Wednesday, August 22, 2012

If You Like This...

Booksellers pride ourselves on being able to recommend books. Sometimes we make our recommendations based on what a person has liked in the past, and often it's a no-brainer: you liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You definitely want to try Liza Marklund or Henning Makell or Karin Fossum or Jo Nesbo. Sometimes you need to dig more deeply, ferretting out the information, for example, that even though the last book the reader loved was Confessions of a Shopaholic she's ready to move on to something meatier; if it seems like she needs to take little steps to get to the meat I might recommend Jennifer Weiner or Dorothea Benton Frank, women whose books are extremely accessible but more complex than your standard chick-lit. But if it seems like she's hungering for something more challenging then Anne Tyler or Lisa See or Carol Anshaw would be some of my go-to authors.

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
I'd be happy to tell you why I loved these books...and to recommend something else for you, as well.

11 comments:

Jo said...

I really enjoyed reading this post! I'm a librarian, so I understand what you're talking about --- when someone asks me for book recommendations, it makes my day (it's definitely more fun than troubleshooting computer problems). :)

Rebecca Glenn said...

I hear you, Jo! Our bosses at the big bookselling corporation in the old days didn't understand the true meaning of handselling and recommending...so wonderful to be doing it in earnest again!

Lisa Mandina said...

Great post! As a fellow bookseller, I get that question a lot. While B&N has "customers also bought" in our database, sometimes it is just a list of the same author's books. So I have to keep in mind what I read, or what my friends read, and do my best to hand sell books.

Lisa Mandina said...

Great post! As a fellow bookseller, I get that question a lot. While B&N has "customers also bought" in our database, sometimes it is just a list of the same author's books. So I have to keep in mind what I read, or what my friends read, and do my best to hand sell books.

Rebecca Glenn said...

My favorite, Lisa, is when a database somehow manages to recommend as an if-you-like-this title the exact same book you're looking up. Um, yeah, if I liked it then, well, I'll like it...

Marce said...

Great post, I think LibraryThing is the best.

I also think Amazon is good BUT I realised I have to use it for books I love not just searching or I will end up with a load of ridiculous crap recommendations.

Rebecca Glenn said...

Thanks, Marce! Hey--next time you want to buy a book online, why not try an indie bookseller instead of Amazon? At indiebound.org you can buy from the bookseller of your choice and support the indie cause!

EnriqueFreeque said...

Amazon can go to the doggone devil!

Pop Quiz question #1:

If I like, say, Gravity's Rainbow, what would you recommend I read next (and keeping in mind perhaps what you know I've already read, and also excluding another one by Pynch, as I'd like to broaden my authorial horizons.)?

Great post, Becky!

EnriqueFreeque said...

Amazon can go to the doggone devil!

Pop Quiz question #1:

If I like, say, Gravity's Rainbow, what would you recommend I read next (and keeping in mind perhaps what you know I've already read, and also excluding another one by Pynch, as I'd like to broaden my authorial horizons.)?

Great post, Becky!

Rebecca Glenn said...

Well, Mr Freeque, I do know a lot of what you've read...and, if I recall correctly, you weren't terribly enamored of GR. Sigh.

I know you're, of course, a devotee of David Foster Wallace (who would be a first go-to for me), and that you've read many of the po-mo masters. Have you dipped into the works of Don DeLillo, perchance? White Noise is disturbing and funny and quite accessible. Underworld, while considered bloated and overlong by some (okay, by many) is one of my favorites. It's complex, with a grand, sweeping story and prose that leaves you gasping (or exasperated, if that's how you're inclined).

I would also suggest checking out Salman Rushdie, perhaps The Ground Beneath Her Feet or The Satanic Verses.

An author who's really nothing at all like Pynchon, but who gives me the same kind of joy (if that even makes sense) is Mark Helprin. Winter's Tale is haunting and gorgeous.

Want more? Do these suck?

EnriqueFreeque said...

No suckiness to speak of! Love Underworld, not read the Rushdie.

Great answer, Mrs. Becky!