November 21st, 2011 by Mike Fulton

Despite the fact that I have been reading eBooks fairly exclusively for the last two years, I still make regular trips to my local bookstore pretty much every week. Part of the reason is to check on new magazines. I read a number of electronic editions, but many are still print-only. Aside from the magazine rack, however, I still find myself going to the “Mystery” and “SciFi/Fantasy” sections to look at the new releases.

The reason is Amazon’s half-assed lazy approach to marketing.

That may raise a few eyebrows who think that Amazon is doing a pretty good job marketing-wise, so let me explain. When it comes to getting people to visit the site, Amazon does a darn good job. And when you get down to looking at individual products, they do a great job of presenting information. With regards to books, if you’re talking NY Times Bestseller list new releases, Amazon does a great job of featuring them prominently. After that, however, they stop trying very hard. Or maybe the problem is that they’re trying TOO hard on some things and other things are getting shuffled aside as a result.

I buy most of my eBooks on Amazon, but it’s often a very painful process. If I am looking for a specific author or title, it’s easy to search and locate what I want. But what about if I’m looking for something less specific? That’s where things break down.

When I look at the new release sections at my local bookstore, they have something like 50 hardcovers, another 50 trade paperbacks, and probably 100 mass market paperbacks, all released in the past couple of months. When I try to browse new releases on Amazon, the first problem is that they don’t really have a “New Releases” page as such.

Well, ok, they do have a menu link for “New Releases”. Click it, then select a genre from the left side, and you’ll have what initially looks like a list of new releases, 5 pages of 20 items each. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that you’re not really getting a list of 100 books in your selected genre.

First of all, many items are listed multiple times for different formats (i.e. hardcover, Kindle, etc.). On the first page right now, 6 of the 20 items are such duplicates. Another couple items were “pre-order” and not actually available yet. Some books shown don’t belong to the selected genre. And some items aren’t even books: there was a version of the ANGRY BIRDS mobile game listed.

If I browse on Amazon to “Books” and then to “Science Fiction and Fantasy” I see they have “Best of 2011” and “New And Notable” near the top. The “New And Notable” section turns out to be a mix of 20 hardcover and trade paperback releases. They also have “New In Paperback” which has another 20 items and ALSO includes trade paperbacks.

The numbers tell the story: Amazon is failing to show me the vast majority of the new releases I see at my local bookstore. And why? It’s not that they don’t have the books in their catalog. If you do individual searches, you’ll find the book 99.99% of the time. The failure is that they’re not bothering to market them to people interested in new releases.

Since the individual pages for the books show the correct release dates, one must conclude that inclusion in the “New in Paperback” list is being determined by some flag in the database other than the date. They must have a separate flag for “include in new release list” that has nothing to do with the actual release date. That makes it a marketing decision. And a marketing failure in my opinion.

Aside from the limited selection of new releases, the next biggest problem is the huge signal to noise ratio in what they do show. Perhaps one of the prime examples is the inclusion of “pre-order” items which could be anywhere from a few days to six months away from actual release. This is especially annoying when you want to sort the list of items by release date and you end up having to browse through several pages of pre-order items to get to the products you can actually buy right now. Of the 40 items included in the two new release lists, 7 were pre-order items.

Another big example is the way that tangential products are often included in the lists. If I want to see a new rules book for Dungeons and Dragons, I would be looking at a different part of the website.

Many of these issues could easily be fixed by adding a few checkboxes at the top of the page that would allow users to select if such items should be included in the list, but either Amazon is too lazy, too unimaginative, or else simply doesn’t want users to have that option.

The most annoying aspect of this situation is that once upon a time, Amazon’s presentation of new releases more or less made sense. The site had much better options for browsing and “new release” was based on when the item was published rather than a flag used for questionable marketing purposes. Maybe they felt the old system was too hard for the average user to figure out? Maybe that was true, but the “easier” newer system isn’t working all that well for me.

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