Amazonked! (or, the 2nd Edition Dilemma)

Amazon.com gets an enormous number of things right. And it gets them right years before competitors even think of them. Nearly everyone in web design or online sales, when tasked with innovating, simply copies from Amazon. Amazon can even do things traditional, brick-and-mortar stores can’t. For instance, Amazon can stock and profit from items almost nobody is interested in. But there’s one thing Amazon has trouble with: second editions.

Designing With Web Standards, 2nd Edition was listed at Amazon for nearly a year before the book was written; it could be found by clicking a mislabeled “used and new” link on the first edition’s Amazon page. As no information pertinent to the second edition was available at the time, the “second edition” page used first-edition imagery and text.

The second edition is now available at Amazon, but it is mostly filled with first-edition editorial text and first-edition reader reviews. Its star rating (the at-a-glance, impulse buyer’s decision-making tool) is likewise based on the first edition. Initially Amazon’s second-edition page also showed first-edition cover art, a first-edition table of contents, and a first-edition “look inside the book,” but those errors have been corrected. The other problems may never be corrected, not because Amazon is uninterested or unwilling, but because second editions pose a special problem to Amazon’s databases—and possibly also to its information design. But as it would be bad manners to highlight a problem without proposing a solution, I’ll do so two paragraphs from now.

The problem is not unique to DWWS2E. When Eric Meyer wrote Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Edition (O’Reilly Media, 2004), the “Editorial Review” on Amazon’s second edition sales page referred to the out-of-print first edition. Two and a half years later, it still does. Most reader reviews also refer to the first edition—so much so, that one reader felt compelled to preface his review by pointing out that he was writing about the book being sold on the page, not about a previous edition.

What should Amazon do?

Replacing first-edition publisher-supplied text with second-edition publisher-supplied text is an obvious place to start. The next right move is less clear, but I think we can find our way to it.

One possibility that initially seems right is probably wrong. Amazon’s DWWS2E page might say, “This book has not yet been reviewed” until a few reviews of the second edition have been written and approved. Likewise, the star rating might be kept blank until a few readers have rated the edition being sold. Yet to have no reviews and no star rating would be wrong in a different way, because a second edition is not a fledgling book taking its first baby steps into a possibly indifferent marketplace; it’s a successful book that has been updated.

A graduated migration is probably in order, and it could work in two phases. When a second edition initially becomes available, how readers felt about the first edition is worthwhile information, at least as a rough buyer’s guide. By this reasoning, when an old title debuts in a new edition, it’s okay to keep up the old reviews and old star ratings, as long as their connection to the earlier edition is clearly labeled.

The second phase follows immediately. Once new reviews and new star ratings trickle in, Amazon should dispense with the old reviews and old star ratings—or make them available on a page where the old edition is still sold, with a “What readers said about the previous edition” link. How many reviews and star ratings should Amazon collect before removing the old reviews and old star ratings? The directors at Amazon, who are brighter than me, and who have access to more data, can figure out that part.

[tags]amazon, publishing, marketing, writing, books, retail, long tail, dwws2e, web standards[/tags]

28 thoughts on “Amazonked! (or, the 2nd Edition Dilemma)”

  1. Some reviews on Amazon (can’t find an example right now) have a note at the top that says “This review refers to an alternate version” or “This review refers to the hardcover.”

    The same could be done with second editions… “This review refers to the first edition.”

  2. Maybe an IQ test could be administered before users are allowed to comment on a book?

    BTW: Congratulations on the second edition! As excited as I am, I still treasure the first edition–it convinced me to put aside Flash forever. Here’s hoping it will be as wildly successful as the first.

  3. I would suggest a more permanent solution: Have edition-specific information first, followed by the ratings, comments, etc. from the other editions. I say this because the most likely scenario is that I am (as a purchaser) interested in what readers thought about previous editions too, unless I’ve already bought the previous prints. Even after the second edition of your book sells for a year, you probably want the reviews/ratings/comments for the first edition available to those who have not yet bought your book — most of that information is still very relevant.

  4. Either way, mine’s ordered and hopefully arriving soon ; ) Loved the first one, will be sure to let you know about this one!

  5. I’d say, under the K.I.S.S. rule, that a link to each previous edition, followed by its average star rating, would be sufficient to give shoppers an indication of the book’s foundations. For the Amazon developer, no quibbling about when to move the old reviews out; for the shopper, no confusion over which reviews are for which editions (barring reviewer error).

    On search results, the new edition’s star rating could be supplemented either by the previous edition’s star rating or, perhaps, the highest rated edition’s star rating.

    This could be highly informative. After all, on occasion, a particular edition of a work ends up being viewed as substantially better (or worse) than other editions.

  6. Why style the comment textarea with a different background-color than the name/mail inputs?

    I was still tinkering with the CSS and markup. This wouldn’t be zeldman.com if I figured everything out in advance.

    Okay, should be a little nicer now. (Refresh if necessary.)

  7. Just wanted to let you know that I pre-ordered my copy of your book through Amazon and had no problems. I recieved it last Saturday ,but I am saving it for my vacation next week. Looking foward to reading it.

  8. I ordered my copy and now just waiting before i can bury my head in it (not literally of course, that would ruin the pages). Unfortunately amazon is saying it won’t arrive till August 30th after ordering it July 20th.

    Another downside to living in Australia, although there are lots of up sides…looking forward to reading it anyway.

  9. You may get it sooner. Several nice people have written to tell me that they received the book well ahead of the date on which Amazon promised to deliver it to them. I hope that’s true for you as well, and I hope you like the book! Thanks.

  10. Well this is goina sound real cheeky but here goes, I am a real ‘fan’ (not your number one fan [film reference] of you r first edition having recently recommended your book to someone interested in changing to web standards approach. I made sure they ordered second edition.

    Now heres the thing, how much of the book is new percentage wise. i don’t have unlimited cash resources and while I would love to have the book, its seems a little unnecesssary unless of course there is a lot of new stuff.

    i realise that you are trying to sell the second edition and will obviously want to sing its praises, but my question is simply is it useful to have if you already have first edition and have been keeping abreast of changes over the last few years.

  11. About a third of the book is new, a third is lightly updated, and a third is the same as it was, give or take a few jokes. The basic structure and pedagogical approach are the same; the writing is tighter because the world is tougher and so was my editor.

    Part I’s updates have to do with changes in the industry, many of them exciting and positive, a few not so much. If you keep up, you’re probably aware of many of these issues, although you might connect the dots differently from me.

    The net is thrown wider, focusing not only on web design and its technological and semantic underpinnings, but also on important emerging ideas and trends that are powered by standards. Awareness of these ideas (ideas that excite your marketing department, let’s say) and their connection to standards may make it easier to sell standards to your colleagues, boss, and clients.

    Part II’s changes have to do with “better best practices” that have emerged since DWWS 1e — for instance, a more accessible image replacement technique than Fahrner. Unobtrustive scripting is unobtrusively introduced, and neat-o (but obtrusive) techniques from the first edition are swept into the dustbin. More browser bugs and workarounds are known today, so more are listed and described. The examination of accessibility is updated as well, although most of it remains the same, as the WAI and Section 508 guidelines haven’t officially changed. There’s some discussion of WCAG 2, but if you follow W3C discussions or read A List Apart you’re probably up on it.

    If you’re on a tight budget and if you closely follow current web standards discussions and tutorials, you may not need the second edition for yourself.

    The question to ask is, if a colleague who is less enlightened than you walks into your office and asks about web standards, do you want to lend him or her an outdated book or an up-to-date one?

  12. Its something that Amazon really needs to fix. Though perhaps considered a minor problem it is because Amazon does everything else so well that it highlights this issue.

    On a side note the first edition is like a bible to me and I seem to have turned into some sort of evangelist concerning DWWS and can’t recommend it enough. Congrats on the second edition.

  13. Thank you, you are very kind. If the book (either edition) helps you enlighten your co-workers or clients to the benefits of web standards, then that’s all I could wish for and I am very happy to hear it.

  14. I ordered your book last week from another source on a Monday and it arrived last Friday. I read it over the weekend while on vacation.

    A really good book that I can and will recommend to anyone involved in web site development.

    For what it’s worth – I didn’t order it from Amazon.com but from a smaller tech-book company. A couple of bucks more than Amazon.com’s price but well worth it.

  15. Isn’t the problem somewhat specific to certain types of books? If a new edition of Waldenis printed, every one of the previous reviews, comments and ratings applies.

  16. Excellent comment, sir.

    The problem could be solved via a checkbox. If the book contains a reasonable amount of new content, the publisher checks the box while submitting the book to Amazon for distribution. (The checkbox could say something like, “This is a substantially revised edition.”)

    If the box is checked, then the second edition is treated in the way I’ve suggested here. If it’s not, then Amazon knows the edition is only marginally different from a previous version, and the old comments can linger indefinitely.

    In your example, a new edition of Walden might contain a new introductory essay, and perhaps a few corrections to errata in previous editions. These changes wouldn’t invalidate previous comments about the merits of Thoreau’s book. Amazon was probably thinking about that kind of second edition when it set up its multi-edition comment-handling rules.

  17. We’ve had just the same problem with some of our books, and it’s a common complaint on some of the computer book author mailing lists. Your suggestion is a good one – as has been noted, the problem is that Amazon don’t really know if the new edition is not much changed the old one, and therefore should keep the old reviews, or whether it’s essentially a new book. Getting Amazon to correct this problem may take a while as it’s been an issue for years.

    Good luck with your book!

  18. I had a friend recently who I recommened to get your book, and told him to go for second edition, who was sent the first edition by Amazon.(bummer) He is going ahead a reading it anyway. I suspect though the mistake was his as he suffers from colour blindness and all I said was get the green one its the second edition. So maybe clearer labelling of different editions could help?

  19. Dave, thanks for sharing that story of a book purchase gone wrong. I’m arranging to replace your friend’s book with the second edition.

    The second edition is clearly labeled. The first edition isn’t. No first edition ever is. That’s because publishers have no way of knowing if a given book will come out in a second edition one day. It’s like the old joke where the newcomer on the bus asks, “How many stops until Maple Street?” and the helpful longtime resident answers, “Just watch me and get off one stop before I do.”

    It would be funny and gutsy to write a book with the words “First Edition” in its title. But that kind of hubris would almost guarantee failure, unless Jon Stewart were the author.

    If Amazon (and other online retailers) were to immediately stop selling first editions as soon as they have second editions to sell, it would prevent accidental first-edition purchases from happening. Your friend wouldn’t have bought the first edition if Amazon wasn’t still selling it.

    Consumer logic says first editions should stop being sold the moment second editions are available, but business logic dictates otherwise.

  20. Thanks Jeff, the book was gratefully received, and good use will be made of it. I agree with you about the first edition being stopped, but maybe there would be rare occasions when people would want both. Alan has a point as well about the stocks unless you published agrees to buy them back, ummm doubtful, (but wouldn’t the world be a better place?)

    However maybe amazon will take it on board, rather than leave it up to stupid consumers with colour blindness!

    Oh don’t know if you remember the whole saga, but needless to say we are both happy and enjoying the book, wink wink, nudge nudge! lol

  21. Jeffrey, a good point well made, nice one. I have a request to make of you in a similar vein. The background is this… I loved the book in its first edition and was about to write a review of it on Revyu.com, a site I’m working on that takes an RDF and Semantic Web approach to reviews and ratings, but I hit a snag…

    A crucial hook that the system uses to uniquely identify “things” is the URL of their homepage. The logic goes like this: if someone says that a certain thing has a homepage at a certain URL, and someone else says that another thing (which may or may not be the same thing as the first thing) also has a homepage at the same URL, then we can infer that the two things are the same. This is a feature not a bug, and massively increases the ability to link data on the web. However, the issue is that only homepages which uniquely identify specific things should be used in the homepage field.

    Unfortunately the DWWS homepage does not distinguish between the first and the second editions, at least it doesn’t provide different URIs/URLs for each. Is there any chance of creating separate pages (or at least separate URLs, whatever you choose to put at the end of them), maybe along the lines of:
    http://www.zeldman.com/dwws/1e and http://www.zeldman.com/dwws/2e ? This would seem in keeping with the ethos of your post.

    (Of course one could argue that http://www.zeldman.com/dwws/ refers to the abstract work DWWS, and therefore both editions deserve one homepage. However given that there are substantial changes between the two editions, one could also argue they constitute different works…)

    Anyway, would be interested to hear what you think, and looking forward to being able to write my review of the (uniquely identified ;) first edition.

    Cheers, Tom.

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