Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Perfect Bookstore Loses to Amazon

My book industry friends are always going on and on about "the book discovery problem". Last month, a bunch of us, convened by Chris Kubica, sat in a room in Manhattan's Meatpacking district and plotted out how to make the perfect online bookstore. "The discovery problem" occupied a big part of the discussion. Last year, Perseus Books gathered a smattering of New York's nerdiest at "the first Publishing Hackathon". The theme of the event, the "killer problem": "book discovery". Not to be outdone, HarperCollins sponsored a "BookSmash Challenge" to find "new ways of reading and discovering books".  

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,, 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:
  1. People who bought X also bought y.
  2. Top seller lists.
Both of these methods have the property that the way to make these work for your book is for your book to sell a lot on Amazon. That means that any author or publisher that wants to sell a lot of books on Amazon will try to steer as many fans as possible to Amazon. More sales means more recommendations, which means more sales, and so on. Amazon is such a dominant bookseller that a bookstore could have the dreamiest features and pay the publisher a larger share of the retail selling price and still have the publisher try to push people to Amazon.

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.
Imagine what would happen if Amazon shifted from sales-based recommendations to some sort of magic that matched a customer with the perfect book. Then instead of focusing effort on steering readers to Amazon, authors and publishers would concentrate on creating the perfect book. The rich would stop getting richer, and instead, reward would find the deserving.

Ain't never gonna happen. Stampedes sell more books.


  1. I think you make an excellent and valid point. In general -- that is, looking beyond Amazon -- the mechanisms of bestseller-dom work to favor a success-breeds-success model. Thus when a certain tipping point is reached, a book can go from "selling well" to "runaway blockbuster," regardless of whether its intrinsic quality warrants that latter level of success. And as you point out, it's in Amazon's interest to encourage this mob-mentality stampede-buying, rather than designing a more individually-tailored discovery model.

    And thus we have publishers looking for the next lowest-common-denominator blockbuster, rather than a range of quality, profitable books.

    1. The runaway behavior isn't new. The change is that before Amazon, the positive feedback mechanism was predominantly word of mouth. Amazon has added in a lot more "word of sale" feedback. The pre-consumption feedback is faster and less informed.