Buying a book the old-fashioned way
I remember the days before Amazon, when finding a good book to read was easy. You’d go into the local bookshop, head straight to the fantasy shelf (or the shelf of your favourite genre), and run your fingers over all those beautiful spines.
You’d spot one with appealing colours, which was thick enough to be a good, solid read, and which had sequels sitting next to it in the shelf, so if you enjoyed it you’d instantly know what to read next.
It would have a title like “The Dragon’s Apprentice” or “The Warlord’s Dragon” so you knew it was about exciting things – like dragons. (No, I don’t know if either of those is a real book.)
Next step was the front cover. You’d stare at the tiny depictions of characters and ponder over whether they looked like people you’d want to travel with for four hundred pages. (And if you ever read the book, afterwards you’d return to the cover to try and figure out which characters the people shown were supposed to be.)
If the people on the front cover looked like good company, you’d turn to the back cover and read the blurb at least five times.
Dragons? Check. Awesome magic? Check. An absence of half-elves? Check. Written in third person? Check. Proper fantasy names, nothing like Dave or Emily? Check.
If the subject met all your requirements and the blurb was still exciting the fifth time you read it, you’d finally open the book and read the first few pages. It would grab you, or it wouldn’t.
At the end of the process, you’d either hand over your hard-earned $17.95, or you’d give up and start over on another title. Easy.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, yea, but I can still do all that on Amazon. This is mostly true. However…
Buying a book on Amazon
Here’s the difference. Back when a bookshop stocked a few dozen fantasy titles, pretty much any choice was a good choice. Few titles had made it to agents, fewer to publishers, fewer to large publishers, even fewer to that small bookshop near my house. They were all good.
Now go to Amazon, to the category Books. If you look under “Science Fiction and Fantasy”, you’ll see that right now 422,906 titles are listed. They are not all good.
Thankfully you can narrow your search down to Fantasy alone. That leaves you with only 237,990 books. What a relief!
Amazon seems to realise how hopeless the task is, and offers options. You can shop by category, or look through various types of books:
The prettiest cover in the top five is “The Queen’s Poisoner”, by Jeff Wheeler. The blurb makes it sound worth looking inside.
But I look inside and realise this is the same book I found the last five times I came to Amazon looking for something new to read, and the first few pages didn’t grab me at all.
If it keeps coming up maybe I’ll buy it next time. The cover is gorgeous.
2. Hot new releases
The first title is “Dark Legends: A collection of 20…” something or others that I’ll never read even if I buy it, and I might because it’s only 99 cents for 20 books’ worth of reading.
My problem with these collections is that I’m terrible at navigating using links within kindle books (if I even remember this file is more than one book), so I’m only going to read the second book if I love the first book enough to finish it, and I’ll only read the third book if I love both the first two enough… You get the picture.
The fifth hot new release title is “A Shade of Vampire 34: A Sword of Chance”.
I have to wonder if we’re talking about whether vampire number 34 is green or turquoise, or if this is really the 34th book in the series. If that’s the case, it’s either brilliant (because the author has had so much practice) or it’s terrible (because she’s already said everything that can possibly be said). I’m curious to find out which, and go to the book’s page.
It really is the 34th book in the series. The page urges to me “Order now”. Um, why would I do that when I can just buy it like one usually does? I guess Bella Forrest is so busy writing book 35 that she forgot to update the blurb for book 34 when she published it.
I look inside because I can’t help myself. The page that appears gives a character list containing eight character names, and descriptions along the lines of “half dragon and half human” and “half fae and half human”. An absence of half-elves? Fail. I wonder if, like mules, these half-breeds are sterile.
3. Top rated
I’ve already read four of the five Amazon shows, but I have to find out what “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood” by Diana Gabaldon is. The cover doesn’t appeal to me, but it has over 10,000 reviews, which is a lot of reviews. Even if Diana paid for them (and I’m sure she didn’t), I’m curious to see what kind of book a person who could pay for 10,000 reviews would write. Most people stop before they get to 100. (FYI, I would never pay for reviews. Why pay when blackmail works better and is free?)
I click through to the page. That explains a lot. It’s book eight in the Outlander series. You know, the one with the TV show. I tried to read the first book years ago. It wasn’t my thing.
Moral of the story: if you want to sell enough books to get ten thousand reviews, get your book made into a TV series. People are lazy and TV is easy.
4. Most wished for
In other words, later books in a series. Specifically, in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I enjoyed the first four. Around number five I got a little stuck (at about the same time, I swear the text shrank to half the usual size).
5. Most gifted
My first hope is that these are incredibly talented books. They can cook a five course meal while singing opera and solve the kids’ calculus problems. (No, I don’t have kids. If I did I hope I could still help them with their calculus homework.) Then I realise that’s probably not what Amazon means by “gifted”.
These could either be great recommendations because people have loved them enough to give them to their friends, or terrible recommendations because they’re like the candles and hippy coasters sold in gift shops: you’d never buy them for yourself, but people give them to each other because they can’t be bothered finding a gift that will be appreciated.
Oh, Amazon, you wear me out
I’m tired already, and I’m yet to look inside anything that vaguely interests me. Time to get serious and conduct a search.
I don’t want to end up with urban fantasy by mistake, so first I narrow my search to epic fantasy books.
If I search for just a few words I’m going to find the exact same books as everyone else finds. Only I don’t want to find the exact same books everyone else finds, because these are the same books I found and rejected last time I was here. I know exactly what I want, and I’m going to ask for it.
I figure one should always be polite, so I put into Amazon’s search box, “Dear Amazon, please find me a thrilling epic fantasy with dragons and castles and a strong heroine, that’s written in third person, has beautiful prose and profound themes, and an upbeat ending. Thank you.”
It turns out Amazon doesn’t appreciate politeness. It gives me no results and snarkily asks if I found what I was looking for.
I delete words until Amazon gives me a result. My successful search? “thrilling epic fantasy dragons castles strong heroine third person beautiful prose profound themes upbeat ending”. And look what Amazon finds me!
Dragons, in the beginning: A thrilling tale of the role of dragons in space and time
As proclaimed by the author–who ought to know–this is a “thrilling tale”. It obviously has dragons, and it even promises to teach me how to capture and tame them. Can you get any better than that?
The author has a degree in physics, which makes me hope he solved the problem of how to make something as big as a dragon actually fly, and the one review tells me the book is a “very good happy story”. That sounds infinitely preferable to a “mopey, self-flagellating story”, and I did say I wanted something upbeat.
I have to look inside. It’s written in third person, and on the first page a castle is under attack. I approve. On the other hand, I see no sign of a strong heroine, and beautiful prose, while a matter of opinion, seems more absent than present.
Sadly, the book’s only available in paperback and it costs $24.99. At that price, I could buy 500 Dark Legends books, or the same 20 Dark Legends books 25 times.
Exhausted and still bookless, I return home from the Amazon jungle for the night. Now where did all those blood-sucking ticks come from?
Okay, so maybe I didn’t try very hard this time, but I’m not sure Amazon has ever given me a recommendation for a novel that I’ve gone on to buy and enjoy. Have you had better luck? How do you navigate the Amazon jungle and where has it taken you? Were you attacked by man-eating vines on the way?
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