digital everything is terrible, so put down the internet once you’ve read this

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In response to my article on how to package your book so that people will pick it up off the shelf, Josh Bernoff wrote:

Isn’t it more important what browsers on Amazon.com see than bookstore browsers?

I responded:

Talking about browsing for books on Amazon is like worrying about graphic design in an ebook. The control you have over the reader’s experience is so stunted by the stagnant technology that it isn’t worth polluting the discussion of the physical experience.

I used to try to think about the thumbnail when evaluating cover designs but at the end of the day there’s pretty much nothing you can do that’s useful there. So I ignore it.

This interchange reminded me of this article at Aeon pointing out that, as a medium, ebooks are in a serious rut.

To me, the whole book + digital kit and caboodle, from browsing to buying to reading to sharing, is in shambles.

(Kit and Caboodle was actually the name of my folk music duo, back before I got into book publishing. Naturally, I was Caboodle. We knocked out some killer vinyl EPs before Kit got ambitious and went out on his own as a solo act under the name Shambles.)

Anyway, here’s a disclaimer: You know how I also used to work at Amazon? Well, nothing I’m going to say here has anything to do with that experience.

Here’s the situation: Amazon sits on a geyser of cash from Kindle romance and erotica readers who consume absurd—literally absurd—quantities of (mostly low-priced, mostly self-published) novels every week.

Quality doesn’t enter into it. These readers want an escape, they want it now, and they want it cheap.

Think cheap oil. When gas is $2 a gallon, it’s next to impossible to drive the adoption of (initially) costly green technologies. Without wide adoption, you can’t manufacture at scale, bring costs down, and increase the pace of innovation.

As long as indiscriminate genre readers scarf down 5 or more books a week (!) with no particular regard to quality or provenance, Amazon has no incentive to innovate in the areas that other readers care about.

It’s not just Amazon, either, although thanks to their corporate culture they may embrace this dystopian situation a bit more enthusiastically than strictly necessary (kidding…?). When you talk to someone at an online content channel of any stripe, you’ll hear the same story. Metrics show that the audience wants cheap, fun crap, and if you put anything but cheap, fun crap in front of your audience, the numbers go down.

Yes, of course, put $1.00 escape in my way and I’ll eat it up with a spoon. It’s like a fridge full of donuts. I’ll be back at that fridge every 5-10 minutes until I’ve passed out on the floor in a sugar coma. Hide the donuts behind some kale…and I’ll dig for those donuts in a kale-flecked frenzy. What I’m suggesting is, make something nice out of the kale. Plain kale is boring, especially if it’s stuffed next to some donuts.

Teach me about the kale. Tell me about all the good things kale will do for my pasty, corpse-like pallor. Use stories to make the kale appealing. And burn those donuts.

It all goes back to Richard Thaler’s Nudge. A little careful “choice architecture” can drive better decision-making and better results.

Sure, Amazon wants to sell books. But do they also support connecting readers with authors and publishers that will change their life? Do they support the idea of skilled and hard-working authors making a good living? Do they support the idea of a healthy, vibrant book publishing ecosystem? Do they want books to get better?

Please, can another major player enter the room (without immediately getting acquired by Amazon and shut down)? Ideally, one without a vested interest in a particular device. Let’s accept that we’re going to be reading on our phones or, gasp, iWatches. Where’s the killer reading app, and where’s the store to support that reading app? Cross-platform, beautiful/legible typography, compatible with all ebook formats, thoughtful tools for searching, browsing, annotating, and sharing?

Authors, publishers, investors, and technologists are going to have to get together to make this happen. Who can unite them? Oprah can’t even get people to watch her own cable channel, so we need a new hero, someone relatable and mainstream but still bookish. My vote is for Karl Ove Knaussgard, but that could be the cold medicine talking.

Here’s an example of the kind of innovation I’m talking about: Motherboard’s recent decision to replace comments with a dedicated letters to the editor page, a change intended to encourage civil discourse. Klint Finley at Wired followed that up with “A Brief History of the End of Comments” at Wired.

Comments have been an enormous problem since the dawn of the Web, and yet most of us content creators have dutifully continued to include them on our websites. Alternate approaches for online audience participation exist but have yet to find widespread adoption.

Isn’t it weird how a problem can simmer and simmer and become background noise and then suddenly frustration boils over and solutions like this arise? And it’s like, why didn’t this happen sooner?

(In a similar vein, Ian Bogost at The Atlantic tackles another related pet peeve, the greatly diminished fidelity of telephone calls, and what that does to how we communicate. That’s another problem that’s going to drive us all crazy until somebody suddenly fixes it.)

Whether you’re an author, editor, or publisher, wherever your work intersects with digital, ask yourself: where are your assumptions? What’s your cargo cult—what are you doing because everyone else is doing it, or because the “successful” competitor appears to be doing it? Where is there room for a completely different approach, maybe even an old solution to a new problem? Right now, books are a Gordian knot.

Sure, we have to throw our ebooks up on Amazon if we want to reach the widest audience possible. But how can we offer a different, new, improved experience for our online readers elsewhere? I’m not talking multimedia a la 90s-era CD-ROMs. I’m talking plain old books that are a pleasure to find, read, discuss, and share online.