Bookish: What it Isn't [Weekly Rant #1]

OK, so first off, for anyone who saw my little Facebook hissy fit last night about Bookish, I apologize. I may have overstated things a bit (yeah, I know that totally doesn’t sound like me), and jumped the gun a bit on some of my insults.

That said, and before I get more fully into the Bookish conundrum, a few of the things I posted last night remain true:

  • This list of books about “Rock Fame and Fandom” completely blows. Not only is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity #1 on the list (PREDICTABLE, SO UTTERLY PREDICTABLE AND LAME), but the edition referenced is the “Movie Tie-In Version.” (PUKE.) Also, of the four other books on this list, one is by Bob Dylan, another by J-Franz. (I promise that part of my reaction to the lameness of this list will make more sense below.)
  • The fact that there’s an ad for Total Frat Move on Bookish, pretty much eliminates about 85% of its credibility. Sure, it’s there because TFM is published by one of the publishers putting up the money for this site—an issue I’m going to get into below. Putting that aside, it’s not very reassuring that a site billing itself as the “next great book discovery site” believes that writing like this is worth sharing with the general public:

When I was growing up my dad always told me, “Townes, college will be the best four years of your life.” He was rarely wrong about anything, so I couldn’t have been more excited to head off to school. High school was the minor leagues, and I was ready for the big show. Ready to walk onto the field under the lights, throw up on home plate, kick the catcher in the balls, and charge the mound.

  • I’ve been sending Bookish copies of all Open Letter books for years (at their request, mind you), and only some of them are indexed on the site. Last night, I happened to choose the ones that weren’t there, and just wanted to take a second to say that yes, My Two Worlds has a Bookish page, as does Vilnius Poker. (Please note that the translators are not listed on these pages. That’ll come up in a minute as well.)

By this point in time, a good number of you are wondering, Just what the hell is Bookish, and why is Chad being such a douche?

Basically, Bookish is supposed to be the “Next Big Thing” allowing readers—especially those who don’t go to bookstores or talk to people—to find out what books they should buy and read. And basically, after years of waiting for Bookish to come out, I’m extremely disappointed. And I’ve yet to learn how to express my disappointment in mature ways.

But let’s start at the beginning . . . Or rather, let’s start with this PW article about Bookish’s launch:

After three CEOs and a number of delays, Bookish launched at 9 p.m. Monday with approximately 2 million ISBNs from 19 publishers and a search recommendation function that its founders hope will make it easier for consumers to discover books. To help draw traffic to the Web site, Bookish will feature exclusive content about books and authors and will work with USA Today to integrate Bookish into the newspaper’s book page site.

That’s quite an opening paragraph—one that opens up a ton of things to pick apart. Let’s start with that “three CEOs and a number of delays” statement.

I’m trying to remember when I first heard about Bookish. I’m guessing it was around the time that the New York Times ran this article about a new “One Stop” Book Site—May 6, 2011. From the article:

Publishers have spent a lot of time and money building their own company Web sites with fresh information on their books and authors. The trouble is, very few book buyers visit them.

In search of an alternative, three major publishers said on Friday that they would create a new venture, called Bookish.com, which is expected to make its debut late this summer. The site intends to provide information for all things literary: suggestions on what books to buy, reviews of books, excerpts from books and news about authors. Visitors will also be able to buy books directly from the site or from other retailers and write recommendations and reviews for other readers.

The publishers — Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group USA and Hachette Book Group — hope the site will become a catch-all destination for readers in the way that music lovers visit Pitchfork.com for reviews and information. [. . .]

“There’s a frustration with book consumers that there’s no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors,” said Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “We need to try to recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment, but which we don’t believe is currently happening online.”

First off, who is this ridiculous reader who can’t find the “one-stop shopping” website named Amazon.com where they can find information about books and authors? Has Carolyn Reidy ever talked to this “book consumer”? I’m going to guess this is another instance of a publisher “knowing” what its readers want. (SPOILER! They rarely ever do.)

Instead of making fun of the fact that, as Reidy describes it, this site is 100% redundant and unnecessary, I want to riff on the part that I think is interesting: “The publishers hope the site will become a catch-all destination for readers in the way that music lovers visit Pitchfork.com.”

Once again, not to make fun of corporate CEOs and shills, but Jesus fuck is it clear that the people behind Bookish have never visited Pitchfork.com. And that’s the real tragedy that’s driving my piss-offedness.

For better or worse—better because it has an editorial voice, worse because 75% of the music criticism is poorly written—Pitchfork is an incredibly influential site for people interested in “contemporary music” (loosely defined). It is a place that a lot of music connoisseurs visit on a regular basis.

Why? Well, there is the news section, which, due to Pitchfork’s popularity and influence, has become one of the best outlets for bands to release information. But it’s my belief that most everyone comes there to read (and internally argue with) the daily reviews.

Every day of the week (more of less), Pitchfork reviews 5 albums, ranging in musical style from death metal to dubstep to indie rock to dancetronica. (Or whatever.) The point is that taken as a whole, these 25 reviews a week are a decent starting point for finding out what albums have just come out and whether or not they’re worth checking out.

A key feature of these reviews is the 10-point grading system. It can be useful, illuminating, and infuriating, but it does provide a snapshot of what a particular review/editorial source thinks of a certain album. For instance, so far this week, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down received a 7.5 for “We the Common,” Lightning Swords of Death received a 7.8 for “Baphometic Chaosium,” and The History of Apple Pie received a semi-dismissive 6.7 for “Out of View.”

Obviously, these numbers are subjective, and readers will often disagree (seriously, the Thao album is much better than that, and the 8.4 for Foxygen’s new album is ridiculous—the first is way better, and neither is all that interesting), but it’s a representative of a particular “taste-making voice.” Read it long enough and you’ll know what makes a Pitchfork album and what doesn’t. Of course they love Local Natives and find Buke & Gase a bit confusing. The point is, a huge group of music listeners go there to find out what albums are coming out and how this website assesses them.

What people don’t go to pitchfork for: to buy albums, add them to their “listened to!” shelves, or rate them. And that’s fine. This is a more traditional “discovery” site in that it represents a particular point of view, and offers guidance by evaluating products.

When I first heard about Bookish, the word on the street was that it would be a “Pitchfork for Books.” (See this post on Melville House that echos this belief.) I believed/hoped that this would be a site in which 3-5 books from a dozen different categories (fiction, business books, sci-fi, health, etc.) would be reviewed on a daily basis. That it would serve that critical “discovery” function in which readers (especially those not reading best-sellers) could find out what’s coming out and if they should seek it out.

THAT would be extremely valuable to readers, and would have the potential to become a “taste-making” book site that is respected by a wide range of readers. A site that could take over for the loss of newspaper reviews and position itself as more reputable than most blogs. Also, by actually focusing on books instead of publishing news or gossip, it would be pretty damn unique. Something for readers, not just insiders.

But that sort of book discovery isn’t sexy anymore. The Age of Screens is also the Age of Big Data. An editorial vision has been replaced by an algorithm. Why hire 20 editors to curate reviews and cultivate a reading community when you can get readers to piss away spend their time entering in gobs of information about which books they’ve read, bought, and liked, and then crunch that data and recommend that the next book they read is Hunger Games?

(My luddite tendencies are at full-force today.)

Looking at Bookish, it’s clear that it’s definitely NOT the Pitchfork for books. Before getting into what it is, I need to explain a bit more about why it WOULD NEVER be the Pitchfork for books. And why it’s kind of evil.

First off, this site (and it’s rather corporate, lame name) is funded by Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Hachette—three of the largest publishers in the country. (Especially if you consider Penguin being Penguin + Random House.) Can corporate publishers really ever be the “taste-makers” in the sense that Pitchfork is? Absolutely not. In fact, no publisher can/should. An independent group of smart readers evaluating all the books coming out and highlighting ones from commercial, indie, and university presses can have an editorial vision that gets passed along to readers. And even if Bookish has a separate staff, its editorial objectivity has already been compromised.

(Note that on the opening page of Bookish, you’ll find the tagline “We Know Books” above images of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. “We Know Certain Books” is a much more accurate statement.)

Secondly, a site that is aiming to sell books and feature advertising (mostly from it’s partent publishing companies), isn’t exactly in it to help readers . . . Or at least that’s not their only motive. Go back to Reidy’s seeming ignorance of that small start-up Amazon.com. Is that maybe intentional? It seems possible that these three publishers are thinking they could create their own Amazon, thus bringing them more profits and giving them more control over the way the books are presented and promoted.

Or MAYBE this is a way for the big presses to help out struggling independent bookstores? That would be pretty cool, since IndieBound kind of sucks, as do most indie store websites. From PW:

Any title bought directly from Bookish will be fulfilled by Baker & Taylor, which is also setting the price for the titles.

GodDAMN IT. Never mind. I should’ve known better than to think that a) this would be useful and cool and b) that it would be about more than just creating leverage for dealing with Amazon.

So what exactly is Bookish? Well, first and foremost, it’s a database of authors and titles that you can look at. PW again:

There are about 400,000 author profile pages as well as title pages for all books on the site and Bookish allows consumers to search for books in 18 major categories. Reviews from PW are also featured and customers can add reviews and rate titles as well. [. . .] In addition to titles from the founding partners—Penguin Group USA, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster—Bookish includes titles from 16 other publishers, a list that comprises the three other big six houses plus companies that range from Abrams to Workman as well as Perseus and all its distribution clients and the clients of IPG.

If you’re thinking GoodReads but with fewer books and options, you’d be right.

In which case, why did it take so damn long to launch? Initially this was supposed to be live in September 2011. It is now 2013. The moment for this site happened so long ago. At one point in time, I heard that the delay was due to one of the three CEOs wanting to create their own database of titles and metadata rather than pull it from some other source. Which, great, congratu-fucking-lations. You’ve just reinvented the wheel!

The core of Bookish is going to be its recommendation algorithm. And as much as I’d like these corporate publishers to put money into creating a review website featuring real readers, I do find the principles behind algorithmic recommendation tools really fascinating. So far, this one seems fine. My Two Worlds led to recommendations of Merce Rodoreda, Cesar Aira, and Isabel Allende. (OK, so it’s not fine, but passable?)

Other features on the website include the following:

Bookish’s home page will have new content each day and the site launched with an interview between Michael Connelly and Michael Kortya, an essay from Elizabeth Gilbert, and a look at the first chapter of Harlan Coben’s upcoming thriller Six Years. Excerpts, trailers and updated news will also be featured assembled by a team of seven editors overseen by Rebecca Wright, who is executive editor.

All of which feels pretty damn blah and corporate and void of personality. Why, come to think of it, it sounds pretty much like a website version of USA Today.

Bookish is counting on lots of pre-launch SEO work to help drive traffic as well as its collaboration with USA Today, a deal that replaces Bookish’s original media partner the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. USA Today readers who click on book information on the site will be linked to Bookish and the paper will syndicate Bookish content through its site.

Oh. Yeah. That. Congrats, S&S, Hachette, and Penguin! You accomplished your goal and disenfranchised interesting, intellectual readers once again.

Finally, in summary, this site is what it is. It’s no where near the Bookish I wanted and thought I was getting, but if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that corporate media dollars don’t often go to interesting things. But it’s GoodReads for other people. And a place that corporate publishing folks can buy their books without feeling like they’re betraying their employers. Again, all I can say is congrats.

But will it succeed? God, I can’t imagine that it will. There’s a huge First Mover problem going on with this site. One reason I thought it well could have been a Pitchfork with books is because that would make it something other than Amazon or GoodReads. Instead, publishers do what publishers do—copy what’s successful and dress it up a bit. Real innovation is hard to find at this level.

The point is, why would I stop buying from Amazon (if I don’t have huge moral issues), to go to Bookish? Why would I stop updating the GoodReads account I’ve been using for years to try and recreate it on Bookish?

Remember Riffle? Remember Google+? They both faced similar issues, and neither really overcame it. What I don’t understand is why these companies don’t get that. Create something actually new and you’ll get what you want. Improve slightly on what people are already sort of, pretty much satisfied with, and they’ll ignore you.

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