Too Much of a Good Thing?

We knew it had to happen. It was just a matter of time. Most of us thought we had at least a year. Or two. But in the Future Shock era in which we live, when time and events accelerate with ever-increasing velocity, we’re already there.

The first reports surfaced in late spring on Kindle Boards when indie authors anecdotally reported slower sales. I was one of them. At the time we blamed it on Amazon’s technical SNAFUs, including the 24 hours when Lady Gaga crashed their servers, and they lost most – if not all — our sales. That was followed by a sluggish summer, during which more technical glitches surfaced sporadically (some of which are only now being addressed). But I have a feeling those glitches weren’t – and aren’t —  the root cause of the general sales slowdown.

What is?

The market. The ebook market is saturated. There are simply too many ebooks and too many authors promoting those books. The result? Readers aren’t responding. They’re limiting their purchases, or, in some cases, not buying at all.

It’s not a new concept. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox of Choice, says that too many choices triggers a kind of consumer paralysis. Whether it’s trying to choose between 175 salad dressings in the supermarket, or millions of ebooks on Amazon, consumers become overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden and often skip buying altogether. Even when they do buy, he says, buyers can regret their purchase or find it disappointing, because their expectations have been raised by the plethora of choices, each claiming to be the answer to their prayers.

His theories have been borne out in experiments by Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar, (whose work came to me thanks to colleagues on another list). I’ll just summarize them here, but they’re worth reading.

Essentially, she set up a jam tasting booth in a grocery store. The more jams she offered, the fewer  customers actually bought. In fact, having too many choices made customers 10 times less likely to buy. 10 times.

I’ve experienced it myself.  I remember walking into a Borders one afternoon looking for a good read. I’m a voracious reader  and a fairly productive writer, but I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books and choices available.  I walked out without buying anything.

I suspect that’s what’s happening in the e-verse.  Faced with a glut of product and an endless stream of tweets and FBs and Google Pluses promoting said product, readers are curtailing their purchases. Or not buying at all. Or limiting their purchases to  the “best sellers” lists, because, how can you go wrong there?

Hence, slow sales.

Btw, the second leg of Schwartz’s theory… the disappointment that readers often express when they do get something might account for the bad reviews some authors report. Readers’ expectations have been raised, they’re anticipating a great value, but if the book doesn’t measure up, they let us know.

So what’s to be done?

Some players are already well positioned to survive. Namely, Amazon. You know the old saw that he who has the most marbles wins? In today’s digital book world, I would define “marbles” as “promotional support.” And Amazon has more promotional muscle than anyone else in the industry these days. In fact, I suspect they might have anticipated this glut, picked up a bunch of solid authors, and are making sure those authors’ books (and Amazon’s revenues) rise above the clutter through their promotional efforts. B&N does the occasional promotion as well, and when they do, the chosen books sell well.

But what about the rest of us? I don’t know. I do know that every author with an ebook, whether traditionally or self-published, thinks their book is unique. And all of us are jumping over each other in our efforts to bring that unique book to the attention of readers.

One solution some authors adopt is to make their books free. Personally, I have a  problem with that. (Then again, I had a problem with 99 cent books a while back and got over it). Still, the tricks you have to do to get your book free are complicated and it can take time. And getting them back to a reasonable price is cumbersome. I understand the reasoning — if it’s free and if readers like it, maybe they’ll buy your backlist. But I wonder if that’s really the way it’s turning out. Would love to see some data on that. It seems to me there are so many free books that readers can bounce from one promotional website to another, filling their readers with free stuff. And that, it seems to me, devalues the rest of us.  Would love to be persuaded otherwise.

The truth is that the frenzied signal-to-noise ratio of book promotion (I’m guilty of it too) all becomes white noise, or worse, information to be avoided. I know readers who actively avoid what’s being promoted on Twitter, Linked In, FB, etc. They may not realize it consciously, but I think they are LOOKING for a reason to reject a title. It winnows down their choices.

So, what’s the solution? Do we need gatekeepers? If so, who’s going to keep the gatekeepers honest? If we don’t, how do we allow free speech to prosper in a glut of product? At some point, it won’t matter if the material is good, or crap, or something else altogether. There’s just too much of it.

What do you think? Please… I really want your comments.