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 MyHound.com 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.
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.
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.
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, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, Apple 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, Nook and desktop — no Kindle.
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 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
Bookish 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 bookish.com.
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, 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 friends with someone doesn’t mean that he or she shares your book preferences, and I prefer the algorithm-driven approach.