February 6, 2013

Bookish finally launches after a year-and-a-half of fits and starts


Bookish has launched. But what does it do?

It’s hard to believe, but Bookish, the book discovery website funded by Simon & SchusterPenguin, and Hachette, finally launched Monday night.

Originally slated to debut in the summer of 2011, the site was delayed for a number of reasons. Current Bookish chief executive Ardy Khazaei (who is the third in a line of CEOs since 2010 following Paulo Lemgruber and Caroline Marks) is telling reporters that the holdup was due to complicated metadata feeds, but another obvious reason for the launch delay was the Department of Justice case.

Penguin and Macmillan claimed in filings in the case that publisher conversations that were ruled illegal were actually discussions about legal “joint ventures” like Bookish, declaring that “the government’s deafening silence about Bookish indicates its acceptance of the legitimacy of the joint venture itself and of its formative process.” The original Bookish launch date was scheduled just when the three backing publishers were being investigated and subsequently fined.

With the announcement of yesterday’s launch, The Washington Post quotes Hachette CEO David Young:

“We received clearance for Bookish, but every time any of us talk about something we have to conform to the DOJ rules,” Young says. “We aren’t behaving any differently than we were before, we just have to make sure that formal procedures are followed, like writing up a log after any meeting.”

So now that it’s here, what will it do?

That’s a bit of a tricky question to answer. Originally, it seemed that Bookish was some industry consultant’s solution for the decline of the big six’s ability to reach and influence readers (while Bookish is funded by only three major publishers, it will feature books from sixteen other publishers including Random House and Scholastic). With the decline of physical stores, book review sections, and the effectiveness of print advertising, publishers decided that the answer to creating discoverability online was a “recommendation engine”— something more accurate and literary than Amazon’s suggestion algorithm. Parlaying that buzz word “discoverability” into something publishers could throw their support behind, the idea for Bookish was born.

Since the original conception of Bookish, the book discoverability  idea has evolved. At one point last year, editors at participating houses were asked to provide “comp titles” — books similar to a given title in content and style — to populate the recommendation engine, which appears to be the main factor so far in their “proprietary algorithm.” According to the  New York Times:

One of the biggest adjustments to the original plan has been the evolution of the site’s book recommendation engine, which its creators argue will be the most sophisticated available.

Instead of relying essentially on the taste of other customers with similar preferences, as most recommendation engines do, Bookish’s tool takes into account critical reviews and awards. Eventually it will even reflect the insights derived from a reader’s own nuanced description of books — for example, that the reader found a book to be exciting but unsatisfying.

Bookish announcements have emphasized that the editorial content of the site, which is independently created and curated by Bookish’s seven staff editors (out of 22 total employees), is meant to draw in more readers. Part of the strategy will also be to populate the site with marketing materials from publishers — author videos, Q&As, extra essays — that online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Nobles either charge exorbitant fees for or no longer accept.

Publishers create a lot of marketing materials for online retailers and those retailers use those materials based on their own desires. You can make an author video and they won’t necessarily put it on their site,” says Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy.

But while Bookish was ostensibly created to compete with Amazon (Bookish announcements discourage this idea), it is retailer agnostic in the sense that it links to six online stores (including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, the iBookstore, indieBound, and Kobo). Some books have an “add to cart” button, which allows ordering from Baker & Taylor through the Bookish site.

So let’s try it out. On the home page, Bookish invites me to type in the title of a book I love. Okay, History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I press enter. Three of the recommendations I get back — Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau, The Chef’s Apprentice by Elle Newmark, Drawing in the Dust by Zoe Klein — are all apparently “Editor’s picks” according to the icon above them. One is available for sale directly from the Bookish website, for the others I’d have to choose an online retailer.And they are all also published by Simon & Schuster. Coincidence?



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.