Too much choice

Nicholas Jones
Opinion - Books Monday, 25 March 2019

Nicholas Jones suggests that having a vast number of titles on a website isn't the best way of selling


There is nothing quite like knowledgeable hand-selling of books. Early in my publishing career I had the excellent experience of going to bookshops (no central buying in those days) with John Lyon, then London rep for Michael Joseph before his move to America and rise to prominence with Little, Brown. John would tell me a little about each shop before our appointment, and I remember his brief on Heywood Hill, then as now a unique Mayfair shop aimed at the carriage trade: "Someone will go in and say, 'I'm off on holiday tomorrow. What should I be reading?', and the customer will rely wholly on what HH suggests."

That is still true: if you look at the Heywood Hill website now, you will see the tagline, "Life is too short to waste time on bad books. Allow us to sort the wheat from the chaff." Delivering that offer depends on knowing your clientele individually. One person's chaff is another one's wheat.

Such individual recommendation is clearly not often possible in a trade now so largely dependent on e-commerce. There's a tendency to offer everything and assume that customers will narrow down what they want, but online searches are not yet wholly the answer: I sometimes fail to find books that I know are on Audible (things I have produced), despite carefully trying alternative search words. As for the "If you like this, then you'll like that" algorithms, things have got a lot better since Amazon suggested about 10 years ago that I'd like The Silence of the Lambs because I had bought a cookery book, but no website I know of has yet emulated the glorious targeted serendipity that you get in a physical bookshop with knowledgeable staff.

Do we in publishing bother to think enough about what is really going on when people make choices? If we don't think about the process, we may invite decisions that are easily made but not actually satisfactory.

There's a famous paper by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper called "When Choice is Demotivating" that studied the behaviour of shoppers in an upmarket food shop in San Francisco. They set up tasting tables offering varieties of jam, on one occasion with six on offer, another time with 24. In both cases about a third of the people entering the shop sampled some jams, but when it came to making a purchase, those presented with the smaller range bought 10 times more often. Yes, 10 times.* Too much choice overwhelms, and customers succumb to the "tyranny of choice", as Barry Schwartz called it in Scientific American.**

When Waterstones used to run three-for-twos, I sometimes found that having gone in to buy a book that I definitely wanted, and found something else that I was sort-of interested in, I then realised that there really wasn't a third book I wished to encumber myself with. So I would leave the shop with nothing. I'm not surprised that one of the first things James Daunt did when he took over was to terminate that ineffective, often counter-productive, offer.

This is relevant to audiobooks. Quite a few of us in the professional audio world take busmen's holidays by subscribing to Audible, but talking to those who've come into our studio recently I find I am not alone in often having one or more unused credits. As more and more and more titles get added, choice becomes harder and harder. There is a need for specialist audio re-sellers who curate titles and guide listeners in a way that the "more the merrier" approach will never offer.

It's not just in reaching customers that thinking about the process of choice matters: recruitment is another area where too many options may produce the wrong answer. A friend of mine made the mistake of putting an ad for an editorial assistant in the Guardian, and got 800 applications. It is impossible to make a truly objective choice from that number. But at least I know she didn't use the technique of the publicity director of the 1990s publisher who would simply discard anyone who didn't have a London SW postcode.

C Northcote Parkinson, he of Parkinson's Law ("Work expands to fill the time available for its completion"), also wrote an essay about the art of recruitment, suggesting that the perfect advertisement produced one candidate and one candidate only, one who was exactly right for the post. The wording should be carefully balanced between enticing and discouraging applications - in his example, the job was for a lion tamer: "Excellent pension scheme, but never yet claimed" was one masterfully discriminating phrase.

In short, too much choice overwhelms; the offer to your customer should limit the number of options available.

* Discussed in Michael Bhaskar's book Curation, 2016, Piatkus (UK)/ Little, Brown (US). See Chapter 5
** Barry Schwartz, Scientific American, April 2004, pp. 71-5

Nicholas Jones is founder and managing director of Strathmore Publishing, an audiobook production company based in London that has produced more than 1,200 audiobooks, by authors as diverse as Richard Dawkins, Julia Donaldson, Philippa Gregory and Russell Brand.

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