Bookish Web site debuts

February 5, 2013
A new web site sponsored by three big New York publishers hopes to provide a one-stop spot for book lovers.
A new web site sponsored by three big New York publishers hopes to provide a one-stop spot for book lovers.

If you’re one of the countless people wondering, “Why isn’t there anywhere to buy books online?” we’ve got good news: Bookish went live last night.

A collaborative effort from Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Penguin, Bookish hopes to be a “comprehensive online destination to connect readers with books and authors.” Sixteen other publishers are also participating, and USA Today and Bookish have signed an agreement to share content on their Web sites.

By some counts, Bookish is a tad latish. A little operation in Seattle called Amazon.com has a 20-year jump on the new site. And Bookish was delayed for months by technical complications and the Justice Department’s suit against Apple and several New York publishers over e-book pricing.

Nonetheless, with the industry hoping to turn over a new leaf before it’s dropped into the remainder bin, publishers think Bookish just might increase reader engagement.

Users can buy books directly from Bookish but also have the option to order through Amazon, B&N and a confederation of independent bookstores. Ardy Khazaei, Bookish’s third CEO since the company was formed 18 months ago, told USA Today that his staff of journalists, book editors and industry professionals will maintain editorial independence from the site’s sponsors.

But I bet you won’t see too many vicious pans on Bookish.

The new site features:

  • Interviews with authors, such as crime writers Michael Connelly and Michael Koryta.
  • Exclusive excerpts from upcoming books, such as Harlan Coben’s “Six Years” (Dutton, March 19).
  • Special author pages for writers new and old, such as Kevin Powers, Jonathan Franzen and Jane Austen.
  • Essays by big-name writers, such as Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • Samples from new releases and current bestsellers, such as Jackie Collins’s “The Power Strip” and Susan Cain’s “Quiet.”
  • Reader-maintained virtual shelves of favorite books and wish lists.
  • The ability to share recommendations over Twitter and Facebook.
  • Ads and author videos from publishers.
  • And a recommendation engine to suggest what book you might want to read next.

Last summer, the challenge of “discoverability” was the hot topic at BookExpo, the publishing industry’s annual convention. As more and more buying moves online, customers are less likely to enjoy the serendipity of finding a new title on a bookstore shelf. And the advent of self-publishing has radically increased the number of titles available — some estimates are as high as 15 million for 2012. If people are comfortable using online tools to find dates and spouses, surely algorithms can lead them to a novel they’ll love, right?

That’s proven more difficult than it sounds, especially in such a vast marketplace dominated by a relatively small handful of bestsellers. The Bookish homepage, for instance, leads with books by JK Rowling, Hilary Mantel and Tina Fey — exciting new discoveries if you’ve been living in a cave for the past decade.

The magic wand would be a formula that could suggest unique recommendations based on each user’s peculiar interests. Every book page on Amazon, for instance, tells users, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought….” Goodreads, launched in 2007, has effectively positioned itself as “Facebook for books” —  using ratings data from its 12 million members to predict which book you might enjoy next.  

Bookish has spent months and reportedly millions of dollars getting its software running, but growing pains are to be expected with an enterprise this complex. Not all browsers are supported yet. An Android app is available, but an iPhone app isn’t. Devin Rambo of Beverly, Mass., told me that he tried to find Andre Maurois’s 1928 novel “Climates” using Bookish, but when he entered the author and title, nothing happened. When he re-entered just the title, Bookish pointed him to “books about global warming.” My own experience was equally unhelpful: When I typed in Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” the site suggested I try Junot Diaz’s “La breve y maravillosa vida de Oscar Wao.” I’ve read both novels, but don’t see much of a connection. Or why I’d want to read “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” in Spanish….

charlesr@washpost.com

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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