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Allison Friedman/MEDILL

Physical bookstores continue to disappear but Bookish.com is trying to replicate the browsing experience online.


New book site aims to change the browsing experience

by Allison Friedman
Feb 05, 2013


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Courtesy of Bookish.com

A sample book recommendation selection at Bookish.com.

As brick-and-mortar bookstores become increasingly scarce, a new online book retailer is trying to replicate the experience of browsing through shelves with a literary-savvy friend.

Bookish.com launched Tuesday with the stated goal of becoming “a one-stop, comprehensive online destination designed to connect readers with books and authors.” Part literary salon and part online book emporium, the new site features book-centric commentary and employs an exclusive recommendation algorithm to help readers discover new titles that will turn into old favorites. Users build an e-library of books they want to read and can make purchases at one of several online retailers such as Amazon.com.

“We were trying to mimic what it’s like to approach a trusted, book-loving friend for a recommendation,” said Karen Sun, who oversees the site’s recommendation and search team, in an interview. “It’s kind of like a book-loving friend on steroids.”

The new retailer has taken pains to avoid excessive commercial ties. Although Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group USA Inc. and Simon & Schuster Inc. backed the venture, Bookish features content from 16 other major publishers. In addition to selling books directly, it links to other sites such as BarnesandNoble.com and Indiebound.org.

“Ultimately, we seek to expand the overall marketplace for books,” Bookish CEO Ardy Khazaei said, “and whether a book gets into a reader’s hands via Bookish’s e-commerce partner or another retailer, everyone—from the publisher, to the retailer, the author and the reader—wins.”

The launch comes at a much-ballyhooed tough time for traditional booksellers. Last week’s news that Barnes & Noble Inc. plans to close about 200 stores during the next 10 years was only the latest in a series of bad omens for the future of physical bookstores. Borders Group Inc. folded in 2011, and independent brick-and-mortars have long been struggling against the Amazon Inc. juggernaut. According to Publishers Weekly, bookstore sales fell 9.6 percent between 2007 and 2011.

As physical bookstores become fewer and farther between, readers lose the ability to wander aimlessly through the aisles and discover a new favorite.

Enter Bookish. Karen Sun said that the site’s recommendation tool creates a browsing experiencing that’s not quite like shopping in bookstores, which tend to group books by genre. It’s also different from shopping on Amazon, which offers suggestions based on users’ purchase history and from surfing through sites such as Goodreads.com, which rely on friends’ picks.

“We have a lot of data around books, a lot of data that other book websites don’t have,” Sun said. She explained that the algorithm takes into account 20 to 30 features about each book, including theme and common emotional response. Rather than a pure mathematical function, the algorithm is directed by an editorial team that “helps decide what makes a good book recommendation,” Sun said.

The result is that readers are presented with books that are not related in obvious ways to books they have liked. “The engine is currently agnostic to genre as well as rating,” Sun said. “People who use the site and get these surprise recommendations might not immediately understand why they’re getting them.” She expressed hope that the site might one day add a function to explain its customized picks in the same way that music site Pandora does.

Visitors to the site are invited to enter the name of a favorite book into a central search bar and are presented with a cluster of related titles they might also like. They can then purchase any one of the suggested books immediately, add them to their to-read library or generate more recommendations based on the recommendations themselves. Alternatively, readers can simply browse lists of new releases, bestsellers and editors’ picks.

Tom Flynn, who manages 57th Street Books in Hyde Park, said he is skeptical about the degree to which Bookish will change book-purchasing habits. “If this site takes off, if this algorithm proves useful to customers, I sort of question how many people this site will be able to reach,” he said. “I’m not sure how many people will vary from their normal purchasing route.”

Still, he applauds the new site’s concept and ambition. “It’s an admirable goal, and in many ways it’s the goal that most independent bookstores share: to expand the ranks of readers,” he said. “But I’d like to see the results before I jump wholeheartedly into it.”