On more than one occasion I've had a grandmother looking for a gift for a grandchild whose first question is, "Do you have any Nancy Drew books?" Well, of course we do, and as we're standing in front of the Nancy Drew books chatting about how much we both enjoyed reading them as girls I'll ask some basic questions. How old is the child? What does she like? Often I'll learn that grandma hasn't seen the child in a couple of years, and, oh yes, she's sixteen. At that point we'll move out of the middle grade section and into the young adult section, and start talking about the rather more sophisticated titles that are likely to interest a sixteen-year-old in 2012. And then there's the flip side of that conversation, in which the parent of a nine- or ten-year-old has a kid who's wild to read The Hunger Games. But though there are certainly plenty of ten-year-olds mature enough to read Suzanne Collins' great young adult trilogy, I think most would far more enjoy reading The Underland Chronicles, her excellent series for middle grade readers.
A bookseller's dream is to be asked, "What do you recommend?" That's when we can shine. We talk up favorites old and new, we use our arsenal of open-ended questions to determine the direction in which we'll steer the customer, we place books in hands and encourage the reading of some sample pages.
Amazon, of course, has its famous algorithm which displays recommendations for a shopper based on titles she has browsed in the past. Taken at face value, it's a useful tool, but looked at more closely the Amazon algorithm is pretty much meaningless. I, for example, use Amazon exclusively for looking stuff up. New releases, weird titles that customers give me that I can't find anywhere else with the information provided (say what I might about the evil empire of Amazon, they have an amazing search function), out of print titles...but I rarely look up titles that I'm personally interested in, because it will be a cold day in hell before I make a purchase from Amazon. So the "inspired by your browsing history" and "related to items you've viewed" recommendations have next to no actual relation to anything I'd ever be remotely interested in.
But I digress.
I have to admit that my inspiration for this post came from research I was attempting to do for an endcap I was building, an "if-you-like-this" one focusing on Fifty Shades of Grey. I could come up with a few titles on my own--especially since our distributor and the publishers are now using similarity to Fifty Shades as a selling point even for backlist--but I wanted to see if there was anything else we had on the shelf that I could use.
So, this being the information age, I googled "similar to Fifty Shades of Grey," and came up with a website called Authors Like. Wow! This should be great, right? I type in the author's name, in this case E.L. James, and voila! I'm given a list of similar authors. So I did, excited to have found a new resource (because of course, we don't always have recommendations in our heads, and it's really nice to have a reliable, easy-to-use tool to help find them).
The first name on the list of authors recommended for fans of the B & D trilogy is Zane Grey. Yeah, the one who wrote westerns. Oaters. Books with no romance, and certainly no sex, at all.
The second name on the list...Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon. The fellow who gave us such characters as Hamlet, Juliet, Lear, Ariel, Desdemona, Prospero. Although I haven't read the collected works of E.L. James (or even a single work), as a bookseller of many years' experience--and an English major before that--I'm quite familiar with Shakespeare...and E.L. James, she's no Shakespeare.
I guess I intend this as a cautionary tale. Be careful who--or what--you take recommendations from. An actual living, breathing person is good. One who reads books is better. And an independent bookseller would be best of all. If you really feel the need to seek recommendations online, stay away from an entity that's trying to take over the world. Why not try one of the bookcentric social networking sites. LibraryThing is the best (though not the most well-known or popular) of these; it does use an algorithm for recommendations, but they are based on readers' realities and site member recommendations. LibraryThing also has going for it that it takes no advertising. GoodReads is the behemoth of book social networking, but its recommendations aren't as sophisticated as LibraryThing's, and it is pretty heavy on the ads (leading one to fear that their recommendations are, perhaps, driven by obligations to advertisors).
And of course, no matter what else you do, no matter who you take recommendations from, keep reading.
My top books to date in 2012:
- Carry the One, Carol Anshaw
- Arcadia, Lauren Groff
- Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
- One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper
- Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce
- True Believers, Kurt Andersen