When readers talk to other readers about books, they speak in a language of tropes, character types, and hot button issues. They ask for spoilers and in depth details. They want to know if a character in book B is like the character in book A that they love.
A quick run down of forum topics at a popular romance gathering includes:
- Fight club
- Shy awkward / alpha
- Books where heroine almost dies
When I gather books for the DA New Releases site, Calibre pulls down the metadata for a book including the “category” a book is placed in. Categories, generally speaking, are the BISAC codes assigned by the publisher (whether it be a publishing house or author). A BISAC is a classification system that “BISG develops and maintains a number of classification systems for both physical and digital products. The systems can be used individually or together to help determine where the work is shelved in a bricks-and-mortar store or the genre(s) under which it can be searched for in an online database.”
Here are the BISAC codes for romance:
- FIC027000 FICTION / Romance / General
- FIC049060 FICTION / Romance / African American
- FIC027080 FICTION / Romance / Collections & Anthologies
- FIC027020 FICTION / Romance / Contemporary
- FIC027010 FICTION / Romance / Erotica
- FIC027030 FICTION / Romance / Fantasy
- FIC027050 FICTION / Romance / Historical / General
- FIC027140 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Ancient World *
- FIC027150 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Medieval *
- FIC027070 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Regency
- FIC027160 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Scottish *
- FIC027170 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Victorian *
- FIC027180 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Viking *
- FIC027120 FICTION / Romance / Paranormal
- FIC027130 FICTION / Romance / Science Fiction
- FIC027110 FICTION / Romance / Suspense
- FIC027090 FICTION / Romance / Time Travel
- FIC027100 FICTION / Romance / Western
While readers appreciate the randomly chosen generalist subject codes, these tell a reader almost nothing about a book. Further while some are very granular (Viking Historical?) most are very broad. A reader, presented with this broad range of subjects is hard pressed to find something of interest unless her eye is caught by a tiny thumbnail or the title.
Online discovery isn’t happening at the retailers, like it happens in the bookstore, because retailer sites aren’t set up for discovery beyond the front page. BN’s romance page has featured 50 Shades above the scroll for months. Scrolling down, you get horizontal scrollbars for things like “Coming Soon”, “Bestsellers”, “New releases” but a quick scroll through both and you begin to see repetitive titles. This is not hand curated like a table in the retail store (or if it is, the curation is poor because the constant repetitive nature of the titles reduce visibility of other titles). Further, little information is imparted about the book unless the reader can guess from the title and the cover exactly what the genre or subgenre is on it. No wonder romance cover artists rely so heavily on the naked chest. BN offers no advanced search function.
Amazon hews closely to the BISAC codes, as does BN. Amazon does offer an advanced search wherein you can filter by subject matter and keyword as well as publisher and date published. However, how many users realize that a) it is available and b) can figure out how to use it. For instance, Advanced Search is accessible ONLY from the “books” subpage and not the “Kindle Books” subpage. However, Advanced Search keyword is limited to whatever is in the description field and since publishers haven’t clued in to how readers talk, Advanced Search can often be a fruitless way to discover new books.
Kobo, like the previous two retailers, also subdivides books by BISAC codes and offers no advanced search features. Worse, Kobo’s results are often random and not related to what keywords you input.
Searching by date is also worthless because the etailers often have books in their search engines not due out for months. What if I want to know just the contemporaries published this month. How easy is that to find on any three of the sites discussed above?
For Kobo, the Newest to Oldest search results for contemporary romance show 21 pages of books not yet released before I find titles I can buy now. For BN, the Newest to Oldest search results for contemporary romance don’t even reveal on the index page which titles are pre order and which are available now unlike Kobo and Amazon. Instead, the reader would be forced to click through a random title to figure out if it was a new release. At Amazon, there is a “new and popular” search feature but the newest title is one published in December. It is now two months later. The second title on the list is a 50 Shades title, published in 2011.
The Advanced Search at All Romance is one of the better etailer search programs. You can search by “flame” rating, two categories, exclude categories, and tags. The big problem is that many books do not have tags, limiting the efficacy of such a search option.
None of the three major retailers allow you to exclude titles. For instance, maybe I want to see all contemporary romances but none with a title of billionaire. But these complaints address just the existing flawed search functions.
Beyond how rudimentary and unhelpful the search features are at these retailers is the fact that the search terms are designed to speak to readers. Amazon has tried to address this by allowing readers to add “tags” to books but the tag feature has been sorely abused. Many of the books at AllRomance have no tags either.
Tags would allow publishers to add tropes, character archetypes, and subject matter that would speak to the reader. As a reader, I would like to be able to go to a retailer and type in “funny beta male blue collar marriage in trouble” and pull up a host of digital books that might hit that exact mood. Or how about “sexy football opposites attract” story for Super Bowl Sunday?
Discovery for books isn’t happening at retailers for two reasons. First, the search features are broken and second, the publishers and retailers aren’t speaking the language of the reader. Until that happens, discovery will happen elsewhere and maybe in smaller numbers.
Update: For some reason this has been targeted by spammers and I’m having to turn off the comments for that reason.