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Book Discovery: What’s Wrong?

Discussion: What Is Wrong With Book Discovery?

What is Wrong With Book Discovery?

A few weeks ago I discovered a lovely article through Radish Reviews Linkspam listing 25 hard truths about the publishing industry. One of them was, as they put it, that book discovery is “wonky.” Well, they might have used more colorful language in addition, but I think we can all agree that there is some wonkiness. I wanted to take a moment today to start talking about the problem so that maybe we can start brainstorming solutions. After all, it’s the technological revolution, why can’t we get someone to find a way to recommend all the books we actually want to read??

Define “Book Discovery”

First, let’s get a good idea of the problem. Book discovery is the process of finding new books. Back in the old days (hehe) this was mostly dependent on word of mouth: “Oh, you liked that book, you have to try this one!” There are a fair number of sites that have tried to automate book discovery, such as Goodreads, Amazon and the beta of Bookish,  but they just don’t always work great. I think a lot of us will agree that we still rely on word of mouth, but now we can get those recommendations through our blogger friends. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the recommendations for books worked as well as Pandora or Netflix? I mean, Pandora guesses pretty darn well what music I will like based on ONE song. And while sometimes I hit a bad movie with Netflix recommendations, most of them are what I was in the mood for. Why is it then, that when I enter in Daughter of Smoke and Bone into Bookish, I get suggestions that don’t even like vaguely similar from the description? Seriously, I was getting books that didn’t even look like fantasy! Not to mention that there are doubtless lots of indie books out there that I want to find, but I am going to have to get very lucky to stumble onto a review of them from a friend. Otherwise I’m not likely to hear of them, let alone from a trusted source that will lead me to actually try out the book.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are two different models of automated book discovery. Goodreads focuses on a full profile approach, where they make recommendations based on your entire shelf, but this makes it difficult for you to know if a book has particular aspects that you might be looking for if your shelves aren’t very specific (like me :( ). Bookish and Amazon have narrower approaches where they make specific recommendations based on one book. This is nice since you know if you are in the mood for that type of book, their recommendation might be useful. However it can also lead to spurious recommendations when they make a match based on one attribute that you actually don’t care about at all…. I think this might be causing my confusion on Bookish’s recommendations ;-). Which model do you prefer?

Problem 1: Ratings Material

Now, I’m just guessing here, but I’m willing to bet that one of the problems with making an algorithm for book discovery is that it takes a lot longer to read a book than listen to a song or watch a movie. It’s probably just difficult to get enough feedback from readers to categorize all the world’s books reliably on the categories that count (or even figure out which categories count!). While Goodreads gets lots of reviews on books with a fair amount of popularity, there are plenty of books without any reviews at all. While ratings are helpful, it seems likely that a review that can be mined for keywords is necessary to get good results in an algorithm. Thoughts? Movie and music discovery systems have also been setup to get feedback on how the algorithm did, with all the thumbs up and down and Netflix begging for ratings after you finish a movie. However, there isn’t the connection between book discovery recommendations and feedback on several of the sites. Amazon does ask for feedback, but I find that I often haven’t finished the book (or even started it) by the time they send an email. This might be due again to the amount of time it takes to read a book, or perhaps Goodreads just isn’t as focused on this element of book discovery?

Problem 2: Money

Netflix is a service that you pay for, so there is an obvious monetary benefit to them perfecting their recommendations engine. Pandora is a bit different, since (unless you upgrade) it’s free, however they want you to come back and listen to their ads, so again they want to be the best. While you could make the argument that Amazon wants to have the best recommendations so you buy books based on them, the monetary incentive from the publishing side seems to have corrupted book discovery on Amazon. Personally, it’s gotten to the point that I don’t even look at Amazon reviews because I have no way of knowing if that is an author boosting their positive reviews or bribing fans to post more reviews, given all the scandals we keep hearing about. This seems to be a problem of Amazon’s algorithm being too easily influenced and the publishing industry being too closely tied to book sales. This is obviously not changing anytime soon, but it is a hurdle that will have to be figured out when designing a recommendation algorithm.

So, now I want to hear from you. Do you use recommendation engines as a primary source of book discovery or do you just rely on suggestions from friends? Is there a particular site that you prefer? Do you think the problems that I’ve listed can be solved easily? Do you think that they are problems at all?

Anya from On Starships and Dragonwings – A

© 2013, Anya. All rights reserved.


  1. Really interesting and admittedly layered topic! I think you raised some really accurate reasons why book discovery tends to be more flawed…simply because it’s so much more complex than discovering movies or even songs. And like you said songs and movies have a fairly short ‘discovery time’ while books take longer.

    My primary methods of book discovery are a combination of Goodreads & like-minded book bloggers. If a blogger or Goodreads user tends to like the same kinds of books as I do AND that we rate books similarly, you can be sure I’ll be checking whatever new books they feature or review! Bloggers feature books I haven’t seen on Goodreads yet & vice versa so I’d say both play a huge role.

    As far as Goodreads on it’s own, I admit that my shelves are SUPER labelled! It was really worth the effort for me cause before I did, I found my recommendations were way off sometimes too. Since I’ve gotten everything sorted and labelled, the recommendations have been really good – I’ve discovered tons of new books this way to add to the reading list!

    well the mobile app helps SO much with looking up appealing books on the go. I usually use the barcode scanner and scan a bunch of books while I’m there to look up later. All too easy to increase your reading shelf :)

    This was a great topic girl, really got me thinking.

    • Oof, that means that I need to organize my shelves doesn’t it? ;-) Oo, I didn’t realize there was a barcode scanner on the app, I love that thing, but I just type them in xD Where is the barcode scanner part??

      Thanks for joining in :D

  2. I rely on comments from bloggers based on their past reviews. If I find our tastes are similar then I will definitely try out a book they recommend.

    If I find a book that hasn’t been read by the bloggers that I follow then I will try a review site like Goodreads. I would also pay attention to see if the book is published by a publisher that I enjoy.

    • Oo that’s a good idea, I don’t tend to pay attention to which publishing house published the book. Do you find that much similarity between books published by the same house?

  3. LibraryThing has recommendations too — both recommendations from your whole library and recommendations from specific books. It also has an algorithm by which it weighs others libraries in similarity to your own, so you can go and see what they have that you might like. In addition to computer-generated recommendations, users can add their own (with a reason) on a book-by-book basis.

    Here’s the page for Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

    • How could I forget LT?? I also just managed to spend a half hour browsing through the suggestions users had made for me, so many people care :D Are these actually individual suggestions or do they show up for any user that has that book on their shelf?

  4. I tend to do 4 things: 1) If a good friend or an author who is in my top 10 recommends a book, I will most likely seek it out (i.e. Jacqueline Carey recommended Code Name Verity in a Q&A session I saw on the web. That book is now on my night stand); 2) I read the book blurb/back cover and make a calculated guess; 3) I read what other book bloggers have said, especially those blogs that don’t get paid for reviews; and 4) I go to goodreads and read the reviews there, as they are more reliable and true than Amazon.

    If I lived near a book store or library, I would spend time hanging out with other bookish folks and listening to their tales of book discovery. Alas, that is not my case, so I rely on the whim when I am in a book store/library.

    • This is also why I love having the Goodreads app on my phone and why it might have been part of the motivation for upgrading my phone >.> It’s so convenient to be able to check Goodreads directly when at the bookstore and to add books to the list or check what books I wanted to get!

      I haven’t gone off author suggestions much, I guess because I haven’t found any that seem to have book tastes the same as mine and because I have plenty of blogger recommendations to go off of!

  5. I think the excitement book bloggers have for books is what makes me want them so badly, so they are probably my first source for recommendations.
    I use the goodreads algorithm, but I cross reference with the reviews I see (especially from my goodreads friends). I’ve noticed that when I buy a book at Barnes and Noble, the reciept prints out 3 recommendations (if you like this, you’ll love..) and usually it’s a book that I already want or read and loved, so however they do their algorithm is perfect.
    I’ve had goodreads recommend books that sound good but got bad reviews. I’ve never had an algorithm give me books that look terrible or that don’t interest me in some way, so I think they are doing something right. In fact, I think it’s much better than the recommendations I get from Netflix and Pandora. My bookish tastes are as wide as my movie and music tastes, but Netflix seems to pick random crap that looks terrible to recommend to me and Pandora plays the weirdest songs saying that the artists are similiar when I don’t feel like the artists are similar at all!
    I think people are more open to wasting their time on movies and music, though, so bad results from those algorithms aren’t quite as bad as a bad book recommendation because of the effort and time it takes to read a book. I will listen to a song or watch a movie even if i expect to hate it based on recommendations but I’m much less inclined to buy a book if I don’t know if I trust the recommendation or it sounds like it’s not my thing.

    As always, you have the most thought provoking posts! I am glad I’m not in the book marketing industry because I have no idea what makes people buy books. I don’t even know what makes me buy a book sometimes. lol

    • I also pretty much always cross reference with Goodreads and am relieved when I see reviews by Goodreads friends. I apparently trust book bloggers opinions much more than random people ;-)

      The problem I’ve run into with B&N’s recommendations is that they are nearly always the rest of the books in the series, and it’s like well duh I was planning on reading those…. ;-)

      That is an excellent point that lost time with music and movies is less of an issue than with books; books are definitely more of a time investment! I’m sorry you’ve had such bad luck with Pandora D: Maybe I’ve been listening and perfecting my stations a little too obsessively >.>

      Hehe, let alone buying books, but liking the books that they buy so that they recommend them to friends *shakes head* no fun, I salute the publishing industry for that task at least ;-) Thanks so much!! I’ve been having a lot of fun with these discussions :D

  6. My primary method of book discovery, independent of just hanging out in my local bookstore, it reviews and recommendations I see on blogs. Additionally I check out SF Signal’s monthly post that goes live on the first of every month (generally) that shows cover images of the SFF books coming out in that month. It is a great place to let cover art or book titles or author names leap out and lead me to checking more out about the specific book. I’ve discovered a lot of great stuff that way.

    • I do love blogs that take the time to gather all the releases coming out in a week or a month, since I never have the brain power to keep up with that sort of thing!


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