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Two years and three CEOs later, publisher JV Bookish is ready to help users find their next book

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Bookish, which is backed by big-six publishers Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Schuster and intended to promote book discovery and sell books, was supposed to launch in the summer of 2011. Nearly two years and three CEOs later, the site is finally scheduled to make its debut Monday night. With a book recommendation algorithm, original editorial content and a database of 1.2 million titles and 400,000 authors, Bookish is designed to be a one-stop shop for readers looking to connect with authors and find their next book. The company is headed by Ardy Khazaei, who previously led media startups WEBook and and was VP of electronic media at HarperCollins. (Bookish’s first CEO, Paulo Lemgruber, left the company in October 2011; the second CEO, Caroline Marks, left in September 2012.)

I got a demo of Bookish at the company’s trendy, book-filled offices in Manhattan’s Flatiron District last week, and had a chance to use the site further on Monday when it was prematurely available online for several hours as it was being tested. Overall, I think the long-delayed Bookish is off to a promising start.

Bookish has the opportunity to shape book discovery and offers publishers a chance to directly engage with readers. It also allows them to tiptoe into direct sales. I’m less intrigued by the original editorial content: I’m not sure it differentiates itself enough from other book-related content on the web to draw users to the site for the first time. Once those users make their way to the site, though, they’ll find a clean, easy-to-use design, and an algorithm that may well find them their next book — even though it’s limited to less than a quarter of the books on the site for now. Here’s my overview of the site.

 Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 3.51.22 PMThe basics: Books and authors

While only three of the big-six publishers are financially backing the site, the other three — Random House, HarperCollins and Macmillan — are making their books available through it, along with 10 other publishers including Scholastic and Houghton Mifflin. In total, that’s 1.2 million unique titles spanning 18 genres (fiction and literature, children’s, cookbooks, and so on), and 400,000 authors have profile pages. The book pages include basic information, a preview of the first chapter, related news and videos, and a roundup of any “must-read” lists that the book has appeared on (for more on those lists, see below). Each book page also includes purchase links (more on that below, too).

Algorithm-generated book recommendations

Online book discovery is a huge problem for publishers, and Bookish tackles it with a recommendation algorithm that lets users input up to four titles to find what to read next. “We’re very much a technology company,” Karen Sun, an MIT grad (and book blogger) who is heading the company’s recommendation engine, told me. “This is probably the largest venture in the book space, in terms of data.” Sun explained that while Amazon and Goodreads primarily deliver book recommendations based on “collaborative filtering” — namely, a user’s purchasing or rating and reviewing history as well as those of other users — Bookish doesn’t have that user or purchase data yet. Instead, it relies on “deep, introspective” data: “Recommendations are based on the books and understanding of the books.” The recommendation looks at features like the authors, editors and illustrators who contributed to a book, the awards a book has won, and genre and publication date, then layers on a machine-learning component that parses user and professional reviews to try to distill themes, concepts and sentiments. Insights from the editorial team are included, too.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 2.33.34 PM

A user who liked The Help, for instance, receives recommendations for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford — another women’s fiction title that features race relations — and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book that, like The Help, includes an aspiring female author. Type in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the engine pulled up four similar “big ideas” books, but also two Spanish-language titles that were out of place even if the subject matter was similar (and you’ll see a Spanish-language edition of The Room in the recommendations for The Help above).

For now, Bookish’s recommendation engine works with only about 250,000 of the 1.2 million books on the site. Sun says the engine will improve over time, and will eventually integrate reader reviews and user actions — other books users have looked at and rated on the site.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 2.45.28 PME-commerce: Essential, but…

Each book on the site can be purchased in print or digital formats directly through Bookish or from another retailer — there are affiliate links to Amazon (s AMZN), Barnes & Noble (s BKS), Books-A-Million (s BAMM), IndieBound, Apple (s AAPL) and Kobo.

Distributor Baker & Taylor is handling all of Bookish’s direct sales. For now, ebooks purchased through Bookish are only available in EPUB and PDF formats, for reading on iPad, Android (s GOOG), Nook and desktop — no Kindle (s AMZN).

Bookish seems to want to stress that it’s not cutting into other retailers’ sales, even though a serious direct-sales outlet is something that book publishers desperately need.

“We want to be able to say you can buy [a book] here and it’s reasonably priced. We’re not trying to steal sales away from other places,” CEO Khazaei told me. Publishers probably don’t care about taking sales from Amazon, but they may not want to sour relationships with retailers like Barnes & Noble (s BKS) and the independent bookstores represented by IndieBound.

Bookish’s print and ebook prices appeared to match those offered by Amazon, though I wasn’t able to test many titles. Khazaei told me that “I don’t know how the pricing decisions are made, really,” Khazaei said. “I assume [Baker & Taylor] is tracking [prices on other sites] but we just leave it in their hands.” While the site seems like an obvious place for publishers to run special sales on both print and digital books, that doesn’t seem to be a priority for now. Update: Khazaei stressed to me that his lack of involvement with pricing is required by the Department of Justice in order to be compliant with antitrust regulations. (The DOJ sued Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Schuster, along with Macmillan and HarperCollins, last year for allegedly colluding to set ebook prices; Hachette, Penguin and S&S all settled.)

Original editorial content along with the algorithm

the onion book of known knowledgeBookish has seven full-time editors who each manage different genres and update those sections daily with original book coverage. The site is also soliciting pieces from well-known authors and other public figures. In one ongoing feature, for instance, editors from The Onion review books. Other editorial features at launch include a column by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert and an interview between bestselling thriller authors Michael Connelly and Michael Kortya. In addition to that content, the site’s editors are curating columns and lists of books like “The Biggest BFF Breakups in YA Books” and “Big Ideas.”

Advertising, revenue and partnerships

Bookish is collaborating with USA Today’s books website. Its original editorial content will be syndicated on USA Today’s website, and the technology that Bookish uses to let readers view the first chapter of a book and to offer book recommendations will also be included on USA Today’s site. In exchange, Bookish will feature USA Today’s book bestseller lists on

In addition to book sales, Bookish will get revenue from advertising. For now the site’s ad slots are taken up with books from the three launch partners, but eventually the company will expand advertising to other publishers and to companies from outside the book business. Prior to its launch two years ago, Bookish had announced an advertising and content syndication deal with AOL Huffington Post (s AOL), but that’s off the drawing board for now. A company spokeswoman told me Bookish is “in discussions about continuing to work with AOL in the future.”

Not a focus: Social, self-publishing

Other publishers can sign an agreement with Bookish to add their titles to the site. (Khazaei told me Bookish doesn’t charge publishers anything to join, but they presumably have to fulfill a number of requirements to be included.) However, self-published authors can’t add their books. “The focus right now is on traditionally published titles,” Khazaei said.

Also at launch, the social features that are a key part of Goodreads’ mission are absent from Bookish. Users can’t friend or follow each other — the focus is on a reader’s individual interests. I found that refreshing: Just because you’re Facebook (s FB) friends with someone doesn’t mean that he or she shares your book preferences, and I prefer the algorithm-driven approach.

18 Responses to “Two years and three CEOs later, publisher JV Bookish is ready to help users find their next book”

  1. Jenny Glover

    I have bought a book supplied by (a) because it was over$5 cheaper than others. (b) because it claimed to be capable of downloading to my new Kindle 3rd.Generation Wifi and 3G.
    Currently I am waiting on a reply as to why the download starts but stops after about 5% complete. I did however, have no problem downloading the book to my Android tablet. will need to fix this glitch with Kindle downloads quickly to avoid negative feedback to consumers and Retail bookstores.

    As to comments about Cloud reading and not having the opportunity to a fileable function. If the price is right, I think there lots of buyers, including myself, who couldn’t care less as long as we get to read the book and it remains available. Cheers Jenny

  2. Adam Gobrat

    great discussion. apologies for joining late, has anyone heard of they seem to be focussing on ebook only though. but i agree discovery is a great problem that needs to be solved.

  3. Any algorithm will throw up odd results sometimes, and at least that allows for a bit of random serendipity. I co-run, which has been running for 7 years now. Our system is another collaborative filtering one predicated on users’ taste rather than buying or reviewing patterns. Content-based or metadata systems have their place too, but can get bogged down by detail (others have come and gone in this space). Bookish looks nice, though it’s hard to see what’s new there, other than publishers coming late to the discoverability table. It feels a bit like Anobii, maybe. Goodreads does the social side, LibraryThing appeals to book obsessives, our site offers quick and snappy suggestions without any frills, and appeals particularly to young adult readers. Take your pick! Maybe we need a whichdiscoveryengineshoulditrynext site…

  4. Angus Swan

    Putting the recommendation technical challenge to one side, the major commercial issue with book recommendations is how to monetize them.They are so prone to ‘showrooming’. So – you think I should read this? Okay, i’ll just go and buy it wherever i can find it cheapest..You can’t charge for the recommendations service, but you can’t couple the service to the purchase. This is not a new problem, and it should not put publishers off creating services like these as long as they regard them as marketing costs and not revenue opportunities.

  5. i don’t know; i always like to support such endeavors. I use Alibris when it comes to used books and don’t have the income for books on line. I go to the library or independent bookstore Vroman’s; but i’m open to it all. I teach the Courage to Write, and am happy to recommend it; where can I go for initial language and Pr STUFF?

  6. @andrewlos You’re absolutely right — Khazaei just confirmed this to me, and I’ve updated the post (see above).

    [Updating my own comment]: It’s a tricky balance…steering clear of DOJ, avoiding angering retailers, and still selling direct — tough combo. I realize now that Khazaei can’t have a lot of direct knowledge of it, but it does seem as if the individual publishers will now have the chance to experiment with some discounting on their own, individually.

  7. Eric Welch

    Hmmm, interesting. When I put in The Help to find recommendations, it suggested Cutting for Stone, Yankee Girl, Oliver Kitteridge and the Dry Grass of August. A very different set and clicking on “more like this” through several layers on each of the recommendations never got me back to The Help, which makes me wonder.

    It would appear that author’s names can not be entered into the book search box, only titles. For example, Guns, Germs and Steel pulls up the appropriate book, but a search on Jared Diamond pulls up nothing. Searching on Oliver Twist pulls up only Cliff Notes.

    On the other hand entering David Potter’s The Impending Crisis did retrieve some related books but only four whereas Amazon pulled up 14 pages of related books. Recommendations on Goodreads, such as they are, seemed mostly related to Reconstruction, hardly the same time period.

    Drilling down into the recommendations, the second level pulled up The Confederate War by Gary Gallagher. Good, except the book is not available from Bookish so I checked the other buying options: Amazon and B&N both available at a discount. IndieBooks, only special order from the closest bookstore to me, some 40 miles away, iBooks brings up a link to downloading iBooks software, Kobo link is to their homepage, not the book, and BooksaMillion retrieved a 404 message. Note that the Gary Gallagher author page does not list this book nor the 22 others that they have for which is is listed as the author. I realize it’s still beta but that shows some serious indexing problems. The prices they list bear no relationship to the actual prices from the stores linked to. Goodreads actually compares prices across the board including used copies and from many, many more sources.

    I tried getting recommendations on another book, one that popped up on the main page as a suggestion to try: The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It puled up the Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Shadow and Act by Ralph Ellison and The Federalist Papers, so the match criteria would seem to be not content but collection of essays, hardly reassuring.

    Trying to add Thoreau to the mix only pulls up biographies since you apparently can’t search by author from the search box — that needs to be fixed, although you can link to an author’s page by using the author link but not the recommendations search box.. Adding Aldo Leopold to try to get at more environmental type books does bring up John Muir who is appropriate.

    If Bookish is to succeed they will have to do something either cheaper or better and they need to make sure links work well. The publishers are also going to have to decide what their goal is here, to sell books directly? (if so it’s pretty much dead in the water,); to simply recommend books? (why so late in the game when there are a multitude of better platforms (Full disclosure: I am an avid user of Amazon, Goodreads, and Shelfari) or what? The numerous CEOs in the past couple of years would seem to imply a lack of direction that does not bode well.

    For now, Amazon and Goodreads are hard to beat.

    • Thanks for sharing this detailed experience, Eric. You’re definitely right that recommendations by author seem like a key feature they should add.

      I’d love to see, at some point, a feature that lets users drive recommendations: For example, a reader of “The Help” gets to select four books that he or she would also recommend to readers who liked “The Help.” The recommendation engine would then either take those reader recs into account or feature them separately. I think it would really be helpful especially for nichier books (i.e., probably not so much for “The Help”).

      Some of the problems you describe are probably wrinkles that’ll be worked out over time. The indexing stuff seems problematic, though. I think that Bookish will HAVE to get more directly involved in its e-commerce component at some point; simply outsourcing to Baker & Taylor is probably not going to be enough.

      • Eric Welch

        I’m a very heavy user of Goodreads (almost 1300 reviews, some 1500 books read) and I’ve been playing around with the Goodreads recommendations engine which makes recommendations based on the user’s shelf assignments, e.g. suggestions based on what I have read or want to read on my biography shelf. Interestingly, I rarely look at those recommendations but use the purchase suggestions on Amazon a LOT. I buy many books, almost exclusively ebooks now, perhaps $300-$400 per month, and find those suggestions invaluable for locating new different books on a particular topic based on what other customers viewed and purchased. It really works pretty well. To succeed Bookish will have to find something they can do better than the long-established competition. They have a long way to go.

      • David Thomas

        I think the general inference that what book or sequence of books purchased is indicative of what a consumer wants next is far too simplistic. Netflix implores users to rate what they watch for example — and they can evaluate what was abandoned, the relative rates viewing series, etc. I think the data culled from Hiptype would be far more useful for Bookish to evaluate the arc of a reader’s interests than sales events, social media “likes”, and the Good Reads bookshelf. Myself, with Good Reads, I have yet to see a recommended title that is actually on my projected reading list.

      • andrewlos

        I’m not sure they can get more directly involved without falling foul of anti-trust law, due to the publishers behind their company. They represent the interests of too high a percentage of the industry – if they started to set prices, the DOJ likely get interested again.

  8. I would love to see all kinds of books and free knowledge sharing. This is a great thing for the near… years to come!
    We have to understand that only knowledge sharing can help making the World better for all! This I think is very important!


    Stijn Tebbes
    Founder Blabook: Let’ s talk about Books!

  9. David Thomas

    Just gave Bookish a test. Recs were suspicious to me — I entered “Sex at Dawn”, and it returned nothing in the same subject of evolutionary psychology. In a new search entered “The Pyramid”, which threw back only Scandinavian mystery titles, not foreign mysteries in general. Entered a more obscure title, a Turkish mystery, “Songs My Mother Never Taught Me”, published by a UK firm and it found it (good) and matched it with Arabic novels (not good). Entered “The Signal and the Noise”, which threw back just 1 title: Woodward’s book on Alan Greenspan. Then I modified that search by adding the Silverman to “Poor Economics” — and it crashed. The wheel is still spinning as I type this.

    The algorithm can be amazing but if the metadata isn’t, the online “discoverablity” won’t improve.