By Rob Blackwell
With some fanfare and a cross-promotional relationship with USA Today, three publishing firms unveiled their long-awaited new book recommendation site, Bookish, late Monday.
The site is designed to serve as an “all-in-one website that uses proprietary technology” to help readers find their next book. It will sell some books, while also allowing readers to find most others at the retailer of their choice.
It includes a smattering of articles from established authors, including a rather brilliant take-down of Philip Roth by Elizabeth Gilbert, and a few exclusives like funny reviews of bestsellers from The Onion.
But its primary purpose is to serve as a recommendation engine. To that end, it features a well-designed and prominently displayed place where you plug in the name of a book and receive recommendations provided by “Bookish editors, authors, book editors and publishers.”
For example, if you enter 11/22/63 by Stephen King, the site recommends Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, The Legend of the Broken by Caleb Carr, and Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton.
The site is in its early days, but it looks good and promises quite a bit. It has a quarter of a million books in its database and pledges that its recommendations are “editorially independent” from the publishers that set up the site.
“The Bookish team reads non-stop, continuously enhancing recommendations with its analysis and intelligence,” the site says.
That may well be true, but what the Bookish team apparently doesn’t do—at least for now—is read indie authors.
My experiment started innocently enough. I input my first novel, A Soul to Steal, into the recommendation engine to see if it would pop up. It didn’t. This isn’t a great surprise. Although the novel has sold several thousand copies, it’s not a runaway bestseller.
But it got me thinking whether there were any indie titles in the database at all.
From there, I started to broaden my search. I tried Hugh Howey’s Wool, an incredibly successful sci-fi indie book that has been optioned for a film by famed director Ridley Scott. Not there.
How about CJ Lyons’ books? Her series of thrillers have sold more than a million copies and are frequently at the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists. I tested several, including Snake Skin, Blood Stained, and Black Sheep, without finding a trace of her.
A look at Amazon’s current bestseller list finds several indie books that don’t seem to exist on Bookish. The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden by Jessica Sorensen has been in the Top 100 for the past 55 days and has attracted nearly 2,500 reviews on Amazon, yet Bookish has never heard of it.
Wait for Me by Elisabeth Naughton, which is currently #3 in the Kindle store and has been a Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Indie Reader bestseller, isn’t there either.
Anyone notice a pattern? While it’s possible that the site is just too new to include these books, it’s funny how the other bestsellers on Amazon’s list, including Safe Haven, American Sniper, and Gone Girl—all of which are traditionally published—are included. (Some books published by Amazon’s imprints, like Montlake Romance, also appear to be missing, though others are included.)
It raises the question of whether Bookish is purposely excluding indie books. Maybe we should expect no different from a site founded by Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster. Traditional publishers generally see indie books as a threat to their business model, and beneath their notice unless they become a national bestseller.
But if the site is going to tout its “editorial independence,” I think it’s worth questioning what exactly its motivations are. If the point is to introduce readers to new books, it seems that excluding authors like Lyons and bestsellers like Wait for Me does not serve that purpose.
I’m not saying the database needs to include my books or every indie book ever published (that could get crazy very quickly). But I am suggesting a book recommendation site that treats certain novels as invisible because of the manner in which they were published is of dubious value.
In fact, you could argue this whole endeavor is a day late and a dollar short. There are already plenty of book recommendation sites, such as Goodreads, Amazon’s Shelfari or Indie Reader, and all of these include indie books (with the latter being dedicated to them.) What precisely is Bookish bringing to the table?
Beyond an attractive interface and the vague promise of a “proprietary technology,” one that apparently can’t see bestsellers if they aren’t published by a big name publishing house, it’s not clear.
Overall, it seems unlikely that readers who devour Stephen King are looking for a recommendation of the latest James Patterson novel. We can find him easily enough on our own.
What I want to discover are the authors I don’t know yet, but whose work I’m liable to enjoy. In its current form, whether because of flaws in its database or purposeful exclusion, Bookish isn’t poised to help me find them.
UPDATE 2/6/13, 6:08 pm est: Bookish e-mailed Indie Reader to clarify that, “While it is true that we work with all of the major publishers”, they “are very much interested in broadening the Bookish catalog with titles from all publishers.”