What Do We Really Want From Books?

And what do we, the book-buying public, want? Cheaper prices, as ever, but we’re also all expecting books to move beyond dead text and into something much more dynamic, something loaded with rich media, something that makes use of the color and graphics of our tablet screens, and perhaps the social networking powers they also sport as apps. Because those kinds of books sure as heck aren’t in Amazon’s top-selling Kindle list right now.

This summary, which concludes a recent Fast Company article about e-book publishing, doesn’t represent me. Does it you?

As someone who buys books by the boatload and reads both nonfiction and fiction voraciously, I’m not particularly interested in “rich media.” As one commentator on this article pointed out:

“Reading is an intensely personal experience. It is not a social experience unless someone is reading to me. And if I wanted that I’d get an audio book.”

I agree. My mind and imagination are all I need when reading a book, thank you very much. All that multi-media stuff is fine for e-learning courses and suchlike but when I’m reading, I want peace and quiet to really think about what I’m taking in.

One thing I’m noticing that’s continually absent from these discussions about what the buying public wants from books (electronic or otherwise) is any mention of quality content. Do we simply take it for granted that every book — and here I’m talking about my specialism of nonfiction — has been well constructed, well written, and contributes something meaningful and valuable to the conversation? That’s not been my experience.

Amazon is redefining publishing, but not in a way I particularly welcome. Commercial publishers may be criticized for failing to innovate…but most people in that industry were in that business because they loved books. What does Amazon love?

I, for one, will forgo cheaper prices for better quality content. That was the beauty of the commercial publishing model years ago before the era of the celebrity airhead author and internet marketing old boys’ network began to seduce publishing houses with the guarantee of mega-sales and big bucks. When you saw the little Penguin on the front cover or spine — or any of the other symbols of the major publishing houses — you could be guaranteed quality: from the development of the core concept, to the writing, to the editing.

Now, you’re never sure what you’re getting when you buy a book from Amazon, because with so many self-published authors rallying their friends and family to write bogus 5 star reviews (and in some cases offering inducements to strangers in exchange for glowing testimonials), you can’t even trust the market to give an honest appraisal.

By my bedside I have Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which I bought from Barnes & Noble, paying something like $25 (the RSP is $30). My experience of reading that book has been priceless as it’s generated many new thoughts and directions for my business.

So maybe it’s fine for “cheap prices” to be the top criteria for fiction. But, please, not for nonfiction. When a thoughtful author takes the time and effort (involving much more than the “write a book in a weekend” hucksters would have you believe) to craft a book with the potential to change your life — don’t they deserve to be rewarded for that? At least when writers are working with industry professionals (as opposed to most self-published authors who do everything themselves) the result is the coalescing of many expert minds and perspectives, which makes for a superior product.

Well, that’s what those of us who LOVE books think, anyway 🙂 How about you?


  1. I agree that quality has been absent from the discussion about what the public wants. I will not buy an ebook that doesn’t allow me to at least look at the table of contents–a first-level view at the scope and depth of the subject matter. Second, I look at the reviews, and if all I see are glowing ones, I either wait to buy the book or try to find a friend, business associate, or other trusted source who has read it and will give an honest opinion. Price has nothing to do with my methodology. I simply have too many interests and not enough time to read and absorb all the information available through this medium. So, it better be worth my time first. I can make more money, but I can’t add more minutes to my life.

    With regard to the perception that consumers want books to be more dynamic, I’d like to see more data. If the information lends itself to being experienced better with media-rich content, then by all means, please enhance the experience! But let’s try to identify through research what works and doesn’t work and why. My experience and intuition tell me that many factors probably influence this.

    • Thanks for contributing your perspective, Christine (and long time no speak – hope you’re well!).

      I agree that we need more data on the contribution that multi-media adds to the reading experience. As we discussed at the e-learning event we both attended some time ago, many people want the “shiny, new object” just because…even though the evidence is scant that making learning electronic and with all the knobs and whistles actually enhances the learning experience. Emotionally for some, perhaps, but — as you say — we’re a long way off understanding what works and doesn’t – and why.

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