A first look at Bookish, the new book recommendation search engine

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After first being announced over two years ago, the much anticipated website Bookish.com finally launched this week. Backed by three of the big-six publishing companies (Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster), Bookish is meant to be a retail alternative to Amazon and Barnes and Noble where you buy your printed book and ebooks from the publishers directly. It also boasts exclusive content from writers like Elizabeth Gilbert, Lucy Hawking and Pro Bronson.

So how does the actual website match up to the hype? I created an account to check out the nuts and bolts of the Bookish system, and whether or not it can become a useful tool for self-publishers as well as book enthusiasts.

Initial Impressions

First of all, the site looks very impressive. It’s easy for a site that deals exclusively with book covers to look cluttered and unfocused, but the amount of white space that the designers used balances everything nicely.

The Facebook integration also works pretty well, though I have to admit, I’m not a fan of having my Facebook timeline automatically update when I comment on a post. There has also been some controversy surrounding their Terms of Service agreement that I won’t get into (The Digital Reader has a pretty heated article about the subject if you’re interested), but overall the site seems a commendable effort.

Recommendations

The main feature of Bookish appears to be its recommendation system, which takes the books you input and generates suggestions for similar books you might like. Unlike other suggestion engines, this will take information from several books at once, up to four at a time. It can get a little buggy (I typed in “Game of Thrones” and it read this as “The Sixth Grade Nickname Grade,” a children’s book that is decidedly unlike George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series), especially when your books are from radically different genres  — cross searching Moneyball and Game of Thrones, for example, gave me a lot of sports memoirs and fantasy novels, but not any books that combined the two genres at all (personally I was hoping that something like A Connecticut Yankee in Kind Arthur’s Court would crop up as a suggestion).

“Exclusive Content”

Blog posts, listsicles, and guest features by published authors — all great, but difficult to search through, as there’s no part of the website that they’re consolidated in for easy reading. If you want to find a sci-fi specific post, for example, you have to go to the Sci-Fi recommendation section. This may change as the site accumulates more content, but for now it’s a little odd.

Still, a lot of the content they do have so far is handy. Elizabeth Gilbert’s article rebutting Roth’s recent advice to a young writer should be of particular interest to BookWorks followers!

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege. What’s more, you have no boss to speak of. You’re not exposed to any sexual abuse or toxic chemicals on the job site (unless you’re sexually abusing yourself, or eating Doritos while you type). You don’t have to wear a nametag, and–unless you are exceptionally clumsy–you rarely run the risk of cutting off your hand in the machinery. Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work.

Great, positive advice for budding writers! Just what every self-publishing enthusiast needs.

Self Published Authors?

Speaking of self-publishers, as of now it looks like the site doesn’t have much room for those who don’t get their books published through the traditional houses. As a test I typed in the names of several successful authors who’ve self published their work — Andrew Mayne, a popular magician-turned-genre-writer; Colleen Hoover, a novelist who used Goodreads to propel her to the top of the NYT bestseller list; Deborah Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist who found success with an estate planning book, and “Patricia Hearkins Bradley,” a pseudonym for a Naked Came a Stranger style ebook prank. I chose these authors because they all made it to the top 10 of a bestselling chart — Amazon UK, the New York Times, iTunes, etc. Of them, only the two who’ve also recently signed with traditional publishing houses, Hoover and Jacobs, had their most celebrated work featured on Bookish (oddly, some of Andrew Mayne’s writing did appear — the ebook series of magic guides he put out in 2010 — but none of his more recently popular genre works).

For the discerning reader who’s looking for quality self published books that have already been established as successes, this might be a good thing. For the author who wants to break out in the marketplace, however, it’s not. In other words, don’t expect your book to be featured there unless it’s a critically acclaimed success at the level of 50 Shades!

All in all, I’m interested in seeing how this website develops. Obviously it has a lot of money behind it, but Amazon, Barnes and Noble and iTunes are all big competition to overcome if they’re looking to become a trusted name in online book retail. Only time will tell if the site is eventually successful, but in the meantime, we’ll certainly enjoy their exclusive blog articles!

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