Book discovery has been a point of major concern in the publishing industry recently. Book stores argue that consumers use them as showrooms to check out the product before buying books more cheaply online, while recent studies show that book lovers learn about new titles via Amazon, Goodreads (now owned by Amazon), author websites, and recommendations from friends. In response, publishers and other entities have been working to create social recommendation engines that cross different types of data (books customers have “liked” / reviewed / bought; books their friends on social media have “liked” / reviewed / bought; best sellers, etc) to create an algorithm that customizes book recommendations.
In his new book Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading, Jason Merkoski says what you probably already know if you’ve signed up for recommendations from engines like Random House’s Bookscout. Merkoski, who was part of the team that built Amazon’s first Kindle, admits “When it comes to book recommendations, retailers have the literary sensibilities of a spreadsheet — they’ll just recommend the most popular books to me, or books that other people also bought, but they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book.”
I think Merkoski’s comment touches on the actual tension between traditional publishers and the digital revolutionaries at Amazon; and the overarching issue retailers face in this brave new digital world. As the internet provides infinite opportunities to parse and analyze the Big Data of our digital footprints, it neglects to admit the intangibles that underlie affinity. Just because you bought one book by an author, doesn’t mean you are a fan of said author. You might have bought the book for a friend, and it may not be the friend who has expressed interest in the book or title on Facebook.
Likewise, we make recommendations for so many different reasons. I know technology is getting better, but it will never be human.
You can check out Merkoski’s full Q&A on the New York Times‘ “Bits” blog.