The Nightmare Chamber of Browsing the Kindle Store

Did you ever notice Amazon Kindle’s store is really, really bad? Or let me put it another way: when was the last time you casually browsed the Kindle store and discovered a new title you might be interested in?

I’m betting the answer is ‘never’.

So this is what we see, opening the Kindle store while logged out. It’s a mess. It’s chucking approximately eleventy billion items at you at once and hoping something will stick, all without any real thematic link or curation. It’s an overwhelming clusterfuck – unattractive, nearly impossible to navigate. If you’re going to Amazon, chances are good that you know what you already want to buy and you’ll specifically search for that title, because the alternative – browsing around to see what might catch your eye/interest – is neither enjoyable nor feasible.

Let’s look at the science fiction and fantasy categories…

What in the name of Valve are half these sub-categories? If I’m looking for Ancillary Justice, where does it even go? Space opera? Military? Galactic empire? Does it appear in multiple categories? Why is ‘coming of age’ even a category…? What’s the difference between space opera and space exploration? What on earth is ‘colonization’? What the hell is ‘metaphysical/visionary’ SFF…? Why is the first page of every single category cluttered up by self-published titles? (The answer is that those particular titles are probably Kindle-exclusive.)

Now, let’s see what happens when you look at Good Old Games.

It’s minimalistic, relatively speaking. It’s not trying to get you interested in eleventy different things at once, or even 5,600 things. It even spends some of that space to be informative: GOG is DRM-free, the price takes into consideration exchange rates, and thirdly they’ll refund you if your product has issues.

Now, it does curate stuff – the front page contains some of their most popular titles, and that means smaller/less-known titles do get shafted. That’s not ideal (Steam has individual curators you can subscribe to), but it does at least result in a front page that doesn’t make you want to immediately close the goddamn tab. It gets you started on spending money with GOG, whereas Amazon’s page… doesn’t.

Let’s look at the individual page for a book on Kindle.

That’s cool, but it doesn’t offer an instantaneous button to buy both (nor a discount if you buy both at the same time, which honestly you ought to get).

Meantime, if you look at an individual title on GOG that’s part of a series? You get this.

See that nifty ‘Buy Series’ sidebar with their ‘Add to cart’ button? It’s trying to get you to buy the entire series. With a 36% discount! What a good deal! Not really, but GOG sure wants you to think so. Plus, it’s $45 for – like – a heap of games.

The nightmare of Amazon’s sorting algorithms also means you get stuff like, uh, this.

Is The Three-Body Problem written by a Chinese writer? Sure. Is it a translation from Chinese? Certainly. But categorizing it as ‘Chinese literature’ is frankly bizarre because it’s a science fiction title. You don’t point at a random fantasy book and categorize it as ‘English Literature’ or ‘American Literature’. It’s a mislabeling of the most bizarre sort and terrible marketing.

You aren’t going to see GOG categorize Transistor as, say, a dating sim even though a romance is sort of central to the story. It has a cyberpunk aesthetic, but nobody would hurry to categorize Transistor in the same file as Fallout: New Vegas or Deus Ex, either.

Now, I know a lot of this stuff is due to the fact that books and games are obviously very different products. Games are categorized by their mechanics primarily, and there’s an extent to which those mechanics are uniform: if you’re buying an RPG, you know you are in for looting, leveling up, dialogue and probably killing stuff. If you’re buying a city sim, you know you are in for… well… managing a city.

If you buy a space opera book, you know you are in for spaceships and probably planet-hopping, but very obviously Ancillary Justice doesn’t have much in common thematically with – I don’t know – the average Star Wars tie-in. Heck, the average Star Wars tie-in doesn’t even have much in common with the average WH40K tie-in. There isn’t a level of mechanistic similarity that would enable the easy categorizing of books as it is done with games.

Of course, there’s genre conventions.

There’s maybe a reason that romance is the most successful genre in the ebook market, and it is this: of all genres, it perhaps has the most in common with the conventions of videogames. The blockbuster, so-called AAA action games released by commercial publishers.

Stay with me for a minute.

There’s a reason we talk about ‘beating’ a game; it suggests you won. Obviously, you can fail to beat a game or a particular boss encounter, but usually the goal of a game such as I described (conventional, high-budget, commercial) is to satisfy the player and to have the game end in the player’s victory. When a game ends in tragedy, players get very mad indeed, especially if there is no way to affect or alter that ending path. A sad ending as an option is fine as long as a happy one is achievable or even the default; a sad ending as the only conclusion is upsetting. Along the way, gratification is guaranteed at every step in the form of shinier loot, unlocked powers, level-ups, and so on. The player generally assumes the role of a glorious hero who may begin as a hypercompetent agent or come from a humble background, but who generally ends up a powerful, unstoppable killing machine.

(Before you start flipping tables, yes, I am fully aware that Not All Games have happy endings or gratification mechanics and that entire genres depend on delivering scares, trauma and tragedy. I’ve played This War of Mine and the Silent Hill franchise. I’m also aware the Mass Effect franchise has a sad ending you can’t avoid despite being an AAA property. In short, I’m fully aware that video games as a medium has a huge range. Calm down.)

Romance, as a genre, sticks closely to the tenet of ‘It Must Have a Happy Ending’ (whether happy-ever-after or happy-for-now). That’s the one core element that seemingly no one – no writer, no book – is allowed to deviate from. The primary purpose of romance is to gratify and guarantee a happy ending. Romance novels, like videogames, are understood to deliver fun.

And also, like commercial video games, romance thrives on being easy to categorize. To see what I mean, let’s compare the highlighted ‘refine by’ options for science fiction and fantasy on Kindle…

Firstly, what the hell kind of parameter refinements even are these? Secondly, I haven’t heard of most of these series or authors. I like to think I’m somewhat familiar with SFF, but to judge by Amazon apparently Susan Ee is commercially bigger than – I don’t know – Brandon Sanderson? Who’s Blake Crouch…? Why’s he over here instead of in thriller or something?

Let’s look at the romance refinement parameters.

Well, those are awfully specific to the point that one could in theory find a romance novel revolving around the themes of second chances and workplace and medical (so everyone’d work in a hospital, I guess) featuring… wealthy spies. Or whatever. The point is that these are ridiculously specific, but they are specific in a useful and functional way, naming tropes and archetypes that are familiar to romance readers in the same way that specific game mechanics are familiar to gamers. With games, too, you can get specific to the point that you can find multiple games that centralize all of these elements:

  1. turn-based strategy
  2. featuring squads or parties that can level up
  3. in sci-fi settings

(Shadowrun, XCOM: Enemy Within, Invisible Inc. Note that I don’t even keep up with current releases, so a more up-to-date person will be able to name even more.)

On which note, what’s the first thing you see when you look at the romance section of the Kindle store? Why, this.

What do you know! This is the closest to Steam/GOG sales I’ve ever seen on Kindle. It’s very nearly nice and functional.