November 23, 2011

Independent bookseller launches online book recommendation initiative


Brick-and-mortar booksellers have always had one major advantage over online stores: the expertise and interaction their staff can add to the book-buying experience. Plenty of online stores have tried, with varying degrees of success, to find ways to replicate this on their sites. In its heyday, The Book Depository‘s Editor’s Corner was a great, highly curated resource, highlighting interesting and little-known books and publishers as well as promoting the bigger success-stories of the moment. The expertise was there, but the interaction was still missing: a blanket recommendation, no matter the source, rarely feels as urgent as a personal one. Then there are ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ functions, which replace the human touch with an algorithm based on sales and in so doing annoy as much as they help.

Publishing Perspectives reports that Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Connecticut, might have cracked the problem. She has launched a new website, Just the Right Book, which adds personal bookseller feedback to the online buying experience:

This is how it works: Readers take a quiz on the website which will determine their reading “mood.” The questions are very tame and direct: “On vacation would you rather sit on a beach or be taken on a tour by the locals?” Or, “Would you rather read Jodi Picoult or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?” The answers are studied by the staff of R. J. Julia Booksellers, who in turn, select a book for a reader. But this is not a one-off transaction. Instead, it’s the basis for a subscription, available on a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly basis and priced according to the format of book you want—hardcover, paperback or mixed. A monthly hardcover subscription will run you $385.00 per year; the cheapest option, a quarterly mixed subscription goes for just $85.

The problem they’re running into, though, is follow-through: many more people are taking the quiz than are buying the books, leading Coady to believe that customers want the expertise but that, in online shopping, it’s just too easy to then look elsewhere for the cheapest option. One answer might be that the value is in the service rather than the delivery of the products, and that Coady can help other booksellers and buyers by hiring out her quiz.

Based on the purely anecdotal evidence of a few friends today the service is throwing up some interesting and promising results. Of course, the ideal book-buying situation is a relationship with a good local bookshop, exactly like what Coady cultivates at R.J. Julia: you can’t replicate the inspired curveballs that will throw up, nor the sense of community, nor the enhancement of books by events. This is a really imaginative way of helping people to broaden their reading selections, though, and could be a great addition to the lives of people who can’t make it to a bookshop. It’s also to be commended in the light of what we were saying just a few days ago about the seemingly ever-dwindling number of books that receive broadsheet attention. More than anything, though, a subscription to this would make a great gift. Get your Christmas lists out now.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.