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As the publishing industry migrates to e-books and the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores continues to shrink, many readers are turning to social networks and online retailers for reading recommendations. But can these digital tools ever really replicate the serendipity of stumbling across a new author in a book store? We explore how technology is changing the way we discover new authors.
- Peter Hildick-Smith Founder and CEO, Codex Group LLC
- Neil Baptista CEO and Co-founder, Odyl
- Mark Athitakis Book Critic; Author
- Patrick Brown Director of Author Marketing, Goodreads
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. More Americans than ever are shopping online and reading books on e-readers, but we're still discovering our books through other methods: word of mouth, book clubs or the advice of a friendly bookstore clerk.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis Tech Tuesday, we're exploring the riddle of discoverability and serendipity in the book world. And joining us in studio is Mark Athitakis. He is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. He writes book reviews for The Washington Post, New York Times and other publications. Mark, good to see you again.
MR. MARK ATHITAKISGood afternoon. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios in New York is Peter Hildick-Smith. He is with the Codex Group, a company that conducts surveys of book buyers to figure out what they're buying and how we find it. Peter Hildick-Smith, thank you for joining us.
MR. PETER HILDICK-SMITHThanks very much. Great to be here.
NNAMDIWith Peter in that studio is Neil Baptista. He is CEO and co-founder of Odyl. That's a company that connects authors with readers. They own and operate a program called Riffle designed to help readers discover new books. Neil, thank you.
MR. NEIL BAPTISTAThanks for having me.
NNAMDIPatrick Brown is there too. He is director of author marketing for Goodreads, which calls itself the world's largest site for readers and book recommendations. Patrick Brown, thank you for joining us.
MR. PATRICK BROWNGood to be here. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIIf you would like to join this conversation, you can give us a call, 800-433-8850. If you are an avid reader, how do you discover new authors? 800-433-8850. In many ways, we're living in a kind of renaissance age for book buying and reading in this country, Patrick. In 1950, American publishers put out 11,000 books. In 2011, they put out 340,000. When I ride the Metro, I see people of all stripes reading old-school books and e-readers.
NNAMDIThe people at Pew Internet and Society say the average American reads six books a year, which is actually not that bad. But there are also alarming trends on the horizon like the demise of independent bookstores and the decline of major retailers that is -- that are in brick-and-mortar stores. Is the glass half-full or half-empty for readers? Patrick, as I said, I'd start with you, but I'd like everyone else to weigh in on that. Patrick?
BROWNSure. I think it's half-full. You know, as you said, I think this is kind of -- in terms of selection, there's never been a better time. You can get literally any book that's -- just about any book that's ever existed in your possession within a minute and start reading it, which I think is an incredible thing for readers. You know, as you mentioned, there are certain challenges that readers are facing and that especially authors and publishers are facing.
BROWNMore books than ever in the marketplace. Obviously, self-publishing is driving a lot of that growth and the explosion of new titles every year. And then the, you know, the decline of brick-and-mortar book selling. And to an extent, the shrinking of editorial coverage of books in newspapers and magazines as well means that there are fewer places out in the physical world to see a book and experience it.
BROWNSo Goodreads is really trying to close that, what we call the discovery gap, trying to sort of recreate the serendipitous experience of finding that next great book that some people have had in a bookstore. And, you know, we think that tends to happen through seeing what your friends are reading and that friends really give you the best book recommendations. So, you know -- and tools like ours and Riffle, and there's a variety of other discovery tools out there.
BROWNI mean, I think that's another reason why it's a golden age, that you've never been able to see so clearly what other people are reading and hear what they think about it, which is a great thing for readers.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Neil?
BAPTISTAWell, I think to touch on what Patrick has said, the ubiquity of online social networks -- whether they be Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, Google Plus, et cetera, have actually extended the amount of people that you can influence.
BAPTISTASo whereas you may have recommended a book to just a, you know, a couple of friends who came by your place and saw a book on your bookshelf, now if you -- if you're passionate about reading or you're passionate about a book, you can actually extend your reach well into hundreds or sometimes even thousands of people, depending on how big an influence you have. So, you know, what our focus is is really to unlock the passion of people who love books.
BAPTISTAAnd, you know, we talk a lot to librarians, to booksellers, to publishers, authors, book critics, and we're trying to connect that passion through these social networks to really expand how many people read.
HILDICK-SMITHI would say partly half-empty. We do some work with the National Endowment for the Arts, which also tracks book reading in the United States. And from their work, the most recent study for public participation in the arts, about one in five American adults is a regular book reader -- in other words, reading 12 or more books in the past year. So we're really dealing with a relatively small group, which would love to see many more people reading many more books.
HILDICK-SMITHAnd up until the most recent study, those trends were sort of declining as well. We've also seen, as Patrick mentioned, a growing discovery gap and specifically what we call directed discovery, discovery where a publisher or an author are purposefully trying to get their book discovered. And what takes the place of that is more random discovery, people just talking to each other casually, face to face. You know, it's a good social discussion about what you've been reading and what you like.
HILDICK-SMITHBut that means fewer authors and fewer publishers are able to actually get their new works directed to the audience that they want. And so a lot of the work that Neil and Patrick's companies are doing is doing a great job of trying to fill that gap, which has been increasing with the decline of physical bookstores, which are pretty much the best source for new book discovery, still, in the marketplace.
ATHITAKISIt's certainly a challenging time, and I think there, as the other guests have said, there are many more books in the marketplace. And the upside is that there are more opportunities to talk about books, to learn about books, to converse with a lot of people who are like-minded. It used to be the sole province of the bookseller and the established literary critic in the newspaper that were sort of the gatekeepers or the trusted authorities.
ATHITAKISBut I think there's a trust problem that needs to be addressed. In some ways, when you go to these sites, who is giving you a recommendation? Is it somebody that was given something by a publisher and was encouraged to recommend it? Is it a website that was put together in part by a publisher? There's been some controversies about, you know, reviews on Amazon being bought and sold, and I know they've done some things to help countermand that.
ATHITAKISBut, you know, this becomes a real issue for the book consumer. You know, who do you want to listen to when you want to find out what you wanna read?
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on book buying in the digital age, a conversation we're inviting you to take part in by calling 800-433-8850. How did you come to pick up your favorite book? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Mark, we heard Peter talking about the challenge confronting readers, authors and publishers as to how do you help the first two readers and authors find each other.
NNAMDIWhat do we know about how Americans find books? And it seems that, increasingly, the authors are taking on the responsibility of finding the readers themselves.
ATHITAKISAnd I think that the authors are really encouraged to. I know that publishers have cut back on their publicity budgets, and they've been told that what you need to do is to establish a brand for yourself. And that's interesting in some ways for publishers because it can help get new books out there. But I wonder what it does in some ways to the backlist, where you have authors who are either not around anymore or not necessarily engaged with the business of selling books.
ATHITAKISSo we're seeing a marketplace that really is much more focused on the new, perhaps, than it is on having a more broad conversation about literary culture.
NNAMDINeil, what do we know about how Americans find books?
BAPTISTAWell, you know, we do a lot of -- we did a lot of research and a lot of surveys, and, you know, definitely Peter's company has put out a lot of research showing that, primarily, the number one place that people still get a book recommendation is from a friend or at a local bookstore, and, you know, we were trying to take that into online networks. And there haven't -- I mean, there's been definitely some success. You know, Goodreads is a good example. And people wanna talk about books online, but we think that there's a step further that we can take it.
NNAMDIPeter, as Neil just mentioned, you've amassed a lot of data from book buyers about where people are getting information, how they're making decisions about which books to buy. One thing that sticks out is how enduring old models of sharing tend to be and how limited things like social media are in terms of new moving books. Can you please be a little more expansive about what you found?
HILDICK-SMITHYeah. I mean, after we looked at what people are using as their sources for discovering the book they bought last beyond stores, beyond talking to their friends, the next most important part is really through general publicity, through interviews, news and reviews. That still remains a very important part of discovery across a wide range of book categories. And, of course, each category behaves differently, and each age of book reader has different preferences.
HILDICK-SMITHSo younger readers are gonna be more responsive to social media. Older book buyers are less responsive to that. Author marketing, where the author has an audience, where they have a brand, if you will, is a very powerful source because those people are looking for new works from their favorite writers. And, in fact, when presented with the opportunity, they are reading the backlist, but the author has to have an audience there for that to really begin to take hold.
HILDICK-SMITHDigital discovery has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last five years as we've seen the growth of the reading devices like the Nook and Kindle and the tablets. And so, right now, I'd say about maybe one in five new books bought last were discovered through some form of digital discovery.
HILDICK-SMITHWhether it's through Goodreads, whether it's through an e-tailer, whether it's through the new trend is much more around these new promotional sites where books are deeply discounted, you know, 99 cents for a day. The daily deal, daily steal programs captures a lot of people's imagination and engagement as well.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Michelle in Alexandria, Va., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHELLEThank you so much. I just wanna say I'm a huge fan of Goodreads. Basically, I use it more than Facebook. But I had heard recently that Amazon has bought Goodreads. And so, right now, there's a lot of different options of where you can get a copy of a book on the Goodreads like book site. And so I was wondering if, in the future, those -- all those different options will go away in lieu of just like Amazon.
NNAMDIThank you for asking that question. Patrick, Goodreads is a very large player in this field, with 16 million users. Even as you answer Michelle's question, for those who are not among them, tell them how the site works.
BROWNSure. We're actually at 20 million members now. We just passed that milestone last week, so it's an exciting time for...
NNAMDISorry. I stopped paying attention for 10 minutes.
BROWN(laugh) No. Yeah. I know, exactly. It's a rapid growth. Got to keep up with it. So, first, I'll sort of just give you the thumbnail sketch of what Goodreads is. I mean, our idea is that you get the best book recommendations from friends. So it's very much a social network where you can talk about what you're reading, recommend books to other people, join online book clubs and share quotes from your favorite authors, follow your favorite authors.
BROWNAnd then we also have an algorithmic recommendation engine that looks at 20 billion data points across the entire site to try to recommend surprising and hopefully delightful books to you that you didn't already know about. Michelle's referring to on our book pages. So if you search for a book on Goodreads and you land on a book page, you'll see, you know, a cover image of the book and bibliographic info about it, the title, author, description, et cetera.
BROWNAnd then you'll see reviews from Goodreads members. There's also links there to a variety of retailers and also libraries where our members can click off to acquire a copy of that book if they don't already have it. We have no plans to change that in the future. You know, we're -- we feel very strongly that our site can really only be successful if it's a welcoming place to all kinds of readers regardless of how you're reading your books, whether that's on an e-book platform or a physical book, audio books, et cetera.
BROWNWe've got to be a place that welcomes everyone. I mean, if you think about a social network, you wouldn't wanna join a social network that's about something like books if you couldn't talk to all the people you wanna talk to about those books. So limiting it would really be a hindrance to our site in general and obviously not a great service to our community. So there are no plans to change that, and we very much wanna embrace all kinds of readers on Goodreads.
NNAMDIWell, I guess that'll assure some people because we've been hearing from independent book sellers locally that their customers who use Goodreads were upset over the acquisition by Amazon. But they doubted that many would actually leave the site. Neil, Odyl has built a number of products and platforms that connect authors and would-be readers. I've heard it heralded as the Pinterest of book discovery. How does Riffle work?
BAPTISTAWell, I think that the comparison to Pinterest has a lot to do with the visual aspect of our interface. When you come in to Riffle, you follow -- similar to Pinterest or Twitter -- a set of experts and friends, and the book recommendations come up in a tiled form. So the interface is very light, very visual. And we've taken a very simple model. We're going a little bit what we called beyond social.
BAPTISTASo definitely, for, you know, for a lot of people, friends are a good place for recommendations. But we found that for avid readers, you know, people who are reading more than 10 books a year, they actually look more to other sources. You know, they look to awards lists and professional reviews and experts, more or less, because they've read more than the rest of their friends. So our take is to go beyond social and provide a, you know, a set of editorial content to combine with the social recommendations.
NNAMDIGonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on book buying in the digital age. But if you have questions or comments -- have you found a website whose recommendations you really trust? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on book buying in the digital age with Patrick Brown, director of author marketing with Goodread -- Goodreads, calls itself the world's largest site for readers and book recommendations. Neil Baptista, CEO and co-founder of Odyl, a company that connects authors with readers that owns and operates a program called Riffle, designed to help readers discover new books.
NNAMDIPeter Hildick-Smith is with the Codex Group, a company that conducts surveys of book buyers to figure out what we're buying and how we find it. And Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic and blogger. He serves on the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. He writes books reviews for The Washington Post, New York Times and other publications. Mark, when I think back to books that are most meaningful to me, very few of them came on to my radar through a predictable path.
NNAMDIMaybe a friend gave it to me when they were done with it, or maybe I read an interesting review in the newspaper, or maybe I just picked up the title on when I was wandering through a bookstore because the cover caught my eye. However it happened, the really great books seemed to have come to me through a kind of serendipity. Can a website or a recommendation engine ever really replicate that?
ATHITAKISI have never myself had that experience. I'm sure that other people have. But I will say that, you know, I think it's a function of well you use your networks. I think to a situation and my personal experience where, you know, in the past year, I've gotten this critical mass of people who I know and who I trust on Twitter who have been recommending a novel called "Stoner" by John Williams, which was published in 1965, but it's had this remarkable revival, and people keep talking about it.
ATHITAKISAnd it's gotten to the point where I feel like I'm a bad citizen for not having read this book. (laugh) But, you know, that's a function of me spending a couple of years on Twitter, getting to know people who I respect and who I trust and who I get to know. So, you know, I think there is a way to kind of rebuild that sort of experience of being surprised and getting an invitation to read a book from somebody. It can happen online. I'm just not necessarily convinced in my experience that an algorithm can do it.
NNAMDIHow about you, Peter Hildick-Smith? Think an algorithm can do that?
HILDICK-SMITHWell, what we're seeing with the online book selling sites, for the most part, is their share of new book discovery, in other words, how many people are learning about new books through those sites, hasn't really changed much in the last three years in spite of the fact that the number of book readers owning e-readers, tablets, reading on their smartphones has just absolutely exploded. It's been remarkably stable between sort of six and 8 percent of book discovery.
HILDICK-SMITHAnd so it seems like for all the additional traffic and all the additional usage of those sites, they haven't been able to broaden the horizons very successfully. And that's where some of these other new platforms, I think, become more and more critical. But when we look at when people go to a bookstore versus an e-book store, we see a very different set of intense. You tend to go to a physical bookstore with an open mind to discover new things that you hadn't expected.
HILDICK-SMITHYou tend to go to an e-book store with a plan. You've already got your shopping list made out. And so it's a very different kind of relationship between those different -- two different ways of getting books.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We go to Yael (sp?) in Hyattsville, Md. Yael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
YAELHi. It's actually Yael, but thank you though.
NNAMDIYael, thank you.
YAELHi. Love your show. I am married to somebody who works with you, Kojo. You might know him, Jonathan Charry, who's written a book called "Father's Have Big Hands." And we...
NNAMDIIf I did know him, you wouldn't be hearing me right now. (laugh) You would cut me off.
NNAMDIHe is our engineer, yes.
YAELAnyway, at the risk of nepotism here, I really need some advice on how to market his book, how to get it noticed. We went...
NNAMDIThe children's book that Jonathan has written, yes.
YAELYeah, yeah. We went through AuthorHouse, an indie publishing company. And unless you have like mega bucks to buy their promotional package, it's -- we've been having a hard time. We sold our initial run of about 150 books, but we still have about 100 books sitting in my very crowded study and wondering how to move those.
ATHITAKISIt's certainly not something that's within my area of expertise, but I think this speaks back to the issue of the authors having -- especially if it's a self-published AuthorHouse-type book, really happen to take that into their own hands. I think, you know, you have the benefit of being in the D.C. area, of being able to maybe hand-sell that at events or festivals 'cause you're not going to be in the physical book stores.
ATHITAKISBut I think that speaks to the importance of also getting online and marketing and finding the audience that's appropriate for the book that you've written and do your best to identify those people and get that book into their hands.
NNAMDIYael, thank you very much for your call. How old are your twins now?
YAELThey're 9 1/2. How old are yours?
NNAMDIThey're 41. Tell our...
YAELForty-one, oh my gosh.
NNAMDITell our listeners what was one of the first words your twins said.
YAELThey're like, Kojo, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you very much.
NNAMDIWe move on to our next caller, Lorie (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Lorie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LORIEI started a book club back in 1996 with the ladies in the neighborhood, and this has been going strong ever since. And it was pretty much up to me to kind of pick the books. All these guys -- the other ladies is about what book might be a good book to read, and I've been doing that faithfully all these years. But I'm poor, so I can't buy books. And we like to use the library, and it is so hard to get an e-book through my library. I live in Fairfax County.
LORIEAnd they send you to these sites, and it is like pulling teeth to get an e-book onto my Kindle, and it keeps flashing up, well, why don't you just buy, just buy, and all these things interrupt what you're trying to do. I'm very frustrated.
NNAMDIWell, I don't know -- I didn't realize that was a problem because when we have had the head of the D.C. libraries on here, she has talked about how increasingly people are borrowing e-books from the library. Are you aware of that as a problem, Peter Hildick-Smith?
HILDICK-SMITHI think it just depends on each of the library systems, and whether they're participating with a different e-book lending programs like OverDrive or 3M. They're certainly out there. I think it's just the case-by-case, system-by-system question.
NNAMDIYou got to work more diligently, I suspect, with your library system, Lorie. Keep them on their toes. If you like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email with your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. What would you like to know about books or authors that online sites are not telling you? 800-433-8850. Neil, as we mentioned earlier, what should I read next? It seems like a straightforward question. Why does it pose such a complex technological challenge?
BAPTISTAWell, I think there's a complex set of influencers that come into play when you're actually making that decision. You know, it's -- a lot of it is based on what you've ready already. I think the -- one of the biggest indicators may be authors that you've read. That's where people turn to first. And then from there, a lot of it depends on, you know, what you're into at any given moment. And that's one of the things that's a little bit harder for -- going back to the talk about algorithms.
BAPTISTAIt's a little bit harder for algorithms to adapt to because a book that you liked when you were 16 will affect what the algorithm chooses for, you know, for your next book. So, you know, we've decided to turn to different sets of influencers. We look at the people that are in your network, people you follow on Twitter, friends you have on Facebook, and we combine that, as I said, with editorial content that's really somewhat tied to the Zeitgeist.
BAPTISTAWe do booklists. You know, for instance, last week, we had a booklist that was called By George, it's a Boy: Eight Babies Named George who Changed Your World. And there was a bunch of books with either authors or characters that had George in them. And that did very well because I think it tied to, you know, something that people are interested in at the moment.
NNAMDIPatrick, same question to you.
BROWNYeah. I think, you know, the -- one of the that our algorithm does that's kind of unique is, it's based on taste, so it's not based on what you have bought in the past. We'd look at, you know, for each book, not only how you've rated it and how you've shelved it. So on good reads, you can create custom shelves. I have a shelf called Campus Lit for books that take place on, you know, college campuses or boarding schools, that sort of thing.
BROWNAnd it will look at, you know, not only how I've shelved that book and rated it and what other books I've shelved and rated on that same shelf, but it will look at if other people have also shelved the two books in a similar manner. And it does this across 20 million members and all these different titles to try to produce some fairly surprising results. So I think it -- you're able to kind of break out and get recommendations, shelf by shelf.
BROWNAnd we tried to do some smart things like get rid of authors that you've already read because I think that is a huge thing that, you know, readers already know, books from those authors. If they've enjoyed that author, they're gonna -- there are various ways of knowing that another book from that author is coming. We don't need to use the recommendation engine to tell them that. So we're really trying to hit those kinds of surprising books there.
BROWNNow, I think it’s a real challenge because you often -- sometimes people wanna kind of binge read, right? They want to read the same thing over and over and over again, but that's not always the case.
BROWNYou might say, well, I just read a great novel, and now I wanna read some topical non-fiction. It's very difficult for an algorithm to actually know that. So we kind of put the recommendations out there on a constant ongoing basis and kind of leave it to you to choose, you know, which one am I gonna go to next. And I think readers have their own systems for kind of determining what's coming next for them.
NNAMDINeil, most of these digital tools have a social media component to them. Do they function as a kind of online virtual book club in some respects?
BAPTISTAYeah, definitely. I think that if you're interested in reading things at the same time as other people around you, that's the easiest way to do it. You know, the book club effect, the discussions are a big driver. We find that lots of readers want to -- they express themselves through their opinions about what they read. So I think that we're spending a lot more time online, and definitely, that's a byproduct of it.
NNAMDIMark, as someone who reviews books professionally, how would you assess the technology that's available to readers and these different attempts to predict what we'd like through algorithms, and where do you find your books?
ATHITAKISWell, often through my mail because I am blessed to be one of those people who gets to review books for a living. So in some ways, I'm a little bit of an outlier. But, you know, part of me feels that I think when we talk about these social networking sites, people are pretty smart and pretty capable of identifying what works for them within it.
ATHITAKISSo it may be that if you don't necessarily like the Goodreads algorithm per se, you may be able to find a peer group within there whose reviews that you respect. So even if it's not necessarily the intention of a particular website to, you know, to give you that social network, but you'll still find a way to find a peer group that, you know, you can work with.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here now, Robert in Millersville, Md. Hi, Robert.
ROBERTHi. I love your show. I listen to it every day on the way home.
ROBERTBut I just finished a book called "Supporting and Educating Traumatized Children," out of Oxford University Press. And I've been having a problem because it's a crossover book. It's really for teachers, but it's got more of a mental health component of what people can do. And I didn't know where a good place to have it reviewed or publicly put out there would be, and I hope you had some suggestions for me.
NNAMDII'll start with you, Mark Athitakis.
ATHITAKISTo publish a review of it? I wanna make sure I understand the question.
ROBERTWell, it's gotten great sales, but I think it could get a lot better if it got into the right hands. And I think the problem is because it's a mental health support book, but it's for teachers, not mental health providers, I was just wondering where would be the best place to maybe, you know, get some publicity for it.
NNAMDIRobert, we're spending a whole hour on this show trying to figure that out, even as we speak.
ROBERTI know. That's why I called.
ROBERTThat's why I figure, those guys know. Let me call them.
ATHITAKISWell, it strikes me that this is sort of the benefit of the long tail era, that everything has a niche, and there's probably niche websites that are dedicated to this specific subject matter. So, you know, meeting that audience where they already are seems to be the best strategy for something like that.
NNAMDIAnyone else with a suggestion for Robert?
BROWNI actually, you know, one of the things that we recommend to authors on Goodreads is getting your book directly to readers. So having somebody like Mark review it in a publication would be incredible, and that would definitely help your sales and help drive awareness of that book. But increasingly, publishers and authors are kind of going directly to readers, and especially even before the book comes out, getting them to write reviews of it and essentially start that word of mouth buzz that ends up leading to a lot of book sales.
BROWNYou know, probably the easiest tool on Goodreads for that is a giveaway, a free giveaway. So you would give away, you know, maybe five copies, maybe 10 copies of your book with the hopes that people would do two things. One is when they enter for a chance to win that book, they would add the book to their want-to-read shelf and that would go out in a newsfeed for all of their friends to see. So it creates this almost little mini advertisement for your book that their entire social circle sees.
BROWNAnd many of our members link their accounts to Facebook so that, you know, that would also go out to Facebook then as well, and that kind of further extends the reach of that. And then, you know, obviously, you're hoping that the people who win the book will write a review of it. And I think consumer reviews are actually hugely important for sales for all products, not just books. But books are no different.
BROWNSo going to a book page on a site like Amazon, one of the first things that people tend to look for is, have people written reviews of this book. And that's a big indicator of -- for whatever reason, it's a big kind of social indicator that, yes, this is a product that people are talking about. It's a product people enjoy and are using. And with books, it's especially important.
BROWNSo the giveaway sort of intended to kick start that and to get people, you know, talking about the book and reviewing it. So I would recommend doing that. It's completely free to list. The only cost is shipping out the books to the winners.
NNAMDIRobert, thank you very much for your call. We'll talk more about user reviews later in the broadcast. But first, let's go to Barbara in Burtonsville, Md. Barbara, your turn.
BARBARAHi. I enjoy your show. I'm going to say, when I was thinking about the readers I know besides myself, I only can count about six or seven that are real readers. And I know a lot of people think -- it's like a lot of people don't read. But my other comment was that two of my favorite sources is, one, Oprah's magazine. Any books that I've seen in there and I get, I've really enjoyed. She really makes good selections.
BARBARAAnd the other is Reader's Digest. They also have some book suggestions in there. Reader's Digest -- not much in Reader's Digest anymore, but their book selections are good. And then the third place, my sister gave me a Kindle for Christmas, and I do go in -- on Amazon and you can review a book before you buy it. So those are my main sources of books that I know if I get something from there, it's gonna be a book that I enjoy.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Barbara. And then we got this tweet from Nostral, (sp?) who says, "Shameful but true. I often search for books I enjoyed on Amazon, then I look at customers who bought this item, also bought." Well, if that's shameful for you, Nostral, I guess it should be shameful for me too. But it isn't because I also use that customers who also bought.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation -- Barbara, thank you for your call -- at 800-433-8850. We're gonna be taking a short break. When we come back, we'll be available for your questions or comments. So call now. How much weight do you give to online reviews that you see on websites? 800-433-8850. send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on book buying in the digital age. We're talking with Neil Baptista, CEO and co-founder of Odyl that connects -- it's a company that connects authors with readers that owns and operates a program called Riffle, designed to help readers discover new books. Patrick Brown is director of author marketing with Goodreads, which calls itself the world's largest site for readers and book recommendations.
NNAMDIPeter Hildick-Smith is with Codex Group, a company that conducts surveys of book buyers to figure out what we're buying and how we find it. And Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. He writes book reviews for The Washington Post, New York Times and other publications.
NNAMDIWhen you become deeply invested in a book, you want to share it with others. And if you suffer through a theme -- a tone you thought you'd enjoy but hated it, you might want to warn others off. But since there's accounting for taste, can user reviews be trusted, Mark?
ATHITAKISI think in the same way that I use Wikipedia for a first gloss on something, I can look at online reviews on, say, Amazon to get a general gauge of sort of just to take the temperature of what the mood is about a particular book. But, you know, I think one thing, and this may identify me as sort of an old school person, you know, there are no reviewers that I follow on Amazon as Amazon reviewers.
ATHITAKISThere's nobody on Amazon who I admire the way I might admire, say, Kathryn Schulz at New York Magazine or Daniel Mendelsohn at The New York Review of Books, people who have names attached to publications that, you know, have authority behind them. And that's not to say that there aren't blogs out there or people who are online who, you know, have opinions that I trust.
ATHITAKISIt can just be very difficult to go to Amazon and get a real gloss on things. For example, you know, not to pick on Goodreads, but when I went to the website for the novel I mentioned earlier, "Stoner," there were 985 reviews which, you know, at a glance, well, there's a lot of admiration and enthusiasm about this book. But I'm not sure who to tell, out of these 985 people, you know, who do I listen to, whose opinion really carries weight with me?
HILDICK-SMITHWell, there is a study done by a professor at Yale University a couple of years back looking at the star rating system on Amazon and what they found was that there's a tremendous amount of what we call great inflation on how people rate books. So I think it was either 4 or 4 1/2 stars with the average rating. So generally book reviewers tend to be very generous and very positive. You don't get as much of the negative reviews. And they also found that it was only when you get five stars that it really had a positive effect on the book sales.
HILDICK-SMITHThat said, when we asked book buyers in our most recent study which kind of reviewer was most influential to you, by and large, most people ranked other readers as more influential than, say, librarians or reviewers -- professional reviewers and other sources. So there does seem to be an awful lot of reader devotion to what other readers have to say.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Constance in Silver Spring, who writes, "The way I find new good books is to walk into a bookstore, pick up a book, open the book in the middle and read a page at random. This tells me more about the quality of a book than any number of reviews. How many times have you read glowing reviews of a book and when you've actually read the book, violently disagreed with the reviews?"
NNAMDI"I've gone on Amazon to see readers' reviews of a classic book only to find that the reviewers have completely missed the point of the book. Real bookstores are essential to find good books. I certainly wouldn't trust an online vendor to choose a random page for me. And I definitely don't trust jacket blurbs or on-site reviews." How do you feel about that, Patrick Brown?
BROWNWell, I mean, our approach to reviews, I think, going back to kind of what Mark was talking about early in the program about trust, sort of which review can you trust, whose review carries the most weight with you, the way that we handle that problem on Goodreads is we try to structure the site as much as we can from a social perspective.
BROWNSo on any book page on Goodreads, the first reviews you'll see are reviews from your friends, which we think you're inherently gonna trust those. You know those people. You know that they're not sort of bought and paid for shills. The second reviews you'll see are reviews from people you've chosen to follow. So that might be, you know, a book reviewer that you really admire or whose taste seems really aligned with yours, but, again, the relationship that you've opted into that you think there's a lot of value there.
BROWNAnd then after that, you see kind of the massive reviews from everybody else sorted through a proprietary algorithm. So we try to come at it from the perspective of what's important to you as a reader. Let's show you that first. So that -- yeah. When you land on the book page for "The Great Gatsby," you know, if you love that book, you may still see a one-star review of it from somebody who was forced to read it in high school and has never gotten over that and hates it. (laugh)
BROWNBut more likely, you're gonna see a bunch of reviews from your friends. And, you know, look, they may still have a variety of opinions on that book, but we're gonna show you the reviews we think are the most contextually important to you first.
NNAMDII've a friend from high school who still gotten over being forced to slot through "Moby Dick," and as...
NNAMDIHe's up. You don't wanna see a review of that book by him any place. Here's Dorothy in Frederick, Md. Dorothy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOROTHYHi, Kojo. I love your show. I think you're awesome. I have one complaint actually. I never read reviews online or even buy books online. I always go to the bookstore. And I read a lot of historical fiction, and there's never a separate section for historical fiction. I think that people that read that genre read it all the time and really like it. And I've always wondered why they don't make a separate section on it.
DOROTHYAnd I also wanted to mention, the only time I did listen to a book review and read the book because of it was NPR. Somebody recommended "Night Circus," which was an excellent book. So thanks, guys.
NNAMDIWell, Dorothy, listen to this about category. Someone I know who set up a Riffle account this morning is able to choose from the following categories: art design, business tech, children, Christian, classics, comics, graphic novels, fiction, food, cook books, green living, history, politics, home garden, memoir, biography, mind, body, spirit, mystery, thriller, suspense, non-fiction, paranormal, poetry, pop culture, romance, science fiction, fantasy, travel, world literature, young adult.
NNAMDIIt doesn't say historical fiction, Dorothy, but there are so many different categories to choose from. You add more, don't you think you get a little confused?
DOROTHYI don't think so, you know, because if you click the history section, you're gonna get biographies and non-fiction, which is also very interesting. But I think a historical fiction section would be very helpful to people that like that genre.
NNAMDIHear that, Neil?
BAPTISTAI got it. Yeah.
BAPTISTAWe get a lot of requests for, you know, space opera and very specific -- but historical fiction, definitely. I mean, it's a big enough category. We have our fiction editor actually just did a list called "Lost in Austen," essential reading for Janeites. And, you know, we try and align people with categories or genres as one vector, similar to what Goodreads does to follow. You know, you follow people who are -- whose opinions you trust as a relevant source, as the second vector.
BAPTISTAAnd, you know, I think picking up on Peter said, you know, people tend to look at other readers. But we've seen a swing back from many interviews with readers, a swing back towards something to hold on to in terms of who the source is and that a broader said of professional reviews. And, you know, more traditional media mentions still have a huge effect on what people, you know, read, and a lot of that has to do with the sort of free for all of the user-generated content.
BAPTISTAThings like that make it difficult to know who that person is and what their opinions are and what are the things they like. So people are still aligning back to more traditional media as sources.
NNAMDIDorothy, thank you for your call. We got an email from Steve in Silver Spring, who writes, "There are something unsettling about an industrial social media search engine approach to finding a good book. Isn't the opinion of crowd the lowest common denominator? Should we be aspiring to the lowest common denominator when it comes to books?" What do you say, Peter Hildick-Smith?
HILDICK-SMITHWell, I think that's part of the challenge, and it's a very rapidly evolving book marketplace. And again, as we said earlier, stores are very much a critical part of all the discovery that takes place because in many cases, you may find the book in a store.
HILDICK-SMITHThere's a phenomenon called show roaming where people discover in the store, and then they buy elsewhere online, for example. So I think it's very important that you have a lot of different ways of accessing books, and it isn't just within one particular set of algorithms, one particular very narrow cast technology, but that you can go to a lot of different places. And I think the health of the industry is very dependent on that diversity of access.
NNAMDIMark Athitakis, so we've got more authors. We've got more ways to get our hands on books but fewer physical spaces to discover them in. As the online landscape changes, what, if anything, are bookstores doing differently?
ATHITAKISI think what we've gone back to is much more of an emphasis on hand-selling. And I suspect that if you had somebody from Politics and Prose sitting here in the studio, they would tell you a great deal about what they've been doing in all sorts of different types of outreach, and that includes also being out in social media.
ATHITAKISI think a lot of independent bookstores have made it a real point to get out there and to promote the knowledge and intelligence and experience that they can bring to introducing books to readers, which I think oftentimes, you know, the early -- the big-box store 15 years ago, maybe people felt, well, I have an enormity of options when I walk into a store. But now that those big- box stores are disappearing, it's an opportunity for the smaller stores to really kind of emphasize, you know, what they can do personally for a buyer.
NNAMDIYou'll be happy to know that we got a tweet from Politics and Prose, which says, "We are not an algorithm. We're people who love books and actually read the books we recommend. Discoverability solved."
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Gayle in Rockville, Md. Gayle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GAYLEHi. One of the -- first of all, love the show, and I was really excited to hear this topic. One of the things that came up, we -- I had an app on Facebook -- or rather not I -- but I used one called "We Read Books." And it seems to be broken a lot of the time or perhaps not working with the browser I was using. And I had over 300 books that I had read listed there, a number of reviews I had written and basically kept track of what I was reading. It seems to be gone. Is there any way of getting that imported into a better app?
NNAMDII don't know. I'll just ask at random. Patrick.
BROWNWell, I mean, I'm familiar with that app. I think it may actually be gone. And unfortunately, I suspect that Gayle's data -- we would call that data in the business, you know, what you've been reading and the reviews you write -- are probably also gone, which is really a shame. One of the things that we offer on Goodreads is the ability to export your reading list and all of the reviews you've written for, you know, for all the books, including books that you have on your want-to-read shelf just because we realized that people are using us as their kind of their online library.
BROWNAnd that's very important information to them and we don't want them to ever lose that. So even though our site is, you know, completely secure, always available, always online, we want people to realize that they have an ownership over that information and that they can always kind of take it with them if they need to.
BROWNSo, you know, Gayle, I guess this is cold comfort at this point. But we have a Facebook app that works really well that can track what you read and let you write reviews and all of that. So I'd welcome you to try Goodreads and know that you would be at least be able to keep the data that you put into Goodreads' safe.
NNAMDIGayle, thank you very much for your call and good luck to you. Patrick, we got a tweet from The Russianist, who says, "How are Goodreads algorithms different from those Netflix uses to generate fairly detailed recommendations?"
BROWNThe answer to that is I don't think they're all that different. We actually acquired a company called Discovereads. There was two people who were working on the Netflix algorithm challenge actually and had placed very well on that. So I think it's a very similar philosophy to what they do. You know, I'm not very familiar with, obviously, what actually goes into the Netflix algorithm, but ours is similar in that you notice that Netflix uses a lot of traits or what librarians call appeals.
BROWNSo things like, is this movie fast-paced, does it have a female protagonist. That's something that, you know, what they're doing is trying to get at why you like'd that movie instead of just that you liked it. And our algorithm does a little bit of that as well as I was saying before. It kind of looks at why you shelved a book at certain ways. So a book like "Gone Girl," a very popular book, might be shelved by simple things like mystery, thriller, that are sort of genre based.
BROWNIt might also be more topical based, so marriage or the Midwest or depression. It might be, you know, shelved something like betrayal or a twist or something along those lines. So our algorithm tries to look at all that information and take that all into account.
NNAMDIHere's Ella in Falls Church, Va. Ella, your turn.
ELLAHi. I worked in a restaurant and bookstore called Busboys and Poets...
ELLA...at the Shirlington location, and we just opened a bookstore a few months ago. And I've heard always people calling in, saying their author is looking to get noticed. And I want to know how can I tell -- look for authors to tell my manager what authors to bring into the store 'cause we haven't had any events. And is there a website where local bookstores can find authors who are trying to promote their books to connect directly?
ATHITAKISI think that's more on the author to work with the bookstores and to get a sense also -- I think one thing that, you know, I've seen is that the bookstores here in the D.C. area, you know, that focus especially on local authors do a pretty good job of broadcasting what sort of particular interest they have. Busboys and Poets, for instance, is always very interested in books that have a social justice aspect to them. So, you know, get to know the store, I think, is really what it comes down to.
NNAMDIAnd maybe some reassurances. Ella, thank you for your call. From -- for a previous caller -- we got an email from Irene, who says, "I'm an older reader who doesn't use social networks. With fewer bookstores to go to, I've started using the books on order list on the Fairfax County Library site. Browsing through, I found no orders." And this, from Beverly in Springville, Va. Beverly, your turn. You only have less than a minute left.
BEVERLYOK. Just very quickly. I've had no problems with digital books, ordering digital books, checking out books from the Fairfax County Library. I am not using -- you had a reader before who was using a Kindle...
BEVERLY...using OverDrive. And it's great to be able to put books on hold, put them -- you can make a wish list then go back and pick them up and move them to hold. It's very convenient, and I've never had any problems with it at all.
NNAMDISalvation for the Fairfax County Library website.
BEVERLYRight. And you can buy books from them as well.
NNAMDIBeverly, thank you very much for your call. Hopefully our previous listener is still listening, but I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Patrick Brown is director of author marketing with Goodreads, which calls itself the world's largest site for readers and book recommendations. Patrick, thank you for joining us.
BROWNThanks for having me.
NNAMDINeil Baptista is CEO and co-founder of Odyl, a company that connects authors with readers. It owns and operates a program called Riffle, designed to help readers discover new books. Neil, thank you for joining us.
BAPTISTAThank you very much.
NNAMDIPeter Hildick-Smith is with Codex Group, which conducts surveys of book buyers to figure out what we're buying and how we find it. Peter, good to talk to you.
NNAMDIAnd Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. He writes reviews with -- for The Washington Post, New York Times and other publications. Mark, good to see you again.
ATHITAKISThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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