Discoverability and chaos

Last weekend (4-5 Feb) I visited Blossom Book House on Church Street (the “second branch” (above Cafe Matteo), to be precise). I bought a total of six books that day, of which four I was explicitly looking for (including two of Tufte’s books). So only two books were “discovered” in the hour or so I spent there.

This weekend (11-12 Feb) I walked a little further down Church Street (both times I had parked on Brigade Road), and with wife and daughter in tow, to Bookworm. The main reason for going to Bookworm this weekend is that daughter, based on a limited data points she has about both shops, declared that “Bookworm has a much better collection of Geronimo Stilton books, so I want to go there”.

This time there were no books I had intended to buy, but I still came back with half a dozen books for myself – all “discovered”. Daughter got a half dozen of Geronimos. I might have spent more time there and got more books for myself, except that the daughter had finished her binge in 10 minutes and was now desperate to go home and read; and the wife got bored after some 10-20 minutes of browsing and finding one book. “This place is too chaotic”, she said.

To be fair, I’ve been to Blossom many many more times than I’ve been to Bookworm (visits to the latter are still in single digits for me). Having been there so many times, the Blossom layout is incredibly familiar to me. I know ¬†that I start with the section right in front of the billing counter that has the bestsellers. Then straight down to the publisher-wise shelves. And so on and so forth.

My pattern of browsing at Blossom has got so ritualised that I know that there are specific sections of the store where I can discover new books (being a big user of a Kindle, I don’t really fancy very old books now). And so if I discover something there, great, else my browsing very quickly comes to a halt.

At Bookworm, though, I haven’t yet figured out the patterns in terms of how they place their books. Yes, I agree with my wife that it is “more random”, but in terms of discoverability, this increased randomness is a feature for me, not a bug! Not knowing what books to expect where, I’m frequently pleasantly surprised. And that leads to more purchases.

That said, the chaos means that if I go to the bookstore with a list of things to buy, the likelihood of finding them will be very very low (that said, both shops have incredibly helpful shopkeepers who will find you any book that you want and which is in stock at the store).

Now I’m thinking about this in the context of e-commerce. If randomness is what drives discoverability, maybe one bug of e-commerce is that it is too organised. You search for something specific, and you get that. You search for something vague, and the cost of going through all the results to find something you like is very high.

As for my books, my first task is to finish most of the books I got these weekends. And I’ll continue to play it random, and patronise both these shops.

Blossom, not babykutty

I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that most of the books I own have been bought at Blossom, the new and secondhand bookstore on Church Street, Bangalore. I have bought significantly from Premier Bookshop also, but there was an inflexion point in my reading after Premier closed, so most of my book-buying has happened after that. I have bought some books from larger stores such as Landmark or Crossword, but they are too few to be counted. In fact, I would hate to classify Landmark or Crossword as “bookstores” any more, given the amount of real estate they allocate for that trade.

So I was at Blossom last month, browsing its shelves. The Karnataka Quiz Association still gives out its prizes in the form of Blossom coupons, and since I still have a few unspent coupons, I was at the store looking if there was a book I liked. And possibly for the first time ever in that store, I was underwhelmed.

Essentially my book buying and reading habits have changed significantly in the last two years (my last “raid” on Blossoms was in September 2011). Sometime in 2012 i got myself a Kindle. While I initially used it to read PDFs and free e-books and instapaper, I soon warmed up to buying books directly from the Kindle store. The gamechanger as far as I was concerned was the free samples. You can download free samples of any e-book on your Kindle, and once you’ve read the sample (typically about 7% of the book) you can purchase the book with a single click (from your Kindle itself). Some of the books which I’ve wanted to explore have had me so hooked that I’ve ended up buying. And now (partly as a result of a weak ligament in my left thumb) I find it hard to read physical books!

The primary reason I felt underwhelmed at Blossom was that my process for book-discovery has also changed, along with my process for book buying. One of the advantages buying regularly from Amazon is that their recommendation engines start working for you. So nowadays, if I want to browse books, i go to the Amazon website and start looking through my recommendations. And so far, I’ve bought a few of my recommended books and have ended up liking them.

Being a regular visitor to the Amazon recommendations page means that I’m clued in to the long tail of books, which would happen earlier only when i visited special bookshops such as Blossom. Also, the breadth of Amazon’s collection means that I’m more likely to find a title I like on the Kindle Store than in a bookshop like Blossom. And add to this my preference for ebooks over physical books and you know why Blossom doesn’t pleasure me any more.

So every time I would look through the shelves on the third floor of the store (the non-fiction section housing secondhand books) and find something interesting, I would find myself reaching for my phone and checking if the book were available on the kindle store. I would contemplate buying the book only if it weren’t available on the Kindle store or if it ¬†were extraordinarily priced.

I had gone to Blossom with about a thousand rupees of coupons (collected over various quizzes) but was able to spend only half of them. Solstice at Panipat (about the third battle in 1761) wasn’t available on the Kindle Store. It was a similar story with KA Nilakanta Sastri’s The History of South India. Jane Jacobs’ Cities and The Wealth Of Nations was available on the Kindle Store but the Blossom price was too tempting.

I realize that despite my binge on the Kindle Store, I have more unread physical books than e-books. I wish some day Amazon were to come up with a program where I could exchange physical copies of my books for ebooks. That way I’m sure I would read more.