FictionWise for the Wise eBook Consumer
Jul 17, 2002 (Updated Jul 17, 2002)
FictionWise is the best commercial eBook site. I do not normally make such sweeping statements, but in this case I feel it is justified.
FictionWise (http://www.fictionwise.com) sells science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and mystery short stories and novels for all of the major eBook platforms. The stories are from top notch authors including Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, and Nancy Kress. Many of the science fiction stories have won or been nominated for Hugo or Nebula awards. They also have a limited selection of non-fiction titles.
A site that can offer all of these great stories must make you pay up the wazoo, right? Nope. There are stories that cost as little as 49 cents, and many stories are under two dollars. Stories that you purchase can be downloaded in any supported format and remain attached to your account so you can download them again if needed. Although still reasonable in most cases, the prices at FictionWise have been creeping up.
When I first wrote this review, I had stated many stories were under a dollar and most under two. That's no longer true - the price of the shorts has crept up over time. Also, at the time of my original review (nineteen months ago), there were many more short stories than novels. Today I'd estimate the site is split 50-50 between short stories and novels. The novels generally sell for the same price as paperback novels which I don't like (explanation below). Fictionwise has also added many of the top science fiction magazines, available either in individual issues or via subscription.
FictionWise has a very easy-to-use site. The main navigation buttons are at the top of the page just under a very unobtrusive banner ad (one of the best I've ever seen in that respect). These buttons let you move between major sections of the site such as your bookshelf (the books you've purchased), support, your cart, and site-related news. The left side has a more-drilled down navigation bar providing access to the books by author, story length, genre, or other criteria as well as a FAQ and other specific pages that can also be found underneath the major sections listed above. It also has a search box if you know exactly which story you want. The right side of the main page lists the current top selling and top rated stories. This page also lists any current specials. The top and left navigation bars are on every page of the site allowing for easy movement around the site.
Each author is given his or her own page for biographical information and information about the stories he or she offers on FictionWise. It lists the author's top selling and top rated stories as well as a paragraph description of every story. Some of these pages are more developed than others but they all have story listings.
Each individual story also has its own page that includes the same paragraph description, an excerpt from the story, information about story length, reader ratings, and whether it belongs to any bundles.
FictionWise offers quite a few bundles, or groups of related stories, for sale. Some of the bundles are themed while others are simply all of the available stories by a particular author. Some of the themed bundles include First Contact with Aliens, Politics as Unusual, Time Travel, and Halloween Horror.
The bundles are interesting because they provide an easy way to add a series of stories to your cart in one fell swoop. However, they are not discounted and adding a bundle to your cart effectively adds all of the individual stories to your cart. In one sense this is good, because it automatically removes any books you already own and prevents you from paying for it twice. On the other hand, I expected the bundles to provide some type of bulk discount since that is standard operating procedure for any type of bulk purchase.
PDF files are available if you want to read on your desktop computer. You can download .lit files for Microsoft Reader (found on PocketPC PDAs). You can also download Palm Doc files (which can be read on almost any PDA). Rocket format (not available for all books), Franklin eBookman, Hiebook, iSilo, and Mobipocket formats are also available.
One of the more interesting aspects of FictionWise is the ability to set up a micropay account. Since the cost of stories is so low, it is prohibitively expensive to allow credit card payment for the purchase of one or two books. If you buy less than five dollars of merchandise and pay by credit card, an additional 50 cents is charges to cover the fees. To avoid this and cater to people who want to buy one story at a time, FictionWise set up micropay accounts.
Micropay accounts allow you to charge money to your credit card in five dollar increments then use the funds to buy individual stories later without paying any fees. The money in the account is yours and will be returned without any questions upon request. Micropay accounts are also used for most rebates.
The BuyWise Club
Like many bookstores, FictionWise has a frequent buyers club. Called the BuyWise Club, on the surface it seems quite expensive. Running either $30 for a single year or $55 for two years, the club costs more than any other frequent buyers club I've encountered. However, if you are anything more than the most casual book buyer it does save you money fairly quickly and is probably worth buying.
Club membership grants you one free ebook (up to $10 value) per year, a 15% discount on all books (granted on top of any other discounts, coupons, or rebates), micropay rebates on purchases over $100 (including purchases of additional Micropay funds), and frequent club-only specials.
New stories are added to FictionWise all of the time. Generally all stories are 15% off the first week they are available. In addition, a 5% rebate is given on these titles if you buy them during their first day of availability. You can also usually find something on sale in the Bargain Bin and additional specials are offered to Buywise members. There are also times when some books or stories are offered free of cost. If you join the mailing list, you will be notified of new stories and given the chance to get additional discounts on an infrequent basis.
FictionWise also recently started weekend specials, four or so books sold with a 50% or 60% discount on a specific Friday through Monday morning. The weekend offers are tailored to individual members based on previous buying habits. For the most part, I've found they do a good job choosing books that fit my general likes even if I'm not interested in all of the actual selections.
FictionWise maintains a personal bookshelf for each customer. It contains all of the books you've ever purchased from the store. New books appear as soon as you finish purchasing them. By default, the books are listed in reverse purchase order, newest to oldest, 25 per page. You cannot increase the number of books shown per page but you can choose to order by title or author. Once you have a large number of titles on your bookshelf only seeing 25 at once can be really annoying. I'd like the option to show more books, perhaps even all books, on a page and also like the ability to sort or filter by book category (alternate fiction, horror, mystery, etc.). You can search for a specific title or author in your bookshelf, though, so if you're looking for a particular book you can generally zoom in on it using search.
Each book has a link to the full page for the book, a short description of the book, a place to select the download format, a place to rate the book, and a link to recommend the book to others. Fictionwise pushes you to rate the books you buy, offering personal discounts based on your ratings. Unfortunately whenever you rate a book the whole bookshelf page reloads and returns to the top of the first page of your shelf. This can be mitigated by using a bulk rate feature, but then you can't read the description of the stories to make sure you're rating the correct thing.
Recommending books is a nice feature because it generates a coupon for the potential buyer to use on the book. Not only can you tell your friends about books you think they'll like but you can also save them money.
You can also set your default download format so you don't have to constantly change the format on individual stories and perform bulk downloads that grab all books in a specific date range or provide a csv list of everything on your shelf for bookkeeping purposes.
The Shopping Cart
FictionWise maintains a persistent shopping cart. Many stores do that, but FictionWise allows you to indefinitely carry books in the cart without purchasing. It essentially turns the cart into a wish list as well as a shopping cart. If there are titles you want to read but don't feel are worth the regular asking price, you can put them in your shopping cart and wait for a sale or discount coupon.
By default items added to the cart are set for immediate purchase. In order to hold a book without purchase you must uncheck the box immediately to the left of the title. Once you've done that, you'll notice it is no longer included in the total cost of order calculation at the bottom of the cart.
All discounts, rebates, and coupons are shown individually by book in the cart. You always know exactly what each book will cost before purchase. This is a nice change from many stores that make you go through half of the checkout process before determining final cost.
If you have enough money in your Micropay account to cover your current order, you can choose to pay by either Micropay or credit card. Micropay will be used by default. If you can't cover the entire order via Micropay you'll have to pay by credit card - you can't mix and match within an individual order. If you're paying by Micropay, just click on the Check Out button. You'll get a confirmation page with the names and prices of the books you're ordering as well as the total price and the amount of any rebates earned. Once you okay the information the purchase is finalized and the new books added to your bookshelf. Credit card orders have an additional step but are still very straightforward and quick.
How is FictionWise Different from Other eBookstores?
There are several things that make FictionWise unique, and in my opinion better, than other eBook sellers.
1) The price. When I originally wrote this review, I had this paragraph here:
These stories are affordable - in most cases they are sold for substantially less money than they would cost in print. The cost is a big point for me because I feel most eBook sellers overcharge. They charge paperback prices for a book that cannot be loaned out or resold. FictionWise does not do this - although you cannot loan out or resell their stories you are paying less than paperback prices for them. Paying less money for less functionality is fine with me.
Unfortunately this statement is no longer true. Now most full-length novels are listed exactly at paperback prices but you still can't loan or resell them. I have a real problem with this. However, factoring in specials, coupons, discounts, and club membership FictionWise is still a bit cheaper than other options.
2) The variety of formats supported. Most eBook sellers chose one format, often a proprietary format in the case of eBooks aimed at PDAs, and only sell books in that format. FictionWise supports all of the major eBook formats instead of its own proprietary format. This means that if you change reading devices you don't lose the ability to read the stories you've bought.
3) The ability to buy only one story. Most sellers only sell full books. Short stories must be purchased in anthologies or electronic versions of magazines. Using FictionWise I can pick and chose my stories individually.
4) The quality of authors and stories. It isn't often top-notch authors allow their works to be sold in this manner. Sure Stephen King has branched out into eBooks, but most mainstream authors have not. The eBook world is still one of mostly unknown authors looking to be discovered. There are exceptions to this, and I am not saying that the stories written by unknown authors aren't worth reading, or that everyone will like all of the stories at FictionWise, but it is nice knowing that everyone at FictionWise has the public published stamp of approval.
Most of this review has ignored the existence of secure books on the FictionWise site. Until recently they didn't exist - the entire site consisted solely of multi-format books, the book I've been concentrating on. A few months ago FictionWise started carrying books in the Secure MobiPocket format. These are different titles than the multi-format books and work only in a single format on a single device. These books are significantly more expensive than the multi-format books, often costing more than hardcover books and rarely doing better than falling in between paperback and hardcover prices. In fairness, these books are generally newer than the multi-format books, often current bestsellers. If that's important to you and you're willing to live with the prices, the hassle of the security, and the knowledge that you can't exchange the books into a different format if you change your reading device, then give them a try.
Although they've expanded into other areas, FictionWise is still a science fiction and fantasy bookstore at heart. They are by far the best source for science fiction and fantasy eBooks, particularly if you like short stories. Although they've gotten more expensive in the past couple of years, they are still generally cheaper than other eBook sellers, particularly with intelligent use of their discounts, rebates, and frequent buyer club. They allow you to choose which eBook format you want rather than forcing you into one of their choosing which I also like. They've recently added expensive secure eBooks, a move I intently dislike, but show no signs of lessening their efforts to provide eBooks in the more standard non-secure formats used by most devices and preferred by most people who read eBooks. My recommendation of FictionWise isn't as vocal as it once was, but I still feel it's the best place to buy eBooks and recommend making it your first stop whenever you need non-public domain reading material.
Note: I originally published a review of FictionWise in one of the general website categories in early January 2001. I have deleted that review (long since archived) and posted this updated and enhanced review.