amazing that just happens to you as you are off picking up some milk at the corner store.
In the bookstore
We are familiar with how Amazon has done a very clever thing by reusing the analysis of their sales statistics to enable them to make associations such as “Customers who bought this item also bought …” However, Amazon tailors to the fuzzy reader profile that they create around what books you have bought and what you are interested in: that is, it is still based on your previous buying, rating and perhaps browsing decisions. If you create an Amazon.com account afresh today, it asks you to rate things you care about until it manages to get enough data to set you up with recommendations. (It takes just about 2 items to start profiling you. Scary, huh?)
There’s an interesting statistic tucked in the middle of a post last year at Follow the Reader on book-buying patterns:
“31% of all book purchases are impulse buys”. These numbers appear to be US-only, but this is undeniably an astounding figure for any market. Of course, impulse buys can mean sales resulting from Amazon recommendations — or as avid book-buyers know, it’s quite likely to also mean what catches your eye in a physical bookstore.
Serendipity amongst the shelves
So, thinking about it for a moment: the physical bookstore is usually categorized, so that you are likely to find books you like in a space common to the sort of books you already like. However, unless you know the entire layout of the shelves, chances are, a good book may be never in your direct range of sight. This is where we are compelled to make a journey from point A to point B that may lay your eyes on an interesting title that you may not have otherwise come across before.
How could this fit into where we are headed digitally? Take 10 mins to watch this video (in French), which cleverly shows a way a content creator or writer can use reading devices as much as a reader can. At 1:41, the writer walks into a bookstore, picks up some books he wants to purchase, downloads them by touching his device onto the back of the books — one presumes there’s a unique identifier, whether enhanced ISBN or book-specific RFID technology. After a conversation with the bookstore manager who recommends him another book, they go to the cash register where the writer confirms he’s buying everything, and the manager verifies his selection and finalises his purchase.
I’ve been buying predominantly digital books for over a year — I now only buy paper books only when they are richly illustrated books that I know I will refer to time and time again. Recently in bookstores, I’d begun the habit of picking up books that look interesting, then using my iPhone to check reviews online. If I liked the reviews, I would proceed to see if the books are available digitally. Right now, neither books nor digital devices allow me to perform this decision-making and purchase process seamlessly. (After looking up my fifth book, my iPhone began to get hot…) There’s plenty of scope to explore in terms how we want to use a physical bookstore as something that helps your buyer make decisions based on the richness of information and data available online.
(A related statistic from the aforementioned Follow the Reader post:
“67% of readers say they find reviews online vs. in traditional print media”.)
Serendipity on the street
Consider that serendipity around modern books are established on the basis of its portability and the visibility of the cover that you can’t just “turn off”. (That is, unless you’re Japanese, in which case, you’re likely to have a polite-looking cover over it anyway). Can this characteristic be easily duplicated with digital devices? Imagine if you could peek at what book someone is reading on the Kindle because the title is visible somewhere external on the device. What if there’s a possibility of devices that can display a digital cover? What if there’s a possibility of devices broadcasting (with users’ permission, of course) what they are currently reading, or what’s in their library? This is not a new concept, remember Nintendogs’ “Bark Mode”? This would be similar to an iTunes shared list on a network, except in this case the network is everywhere.
(Aside: in the evolution of the book, book covers have not always been the most important, therefore not the most attractive. In early display of books, spines were treated as functional as a door hinge and therefore, books were displayed with their spines inward. How did you find out if a book existed? Presumably, you asked a librarian, and presumably, you’d have to be monk or a scholar of some kind, as these books weren’t available to just anyone. Just gives you an idea of how lucky we’ve been in recent decades.)
Making it human
Whenever I visit someone I don’t know well — whether at their home or their office — I have a somewhat possibily irritating and nerdy habit of doing a quick browse of their bookshelves. For a book fanatic, someone’s bookshelves tells you plenty about a person and their interests, it also tells you what topics you can connect on.
This is similar to how the musically-obsessed connect over what’s in their iPods. On a recent trip to Paris, over an awkward group dinner, I suddenly noticed my fellow dinner-mate’s t-shirt as being that of a favourite band. Before too long, three of us on this end of the long table looked like we were having the time of our lives connecting over indie music, with our iPods out and browsing each others’ collections, with every recognition of a band name becoming a new talking point and an inherent measure of how closely your taste related to someone else’s. For us, iPod swapping was only necessary because we couldn’t see each other’s lists any other way. A digital book device that enables us to electronically share our book lists publically would result in a very similar conversational connection.
Obviously, there are many more unexplored scenarios. Considering that digital reading and book-buying are becoming a reality as the market expands, yet our needs are always partially constrained by physical contexts, how can we continue to create designs that delight, surprise, that enable serendipity?