Why are British bookstores digging the grave for ePub?

WH Smith’s new ebook store – confusing and messy

When I compared prices of ebooks at the end of August, I noted that the pricing from WH Smith was pretty competitive; for a bundle of four books that I stocked up on before going away on a trip, it cost six pence more than from the Kindle store, and £16.68 less than buying the same books from Waterstones.

I’m going to compare my whole collection of books across the stores again soon, to see if there’s been much of a change in pricing since the launch of the UK Kindle.

Meanwhile, if you used the WH Smith store before the middle of September, you might have noticed that it was operated for them by Overdrive. Overdrive is a big player in ebooks, and run the web sites for various libraries as well.

There were some drawbacks to the Overdrive-powered store; one was that you had to register separately from the rest of the WH Smith online store. And searching wasn’t that easy. I said in my last post that I could go on for ages about the awfulness of the WH Smith site.

But now there’s no point; on 15th September I received an email telling me that the WH Smith ebook store had moved. It’s now properly integrated with the rest of the WHS site, and presumably run directly by them.

I’d love to report that this has made all the difference, and it’s now a smooth, easy experience, with simple straightforward searches, and a slick, glossy user interface.

The new WH Smith store

If I said that, I’d be lying. If anything, it’s even more frustrating than the previous incarnation powered by Overdrive. It seems to me that the search function is even worse, and on the ‘Advanced’ search screen, while they do actually say ‘Author’ instead of ‘Creator’, like normal human beings, you can’t specify that you only want to see ebooks in the results. You have to get the whole lot, and then narrow the results down.

Browsing is a nightmare; I like the odd bit of science fiction, but it’s pretty hard to find. Click the ebooks tab, choose Fiction, then ‘Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror’ section, to find 691 books. Then there are sub categories for ‘Fantasy fiction’ and ‘Horror fiction’ but not for Sci-Fi.

So, if you want to find a nice bit of space opera to read, you have to wade through the whole collection; of course, you can narrow it down to ePub only, or by price, but that’s still a lot of books. And, with all due respect to the readers of vampire novels, I really don’t want to have to work through pages and pages of stuff about excitable girls swooning at men with fangs, to see if there’s any science fiction.

WH Smith ebook search
Search for Peter F Hamilton in the Fiction section, and WH Smith will find ten titles

If you do, you’ll quickly conclude that, actually, there probably isn’t. Even if you search with the results for, say, ‘hamilton’, you won’t find any books by Peter F Hamilton once you’ve narrowed down your results to that ‘Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror’ category. Which is decidedly odd, because if you search for him from the top level, you’ll find ten of them.

Even more bizarrely, if you enter a single word like ‘peter’ or ‘hamilton’ in the box labelled ‘Search with results’ you get at least a search (even if not the results you’re expecting). Now browse to the ‘Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror’ ebooks section, type ‘peter hamilton’ into the same box, and instead of the results, you get a listing of the whole of the Fiction ebooks category, some 38,000 books.

WH Smith ebook search
Search in the 'Sci Fi, Horror and Fantasy' section, and you won't find anything. You might even get dumped back at the Fiction list of 38,000 titles

Typing ‘peter hamilton’ into the box when you’re in the Fiction category does work, though.

So, congratulations, WH Smith, you’ve managed to make your ebook shop even more confusing than it was before, with a broken search system, and miscategorised books (and, incidentally, importing previous sales from the old shop, claiming they were from 2005 rather than August this year).

In the end, I resorted to browsing the Waterstones shop, and then when I’d found a book that looked interesting, typing the title into WH Smith’s shop, and buying it from there.

This, it hardly need be said, is a far from ideal situation, and something that the makers of ePub readers need to shout about, and bang heads together. The two biggest and most well known booksellers in the UK are so inept at selling ebooks that they must surely be helping to hasten the demise of ePub and the supremacy of Amazon and the Kindle ecosystem.

WH Smith might manage to roughly match Amazon on price, but their bookshop is a horrible experience. Waterstones does have a better search engine, but it’s still a bit clunky, and their prices are ridiculous.

With jokers like this serving the public, Amazon doesn’t even really have to try.

WH Smith download page
A lack of polish: I bought those books in August 2010, not September 2005. And 'Dummy text' ? Didn't anyone test this site?

4 Replies to “Why are British bookstores digging the grave for ePub?”

  1. You’re lucky! Before September I could buy ebooks from WHSmith with no problem! Now I can’t…..why not? Well…I have the temerity to live outside the Uk! I live in Spain and although my credit card was welcome before Sept it seems that now it’s not! Pathetic!

  2. It gets even better. I have over £80 of ebooks on my WH Smith bookshelf, including a pre-ordered book I should be able to download right about now. Since the move from Overdrive can I access these books? Can I heck as like! I have accidentally deleted on e title and I cannot download it again. WH Smith Customer Service (no there’s a badly named department) have failed spectacularly to provide a satisfactory answer. Mt daughter is having exactly the same problems with exactly the same lack of response. Time to buy a Kindle 3 I think…..I will certainly not buy another ebook from WH Smith.

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