Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Asterisk behind NYPL and Bookish

Joe Regal grew up in a family that moved around. Granger, Indiana.  Lewiston, New York. Towanda, Pennsylvania. In every town there was a library, which young Joe would seek out as a haven of virtual stability. Regal remembers that in Fairfield, Connecticut, he picked up Breakfast of Champions, because the cover looked like a cereal box. He opened it and was thrilled to discover, right there on page 5, the "drawing" of an anus/asterisk. And the text of Kurt Vonnegut's novel was even more subversive than the drawing.
"Vonnegut was one of those writers who made me feel less alone.  He also made me understand that it was OK to break the rules, because often the rules were insane.  That message - captured even in the asterisk/anus drawing, though of course more deeply, richly, and powerfully in the actual writing! - meant so much to me at 13, it's hard to convey or even fully remember the totality of it.  The freedom, the sense that you could explore without fear of punishment or retribution - that's a lot of what the library meant to me as a kid.  It's easy for us to forget as adults that a book can literally save your life. Or even on a more prosaic level, if there was literally no cost to taking out a book, I could take out anything without worrying whether it was right for me. I could browse, read a bit, take it out, get bored, return it."
As an adult Joe Regal translated his passion for books to a successful career as a literary agent. He believed so deeply in Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Travelers Wife that he ignored countless rejections until he found a publisher for it. ("I do not publish science-fiction." was the complete text of one rejection.)

As an agent, Regal could see first-hand what ebooks and Amazon were doing to the ability of authors, publishers and bookstores to sustain their livelihoods. He thought about what an seller of ebooks could and should be. There should be space for curation and community. Authors should be able to connect with readers. As he talked with others about his ideas, the concept of a new kind of website for ebooks began to take shape. (I got to know Regal and his family around this time.)

A few years later, Zola Books is a reality. Initially funded by friends of Regal (including Niffenegger), Zola has recently closed a $5.1 million seed round. The round includes a variety of authors and prominent individual investors led by Charles Dolan, founder of Cablevision and HBO. Even considering the funding, Zola's ambition is breathtaking. They've built a commerce platform like, a social platform like GoodReads, an HTML epub reader with proprietary DRM (not yet launched), and partner curation tools like- (stretching a bit) sort of a TripAdvisor for books. Not to mention a solid catalog of ebooks.

A recommendation engine has been a big space on the Zola development roadmap from the beginning. It's not easy technology, so when the recommendation engine built by Bookish became available (along with the Bookish website) at a fraction of its development cost, Zola, newly funded and in a hurry, snapped it up at a bargain-basement price.

The Bookish recommendation engine uses "finger-prints" of books in its algorithm. In other words, it works more like Pandora than like Netflix. The fingerprints are not just metadata and are not just text analysis, but use elements of both along with human-powered analysis.

recommendations for
Breakfast of Champions
On Monday, New York Public Library announced that it had integrated the Bookish-powered recommendation engine into their NYPL BiblioCommons-powered web catalog, fulfilling Regal's dream of being able to give back to the libraries he loved growing up, opening up unexpected books like Breakfast of Champions to new generations of readers.  The recommendations are live on the NYPL website, so you can decide for yourself if the recommendations are good or not. I found them to be intriguing, at least.

Apparently NYPL has been looking to add a recommendation feature to its website for a few years. They tracked potential partners along with Bookish to determine the best option, and had the benefit of seeing some advance demos before "Bookish Recommends" launched online. NYPL was impressed by Bookish's "big data back-end" and that it was not driven by sales; the number of titles the it covered at the outset was impressive.  NYPL will be assessing  performance over the first year to ensure that the recommendations are valuable to readers.

According to Patrick Kennedy, Co-founder and President at BiblioCommons,
"The background to this story is the interest a number of libraries have shared with us in broadening their role as a source of book recommendations in their communities.  The initiative will allow for better visibility and sharing of librarian recommendations and reviews, the integration of other third-party recommendations databases such as LibraryThing and NoveList.  Our goal is provide a neutral platform that allows libraries to integrate the sources of their choice.  In all cases the integration API is made available by the third parties to BiblioCommons with the understanding that any library on the BiblioCommons platform may license the content."
Zola is hoping to make the Bookish API widely available to libraries and is considering a variety of licensing models. As Kennedy points out, there are recommendation services already available to libraries. The LibraryThing service (marketed by Bowker), is based on activities in the LibraryThing social network and is incredibly deep; the NoveList service from EBSCO takes a more traditional reader's advisory approach. The Bookish recommendation engine may not be based on sales the way Amazon's is, but if it doesn't help Zola sell ebooks, it will die. Can the mission of a library be advanced by using a tool whose ultimate purpose is to sell books? Or does it depend on the sort of bookseller behind the tool?

This conflict is probably why booksellers and libraries haven't been sharing as much book information infrastructure as you might expect. A library has different goals for a recommendation system than does a bookseller. Libraries need to steer users toward books of their collection that are less used, while booksellers need to present the user with books that the patron is most likely to buy. Which might ALWAYS be 50 Shades or Hunger Games.

But bookselling and libraries are both changing rapidly. With the big-box bookstore dying before their eyes, publishers are scrambling to find ways to continue putting books in front of readers. One possibility is that libraries will respond to this need and evolve a closer connection to commerce, and that booksellers will figure out how to tighten their connections to communities and their libraries. The alternative is that libraries and ebookstores grow apart to serve very different populations and needs – Amazon Prime and library subprime, if you will.

My guess is that libraries sharing infrastructure with booksellers will become the norm rather than the exception it is now. Monday's announcement by NYPL and Zola is more than just a website usability widget, it's about a vision of what libraries and booksellers can become. Zola has sent a love letter to the library world.


  1. started out as a joint venture of Penguin, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster. Bookish spent a vast amount of money developing the site.
  2. Competition between LibraryThing and Bookish might well lead to some changes. Bookish uses some content from LibraryThing, such as reviews, on its website. When Bookish launched, LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding wrote 
    Besides reviews, Bookish has access to some other LibraryThing data, including edition disambiguation and recommendations. A glance at their recommendations, however, will show you that they're not using them "cold," but as some sort of factor."
  3. I wrote about BiblioCommons when they came out of stealth a few years ago. They've won the business of some very high profile public Libraries, NYPL and Seattle Public Library included. They have the big  benefit of starting from scratch with current web technology, and as a result have been innovating quickly.
  4. I took a look at how the integration was done. The Bookish API is a straightforward REST and JSON with access keys. ISBN-based queries such as<token>&apiKey=<key>&isbn13s=9780670024902

    return JSON like:
      "basic": {
        "isbn13": "9780671742515",
        "bookUrl": "<token>",
        "imageUrl": "",
        "title": "Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul",
        "subtitle": "",
        "authors": ["Douglas Adams"]

    The library-side integration done by BiblioCommons is ajaxy and javascript based; a javascript calls the api, pulls out the ISBNs and sends them back to BiblioCommons, which checks for the recommended ISBN in the catalog. A list of holdings is sent back to the browser for rendering. It looks like Bibliocommons itself does not call the bookish API, which could lend itself to easier integration with other recommender APIs.
  5. Another interesting recommender system in the library world is bX from ExLibris. It's a usage based system focused on article links, rather than books. Currently, bX will return book recommendations based on articles, but doesn't provide recommendations based on books.
  6. Don't confuse, the company acquired by Zola Books with, the company acquired by Overdrive
  7. Not that we haven't had this problem at, but why does NYPL list Robert Egan as the author of the ebook version of Breakfast of Champions? (Update: Answer from Amy Geduldig at NYPL- "The catalog entry here refers to the play Breakfast of Champions by Robert Egan, which is based on the novel by Vonnegut, but in and of itself is a different work, which is why Egan is listed as the author. ")
  8. All the book links in this post point at the NYPL BiblioCommons catalog so you can see try out Bookish Recommends for yourself.
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