The other day, I was fortunate enough to attend a Book Summit, which was a day of discussion and education for people from all facets of the book industry in Canada. In one of the sessions, the speaker was discussing the pros and cons of Amazon and virtual book shopping, and he raised some interesting points. While online bookstores offer readers greater choice than they ever had before, they are also limiting our ability to discover books, and thus also limiting our choice.
While at first this notion may sound ludicrous, it actually makes perfect sense. The algorithms that suggest books to you on sites such as Amazon or Goodreads are designed to collect information on what authors/titles you are reading, looking at or purchasing, and then to search the database for identifiers that suggest authors/titles that are somehow considered similar. For example: On Amazon, when I entered Hunger Games, it told me that other customers had bought Divergent, Maze Runner, The Outsiders, and Twilight to name a few. It also gives me the option to search within similar categories such as Teen sci-fi, fantasy, adventure and thriller. Sounds good right? Amazon obviously believes that in looking at The Hunger Games, I must have an interest in one of those categories, because these are subject codes that have been assigned to this book, but they aren’t made on any personal knowledge of my personal or reading interests, and of the first several they recommended, I’ve already read them or didn’t want to read them, so I struck out on all counts.
Goodreads is slightly better, showing me books that other users who have read or are interested in reading the book I’m reading have also read. I won’t pretend that I haven’t scrolled through the list to see if anything catches my eye, or even that I have occasionally discovered something cool. I like to know what others are reading- especially if they seem to like something I’ve enjoyed- but it’s also very limiting. The recommendations are typically books of the same or similar genre. If they identify that I’m reading a YA fantasy, other books that are YA fantasies come up on the feed. Goodreads is a community, and there are opportunities to join groups and engage others in discussion, but that’s different. What I’m specifically talking about is the computer controlled portion of these sites.
I couldn’t even give you an exact figure of how many books are in print, but chances are, most of them are available online from Amazon. They have something around 15 million titles to purchase which is vast and a bit overwhelming, so they try to narrow your focus to something they think you’ll like. Nothing wrong with that, but it comes back to the question how do we know what we don’t know? We don’t- just as we don’t know about all the books that are out there that we might like to read but won’t unless we discover them somehow, and a computer can only go so far to help us do that.
Human interaction is still the best way to weed our way through all of the millions of books out there and find exactly the right book for ourselves or for whoever we are purchasing for. A knowledgeable bookseller/librarian knows exactly the right questions to ask you, and can find that hidden gem for you. And if you visit frequently, over time, they might even have books already in mind that they want to share with you! We hear tons about blockbuster authors & bestsellers. My Twitter feed is inundated with information about the new Harper Lee, Stephen King or James Patterson, or the surprise hit that everybody is reading for book club, but my reading tastes do not fit into a narrow little box. Just because I enjoy horror doesn’t mean that I only want to read horror. And just because I liked Gone Girl doesn’t mean I’m only interested in authors who write thrillers.
If we are indeed in a “golden age” of publishing and storytelling as experts proclaim, then the next time you’re wondering what to read next, don’t ask Amazon. Instead, try visiting your local bookstore/library and asking for a recommendation. You might just be amazed at what you end up with!