Here's the typical framing of "the book discovery problem". "When I go to a bookstore, I frequently leave with all sort of books I never meant to get. I see a book on the table, pick it up and start reading, and I end up buying it. But that sort of serendipitous discovery doesn't happen at Amazon. How do we recreate that experience?" Or "There are so many books published, how do we match readers to the books they'd like best?"
This "problem" has always seemed a bit bogus to me. First of all, when I'm on the internet, I'm constantly running across interesting sounding books. There are usually links pointing me at Amazon, and occasionally I'll buy the book.
As a consumer, I don't find I have a problem with book discovery. I'm not compulsive about finding new books; I'm compulsive about finishing the book I've read half of. When I finish a book, it's usually two in the morning and I really want to get to sleep. I have big stacks both real and virtual of books on my to-read list.
Finally, the "discovery problem" is a tractable one from a tech point of view. Throw a lot of data and some machine learning at the problem and a good-enough solution should emerge. (I should note here that book "discovery" on the website I run, unglue.it, is terrible at the moment, but pretty soon it will be much better.)
So why on earth does Amazon, which throws huge amounts of money into capital investment, do such a middling job of book discovery?
Recently the obvious answer hit me in the face, as such answers are wont to do. The answer is that mediocre discovery creates a powerful business advantage for Amazon!
Consider the two most important discovery tools used on the Amazon website:
- People who bought X also bought y.
- Top seller lists.
What happens in this sort of positive feedback system is pretty obvious to an electrical engineer like me, but Wikipedia's example of a cattle stampede makes a better picture.
|The number of cattle running is proportional to the overall level of panic, which is proportional to...the number of cattle running! "Stampede loop" by Trevithj. CC BY-SA|
|Result: Stampede! Yeah, OK, these are sheep. But you get the point. "Herdwick Stampede" by Andy Docker. CC BY.|
Ain't never gonna happen. Stampedes sell more books.