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 ┬áthat 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.

Bangalore Book Festival

So today I made my way to Gayatri Vihar in the Palace Grounds to visit the Bangalore Book Festival, on its last day. It was interesting, though a bit crowded (what would you expect on the last day of an exhibition? and that too, when it’s a Sunday?). I didn’t buy much (just picked up two books) given the massive unread pile that lies at home. However, there was much scope for pertinent observations. Like I always do when I have a large number of unrelated pertinent observations, I’ll write this in bullet point form.

  • There were some 200 stalls. Actually, there might have been more. I didn’t keep count, despite the stalls having been numbered. Yeah, you can say that I wasn’t very observant.
  • All the major bookshops in Bangalore barring the multicity ones had set up shop there. I don’t really know what they were doing there. Or were they just trying to capture the market that only buys in fairs? Or did they set up stall there just to advertise themselves?
  • It seems like a lot of shops were trying to use the fair to get rid of inventory they wanted to discard. All they had to do was to stack all of this on one table and put a common price tag (say Rs. 50) on every book in that collection, and it was enough to draw insane crowds
  • One interesting stall at the fair had been set up by pothi.com an online self-publishing company. I’ll probably check them out sometime next year when I might want to publish a blook. Seems like an interesting business model they’ve got. Print on demand!
  • I also met the flipkart.com guys at the fair. Once again, they were there for advertising themselves. Need to check them out sometime. Given the kind of books I buy, I think online is the best place to get long tail stuff.
  • There was an incredibly large number of islamic publishing houses at the fair! And have you guys seen the “want qur an? call 98xxxxxxxx for free copy” hoardings all over the city? Wonder why the Bajrang Dal doesn’t target those
  • There was large vernacular presence at the fair. I remember reading in the papers that there was a quota for Kannada publishers, but there was reasonable presence for other languages also, like Gult, Tam, Mellu, Hindi
  • A large number of stalls were ideology driven. Publishing houses attached to cults had set up stalls, probably to further the cause of their own cult. So there was an ISKCON stall, a Ramakrishna Mutt stall, a Ramana Maharshi stall, etc.
  • Attendance at most of these niche stalls was quite thin, as people mostly crowded the stalls being run by bookstores in order to hunt for bargains. Attendance was also mostly thin at publisher-run stalls, making me wonder why most of these people had bothered to come to the fair at all.
  • I saw one awesomely funny banner at the place. It was by “Dr Partha Bagchi, the world leader in stammering for last 20 years” or some such thing. Was too lazy to pull out my phone and click pic. But it was a masterpiece of a banner
  • Another interesting ideological publisher there was “Leftword books”. Their two sales reps were in kurtas and carrying jholas (ok I made the latter part up). And they were sellling all sorts of left-wing books. Wonder who funds them! And they were also selling posters of Che for 10 bucks each
  • I wonder what impact this fair will have on bookstores in Bangalore in the next few days. Or probably it was mostly the non-regular book buyers who did business at the fair and so the regulars will be back at their favourite shops tomorrow.

I bought two books. Vedam Jaishankar’s Casting A Spell: A history of Karnataka cricket (I got it at Rs. 200, as opposed to a list price of Rs 500) and Ravi Vasudevan’s “Making Meaning in Indian Cinema”.