Amazon books Marketing Publishing

Amazonked! (or, the 2nd Edition Dilemma)

The “second edition problem” at, and what Amazon should do about it. 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]

By Jeffrey Zeldman

“King of Web Standards”—Bloomberg Businessweek.

Hi! I’m a principal designer at Automattic, Inc. Also: Publisher and founder, A List Apart “for people who make websites.” Publisher and co-founder, A Book Apart—brief books for people who design, write, and code. Co-founder and co-host, An Event Apart UX & front-end conference. Faculty, MFA Interaction Design, School of Visual Arts, NYC. Host, The Big Web Show. Have written two books, notably ”Designing With Web Standards,“ currently in its 3rd Edition, and, on last count, translated into 15 languages and used as a text in 85 universities.