Trevis Rothwell's weblog

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How do people discover new books?

20 October 2014

Today’s New York Times has an article by economist Paul Krugman about Amazon’s alleged status as a monopsony in the book-selling world. (I remember Krugman from college macroeconomics, but had to look up the definition of monopsony!)

There are opposing views in the saga between Amazon and publishers like Hachette, but even assuming that Amazon’s actions have been entirely proper, one aspect of the story in particular interested me. From the article:

Book sales depend crucially on buzz and word of mouth (which is why authors are often sent on grueling book tours); you buy a book because you’ve heard about it, because other people are reading it, because it’s a topic of conversation, because it’s made the best-seller list. And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place.

I don’t think that I have ever not found a book that I was deliberately looking for on Amazon, though I have no idea what books I never discovered at all simply because Amazon didn’t carry them. Amazon may be unlikely to break ties with larger publishers, but tiny publishers can put out excellent books too, and might be more likely to end up unfavored by the online retail giant.

With that in mind, are there any other book discovery habits besides searching on Amazon that we can cultivate?

  • Identifying favorite publishers helps in finding good books. I personally have a lot of books published by the MIT Press. Their books have consistently impressed me as well-written, well-edited, nicely-typeset, and nicely-bound on high-quality paper. Even when I buy one of their books on Amazon, I often find it first on the publisher’s website. Books from Sher Music are also consistently excellent.
  • While reading books and journal articles and magazine articles, I often make note of books that are referenced therein, and look those up as well. I keep several lists of books (currently numbering in the hundreds) that I tentatively want to acquire in the future.
  • There are some internet services that help people discover new books. We don’t necessarily know where these services get their book listings, so it still might come back around to whatever Amazon carries… but maybe not.

Society discovered and shared and bought and read new books for a very long time before Amazon became the de facto gateway to book shopping. If we deliberately choose to discover books through means other than searching Amazon, we certainly can do so, but I suspect that for many readers, Krugman will prove very correct. And to allow Amazon to wield such power seems kind of disconcerting.